In my experience as a worship leader, there are two kinds of silence in church. There’s the awe-filled, reverent silence, where God feels close enough to touch, when His Spirit seems to hover not only over the waters but over those gathered in a way that is impossible to explain, yet beautiful.
Then there’s the awkward silence, the painful silence when no one quite knows what’s happening and everyone wants it to end.
We’ve all been there during those uncomfortable silences. We fidget. We worry what other people are thinking. We clock-watch. Our “silence” is often accompanied by a moody synth riff or an emotionally plucked guitar—heavy on the minor chords because we really want to feel God.
Our struggle with silence isn’t new. Our worlds are filled with noise. From the minute we wake to the minute we fall asleep, our lives are dominated by it. It can be literal noise—the sounds, songs, conversations and murmurings that make up the soundtrack of our days. Or it can be visual noise—what we see, read, take in, process. Either way, our minds, hearts and souls are filled with noise, noise and more noise.
To switch it all off is unnatural. It feels strange. Disconnecting in the 21st century is quite possibly one of the most counter-cultural things you can do. Think about it. When was the last time you found yourself in complete silence?
But this culture of noise does damage. It distracts us from God and from the world around us, with all its beauty and all its injustice.
God moves in the silence
God tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). There is a time for singing, a time for weeping, a time for praising, laughing and screaming. And there is a time for silence. Stillness is a vital component in our relationship with God. It is where we hear from God without interruption, where we discover ourselves, where the reality of our place before God—as sinners in total need of His forgiveness and grace—is laid bare before us.
Picture a tree caught in a storm. Lashed by the wind, it is thrown in every direction. Its branches bend and buckle, its leaves are whipped off, and its roots are pulled and stretched to their limit. The storm throws everything at the tree, and the tree gets weaker and weaker.
Just when the tree looks like will snap, the storm blows forward and centers its eye over the tree. Suddenly, there is quiet. An apparent nothingness drapes itself over the barren tree. But in that nothingness, there is everything. Peace. Rest. The battered branches fall back into place. In the middle of the storm, there is silence, and in that silence is rest and hope.
Replace the tree with us, the storm with life. We are constantly thrown in every direction. Battered, bruised, breaking. Yet in the center of the storm, we find God. We find peace. Tranquility. Rest. In the silence.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah waits on a mountaintop for God to speak. Desperate, longing for his God to guide him, he goes up there and he watches and waits.
You’ve heard this story before. A violent storm comes and batters all in its path, but God isn’t in the storm. The earth shakes, but God isn’t in its tremors. A fire rages, searing heat passing by, but God isn’t in the flames.
Then, after the chaos has subsided, after the crescendo of noise has died and the dust begins to settle, Elijah hears God. God whispers.
Like a parent whispers in the ear of an upset child, God whispers into our hearts. The beauty of God’s whisper is that we have to still our hearts to hear it. God wants us to put aside all other things in order to hear Him.
Bringing silence into the church
Making space for stillness in church—creating a place for people to truly engage with God in the silence—is not natural for us. From the pre-service hubbub to the opening worship to the sermon to the prayers to the response songs to the close of service to the post-service coffee meetups, there is just so much noise on Sunday. Undoubtedly well-meaning to the end, the church is in danger of crowding God out of its services for the sake of filled-to-the-brim engagement.
Sure, creating a genuine silence with 300 people is going to be difficult. But we need to be intentional about this. As the body of Christ, we should be prepared to hear God in the joyful praises of our hearts and the silence of our reverence. As we sing together, so we should wait, unified, in unbroken spaces.
As a worship leader, there have been too many times when I have shied away from letting silence fall because I’ve been worried about how people will take it. And there have been times when I’ve left room for silence, only for it to seem awkward and uncomfortable.
A lesson I’m learning, though, is to be intentional about this anyway. To resist the urge to play another song or rush to fill the space once it descends. Honestly, it doesn’t always work. But sometimes it does, and when it does, it is simply beautiful. The cloud of God’s presence falls upon the gathering, and our focus is solely on God. (And isn’t that what worship is, really?)
Those times when I’ve experienced God speak in silence—both to me and to others—during corporate worship have been immeasurably powerful moments. Life-changing, poignant moments when all those gathered seem focused on God and God alone, free of distractions and the things of the world. Moments when God’s presence seems to cloak the room and all those in it with peace, calm, rest and hope. In those moments of silence, you can feel God’s presence, an invisible yet beautiful weight over the room. We’re in the eye of the storm, perfectly safe and still.
And there, we nearly touch God.