Why is there silence in worship?
Silence is a vital element in worship, but one often omitted or difficult to incorporate well. Until a congregation gets comfortable with silence members of the assembly will be fidgeting or looking around, wondering if the pastor or musician forgot what is coming next in the liturgy.
Corporate silence is a gift that can enrich the life of a worshipping community. The rests in music are as important as the notes, and they must be counted and honored in the same way that sounds are made. In a similar fashion, silence deepens the experience of the words, music, and actions the liturgy.
In our busy and noise-filled world it is often very difficult for us be still and savor silence. When we are alone many of us turn on the radio or the television to fill up the space. Because we are so uneasy with silence in our daily lives, this may be an even greater reason that we should include it in worship. Silence teaches us that prayer is not only conversational, involving words, but is also a stance of openness and listening for the voice of God. When our worship is wall-to-wall words and music it does not give the worshiper the impression that in addition to the Word, God also comes in silence and stillness.
The gathering of the assembly before the liturgy is a natural time for silence and helps set the tone for worship. Greeting one another and sharing conversation are valid ways to build community and many churches have a difficult time quieting the congregation before the liturgy for prayer or listening to the prelude. Notes in the bulletin and newsletter are not always effective, and scolding the assembly sends a negative energy. One congregation rings a meditation bowl periodically during the fifteen minutes before the service begins. The simple bell-like sound is a positive reminder that it is time for the congregation to gather in silence, centering and prayer.
Silence is appropriate in several places during the liturgy. The order for Confession and Forgiveness includes a place for silence. Though it may seem long at first, this may be a place for up to a full minute of silence for the assembly listen to their hearts as they prepare to confess their sins and receive the grace of God’s forgiveness. At the Prayer of the Day, the presiding minister may leave about ten seconds between the “let us pray” and the actual prayer. This breathing space allows the worshiper to collect his or her thoughts before the prayer. Rather than moving directly from scripture reading to psalm and gospel acclamation, allow another ten or so seconds for the Word to sink in. This spaciousness will also allow the service to feel less hurried.
Two natural times for an extended minute or so of silence are the periods following the sermon and distribution of communion. Silence following the sermon provides a time for personal reflection before the organist begins the Hymn of the Day. After the distribution is complete the ministers may be seated for the assembly to savor the presence of Christ received in the eucharist and present in the community. Some congregations may choose to include a brief time of silence between the post-communion prayer and the Benediction.
As congregations use more generous periods of silence it will be helpful for the congregation to be alerted to the practice and given help in understanding the importance of silence in the liturgy. Those planning worship face a great challenge incorporating silence into an already busy liturgy that may include announcements, a children’s sermon, musical offerings, and other occasional rites. Rather than saying there is no time to add one more thing (silence) to the liturgy, be creative in how some of the other elements are used (or omitted) in worship. It may seem like nothing is happening during the silence and that it is something that can be cut, yet it is in the silent, dark earth where seeds sprout. Surely God is present and at work in our moments of silence as well.