Even though I’m a church musician, and I believe in the offertory gifts of music in worship and the power of congregational singing, today I want to talk a bit about the importance of silence in worship.
Most people are uncomfortable with silence. In the car, we turn on the radio or talk on the phone; when we get home we turn on the tv and have the news running in the background as we cook dinner; we plug in our mp3 players as we run or workout; and many people, myself included, have ambient noise machines running as they sleep. Even at church, many congregations have their musicians play short, generic ditties at specific points in the service when the worship leaders need to move from one place to another, or they’ll play soft music during the time allotted for “silent prayer”.
The problem with constantly surrounding ourselves with sounds is that it doesn’t ever give our minds the chance to take a breath, relax, and hear God’s voice. There are many reasons why we should have more silence in our lives, and in our worship; here are five.
1. Sounds and music can be used as a distraction, and that’s not a good thing.
When music has a purpose, it’s a beautiful thing. That purpose can be anything from putting on a song because it makes you happy, or because it makes you sad, listening to the prelude in church to center yourself for the worship time, or singing along with the congregational hymn and feeling a sense of community and connection as you lift your voices as one.
God wants us to use all of the gifts he has given us in a purposeful manner, to bring Him glory, which is why music used as nothing more than a way to avoid silence is not good. It’s a perversion of God’s gift of music when we use it not to His glory and purposes but our own.
2. Without silence, we devalue sound.
In our world, God created day and night. He created light and dark, white and black, joy and sorrow, and he created sound and silence. From Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. (NSRV)
When we use sounds to distract us from silence, we are only experiencing half of God’s kingdom: we’re only experiencing the joy, or the day, or the light. Without the perspective of the other half, our perception becomes drastically limited. Like the blinding afternoon sunlight after you’ve spent two hours in a darkened movie theater, or the warmth of the first spring day after a brutally cold winter, the opposites in our world allow us to experience the full range of God’s creation. But when we deliberately substitute sounds or music for silence, it’s like living our whole lives with nothing but sunlight, 24/7. The miracle of the sun would become trivial, taken for granted, instead of appreciated and valued.
We should not be creating a situation where God’s gift of music and sounds become trivial and undervalued in our lives, and especially not in our worship. Music is an essential part of the worship service, as is the reading of the Word, the sermon, and the various worship liturgies, and sometimes it feels like there’s so much we’ve got to cram in there that there’s no time for silence. But if we don’t make time for silence, it’s impossible to fully experience the wonder and glory of music and sound.
3. Silence requires us to stop, which gives us a chance to focus on God.
At the most basic level, silence requires two things: a silent person, in a silent environment. You need to deliberately stop talking, or humming, or singing, and you need to stop anything or anyone around you that’s also making sounds. It isn’t until you stop all of the sounds and the noise around you that you can experience what it means to exist in a silence, and it is a very different experience than existing in noise or music.
Silence leaves you alone with yourself, and I think this is one of the reasons so many people substitute sound for silence, because being fully present and engaged with your own thoughts is not easy or comfortable. We’d usually rather drown out our thoughts with mindless noise than engage with them. But when we’re not distracted by the many sounds around us, we have the chance to focus on something other than ourselves: in worship, that would be God. It’s possible, but difficult, to focus on God during other parts of service, because you’re multi-tasking, and God calls us to more than that. During the sermon, you’re listening to the words and thinking about the ideas; during the prelude or other gifts of music you’re thinking about the music and how it connects us with God, but in silence you have the opportunity to just focus on God, and that time is a gift that we should treasure. Because…
4. Silence lets us listen to Him speak to us.
God speaks to us in silences. In 1 Kings 19, God speaks to Elijah:
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God didn’t speak to Elijah in the loudness of the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. He waited until the “sound of sheer silence”, when Elijah was wholly focused on God, before speaking to him. If we are never silent, we never have the chance to hear God’s voice. That’s not to say that if we are silent, we’re guaranteed to hear him, but if we’re never silent, then we are guaranteed not to.
5. The Bible calls us to be silent.
From Psalm 62:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God.
I could continue, but I kindof feel like it’d defeat the purpose of a post on silence, so let me end with this encouragement: don’t be afraid of silence in your life, and don’t underestimate its power. Be deliberate about increasing the amount of silence in your life, especially if you don’t currently experience any silence on a regular basis. And know that it’s in the silences, when we are focused on Him and listening, that we open ourselves to Him and give God the chance to speak to us.