Silence in the church

No, this is not regarding the social time that church members have when sitting in church, chatting with their neigbours about events in week gone by. Time before the service and during the collection should be spent differently in my opinion, but that’s not the point of this post.


In a recent issue of WorshipLeader (March/April 2012) several pages were filled with various articles about silence. To read that in a Christian Contemporary magazine was unusual, because most contemporary worship services are flowing over with noise – which was exactly the point of one of the articles.

The editor (Jeremy Armstrong) explains “Dead air space should be avoided at all costs. Transitions should be smooth and filled with something that maintains the equity of attention.” Later he makes the statement “As much as we invite people to pour out, when we gather, we have the opportunity to invite our community to take in. To listen. Because God is speaking.”

The theologian Mark. D. Roberts visited a dozen different churches in his neighbourhood and he concludes that “…there was almost no silence, no space for reflection [...]. Every service was jam-packed with sound.” He comments that the worship service should include time for reflection and meditation, while we listen for Gods voice. He refers to several scripture passages, to illustrate his point.

Habakkuk 2: 20 “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”

He explains that the Hebrew is even more striking: “The LORD is in his holy temple; hush before his face, all the earth.” And he adds Psalm 46: 10 “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Then he mentions times in Scripture when people were listening for God’s voice. Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19. He heard all kinds of big sounds, but God was not in the wind, fire or earthquake. Elijah heard “…a gentle whisper…”. In that quiet moment God spoke to his servant.

He continues “Do we hear the gentle whisper of God in our worship services? Why is silence so rare? Partly this reflects on our church traditions. But, I would suggest that the absence of silence in our gatherings also reflects on our limitations. Perhaps we are unfamiliar with silence. Perhaps it makes us feel uncomfortable. ”


How striking is this in relation to our own Reformed worship services. There have been questions in our congregation to play music (“multiple instruments, please”) during the Lord’s Supper, while the bread and wine are distributed. The silence makes the congregation feel uncomfortable (!).

When I have a chance to go to other churches in the valley, I often hear the organist or pianist play before the service – the one song after the other, one prelude after the other. Very little change in style, in stops, in tempo. Always using the pedals, or never using the pedals, or consistently using the pedal with only the last note. A never ending train with music (noise) that ends when the consistory walks in. And the same happens during the collection. We don’t like silence. Music needs to fill. Fill every empty space there is. And sometimes that is very functional: when the baptism parents bring the child back to grandma and the pastor is wiping the water of the table and gets back to the pulpit, I always play a bit longer. That also gives the congregation a chance to reflect on what is coming next.


When a silence can be functional, I experienced as a child. Going with my grandparents to their church during holidays, I was always intrigued how an elder would come up from the back, through the long isle. He would stand behind the table, the organist would stop playing, and read the announcements, which he would conclude with “I wish you a blessed service”. Following this he would take a seat and the congregation would pray silently, asking a blessing over the service. How awkward for a 8-12 year old boy, like me at that time, from “liberated Reformed” background? No, how impressive, that it has given me a lasting memory for my life. Praying to God personally, for a blessing of the word, strength for the minister, to keep my thoughts concentrated, would create experiences of peace, awe, holiness, and dedication. (During the (short) prayer by the congregation, the consistory would also pray in the consistory room. )

I have another memory from when I was a teenager. Due to some circumstances I also played organ for the Lutheran church (…from whom we rented the building. I played three worship services every other Sunday for about five years). Every minister during those years came to the organ before the service, to shake a hand and to say hello. Sometimes he would explain a few things (e.g. where we were in the church year). Sometimes this included a silence of reflection after the sermon. Not even organ music…! He just wanted to make sure that I would look for his signal before starting to play. How awkward in our views maybe, how functional this was in the service. The sermon would be finishing with a call for reflection, with a call for contemplation, or a call for personalization of the message in a personal prayer.

Lastly, I also have a memory of a time of silence in our own congregation of Baarn (NL). A small congregation but often we had the opportunity to hear a professor from Kampen. After shaking the elder’s hand, I believe it was Prof. Dr. H.M. Ohman, would approach the pulpit and pray in silence before going up. (Such prayer has its roots in the early church.) This was, excitement, explained to us, children in advance, as this was very unique in our churches. Our parents and the elderly seem to like this, what I remember.

In the magazine that I mentioned above, there was also made mention that many of the current generation can’t handle the “silence” outside the door, silence without TV or radio sounds, which is resolved by using ear buds and MP3 players along. Our society and culture does not accept silence anymore. When we grow up in this culture, we experience silence as awkward. Noise fills our ears, noise fills our hears, and noise fills out minds. But what if it is true, that God’s speaks to us in silence…? If our minds are filled with what comes out of the ear buds, is there still room, time and space for the Word of God…?

Have a blessed Sunday tomorrow, listening for the voice of God!

One Response to Silence in the church

  1. Bart says:

    I agree, Nice to read!

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