Awkward Silence in Worship (And Why We Need It)


It’s a worship leader’s worst nightmare.  They carefully pray over the worship service, sing from the bottom of their heart, and then the unthinkable happens:  awkward silence.

Is the song too new, too modern?  Is the congregation still asleep?  Is the weather outside having an adverse affect on everyone?

But here’s a question for us:  what if the silence isn’t a totally bad thing?

In a world that is increasingly full of background noise (televisions, cars, cell phones beeping at us constantly with one “push notification” after another), true silence is becoming a thing of the past.  And when we do have a quiet moment, it makes us uncomfortable.

But since when was going to church about being comfortable?

While listening to someone preach the Gospel, I would say that those moments of discomfort and conviction are some of the most powerful moments of the message.  Likewise, times of silence in worship can be times of prayer and reflection – times when God can speak to us – but we’ve been trained to avoid quiet stillness like the plague.  We rush in to fill in the silence by playing harder, singing louder, or rushing back to a song that “everyone knows” (which are becoming increasingly difficult to find, by the way).

Perhaps we should take a lesson from the realm of classical music, and remind ourselves that there can be beauty in silence.

Classical Concept:  Silence is Beauty

The date is August 29, 1952.  A well-known pianist named David Tudor takes his place at the piano before a large audience in Woodstock, New York.  As they wait breathlessly, he sits – absolutely still – for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  It was the premiere of a piece called 4’33” by American composer John Cage.

The audience became outraged, and started shouting and even throwing things at the stage.  This uproar was recorded and put on tape.  When asked about the reaction to this piece, John Cage said “they missed the point.  There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.” [1]

A little too experimental?  Perhaps.  But what strikes me about this story is this:  even in 1952, people couldn’t sit still for even four minutes without working themselves up into a frenzy.  How long would it take in 2014?

Anyone who plays a musical instrument or reads musical notation will tell you that the rests (moments of silence) are just as critical as the notes, and sometimes even more so.  The idea of beautiful silence is certainly not a new one.  In fact, we even find it in Biblical worship.

Silent Reflection in Biblical Worship

King David, who often wrote psalms for the people of Israel to sing during times of worship, was very intentional about planning times of silence into corporate worship.  He would often insert the word Selah, which instructed the people to take a moment to pause and reflect on what was just said, and what God might be saying to them.

Look at these excerpts from Psalm 3, for example:

     “Many are they who say of me, there is no help for him in God.  Selah.”

     “I cried to the LORD with my voice, and he heard me from His holy hill.  Selah.”

     “Salvation belongs to the LORD. Your blessing is upon Your people.  Selah.

King David knew that after hearing a great spiritual truth, a little silence might be necessary for us to have time to process it – time for the truth to really sink in.  As the people of Israel sat still for several minutes to reflect on the Psalm just sung, I doubt the worship leaders beat themselves up about it!

Silence:  It Happens

There is no magic formula for designing the perfect worship service. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves in a mighty way and people are moved to respond with hands and voices raised.  At other times, He leads us into times of quiet reflection

But the point is this:  quietness doesn’t always mean the Spirit isn’t moving.  Instead of rushing in to “cover up” our awkward silences, maybe we should take a moment or two to pause and reflect as they did in Ancient Israel.

We might just decide that awkward silence is a beautiful thing.

[1] Kostelanetz, Richard. 2003. Conversing with John Cage. New York: Routledge.

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