Silence in Worship: an essay and resources
I wrote an essay recently for Christianity Today in which I explored the purpose and place of silence in corporate worship, "Make a Joyful Silence Unto the Lord." It's a topic that I've thought about for years and had a chance to examine briefly in my new book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (Eerdmans: 2019). As I wrote there in my conclusion:
"Silence, it must be stressed, plays a determinative role in the proper experience of art in worship. In music, as scholars and practitioners remind us repeatedly, silence represents a fullness rather than an emptiness. In the interstices of musical notes, silence swells and contracts, thereby generating meaning for the listener. For poets, speech lies hidden in silence, while language often finds its force in negative spaces.
With the theatre, at the end of an extraordinarily good play an audience may sit sated and satisfied, unwilling just yet to break the silence with applause. A great play may also begin in silence—in a moment that invites anticipation. Within the context of dance, silence often creates particular moods and tensions, and with body language a dancer's silent gestures and movements often say everything. And unless we stand silently before a work of art and architecture, it will not yield its best insights to us or work its good powers on us.
For those of us, then, who make art for worship and who make the decisions about which art to include or exclude, we do well to make plenty of space for silence in our worship—in our songs and prayers, in our looking and showing, in our listening and narrating, and in our moving and resting. We do well, as C. S. Lewis imaginatively reminds us in The Screwtape Letters, to resist the demonic temptation to fill our lives and liturgies with more noise."
I was grateful to get a chance to tease out some of these ideas in my CT essay. Here is an excerpt from that essay:
THE FULLNESS OF DEAD AIR
"While silence in our prayer and praise of God may feel for many like anxiety-inducing dead air, it is central to faithful worship.
Silence is fundamental to faithful prayer because prayer begins with the act of listening, not talking. God gets the first word—not the pastor, not the musician, not any of us.
Silence is also fundamental to faithful singing because in silence, we attune our ears to “the chief Conductor of our hymns,” as John Calvin once put it, in order to be reminded that we were not the first to arrive on the liturgical scene. In humility, we listen first—then we sing.
Silence is likewise fundamental to faithful preaching because the preacher must make time for the people of God to inwardly digest the word of God so that it has a fighting chance to take root in our hearts and bear good fruit in our lives.
Silence, of course, is not merely negative—the absence of speech, the omission of sound, the refusal to act. It is also a positive thing. Much like Mary’s “let it be,” uttered in response to the divine word in Luke 1:38, silence is an “active passivity” which creates space for God to transform us. In other words, the absence of noise is not an emptiness; it is always a generative fullness, and in some cases, a terrifying fullness.
In silence, we are confronted with God’s voice, a voice that we often drown out for fear of being found out or found wanting. In silence, we are judged for our desperate need to fill up our lives with frenzied activity. In silence, we discover that we are not ultimately in control; we are weak and vulnerable and awfully in need of God’s grace."
Here are a few extra resources for those who wish to learn more about the role of silence in worship:
1. The Place of Silence in the Catholic Liturgy.
2. The Role of Silence in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
3. "In the Silence" by Hillsong Worship.
4. "God is the Friend of Silence," by Paul Zach and Liz Vice.
5. "Silence and Beauty: Prayers for the Suffering Church," by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worshop.
6. "Silence," by Peter Leithart.
7. "The Gift of Silence," by Nick Seaver from his TEDx talk.
8. "Moments of Silence in Corporate Worship," by Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
9. "The Cities with the Worst Noise Pollution," by World Economic Forum.
10. A conversation with Audrey Assad on "Silence and Worship."
11. "'Silence is a lovely idea' – so why have churches become so noisy?", by Mark Vernon in The Guardian.
12. Diarmaid MacCulloch, "Silence in Christian History," six lectures given in conjunction with the 2011-2012 Gifford Lecture Series at the University of Edinburgh.