The Bible and Christian biography make a great deal of silence, but we of today make of it exactly nothing. The average service in gospel circles these days is kept alive by noise. By making a lot of religious din we assure our faltering hearts that everything is well and, conversely, we suspect silence and regard it as a proof that the meeting is “dead.” Even the most devout seem to think they must storm heaven with loud outcries and mighty bellowings or their prayers are of no avail. Not all silence is spiritual. Some Christians are silent because they have nothing to say; others because what they have to say cannot be uttered by mortal tongue. Of the first we do not speak at the moment, but confine our remarks to the latter.— A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous
There is a breathless haste to some corporate worship practised in South Africa (and perhaps in other places) that puzzles me. It is more than puzzling, it is simply aggravating. It goes something like this.
The conductor takes on the role of human goad, singing harshly and hurriedly, implicitly reminding us every moment that we are singing too slowly, way too slowly. Often he must interrupt the hymn to explain to us what ‘thee’ means. He and others on the platform pop up from their seats, almost running to the pulpit. The hymns are played at a blinding pace, and you often wonder where you are in the song. Of course, no hymn can be sung in its entirety, and the third stanza is usually the loser. Hymn to hymn, song to song, one thing to another, at a pace apparently aimed at keeping out boredom, but one which actually encourages mindlessness. How can one concentrate at a pace like this? How can one focus on anything?
I suppose were we to interview the people who design their corporate worship services like this, we would hear that “we don’t want ‘dead spots’ in the service”, which is to say, we don’t want moments of awkward silence. Any radio or television producer knows the secret to good entertainment is to keep things going. Keep ‘em distracted. Change scenes often. Keep it fresh, keep it interesting, and above all, keep it moving. If you dare leave an opening for boredom, they’ll change the channel. And so the church seems to ape the world in this regard. In many, there is an unwitting mimcry of television and radio continuity announcers. In fact, originally it may not have been that unwitting, but those who have inherited the announcer-tradition might not always know how similar they sound to entertainers from the 30s and 40s.
It never seems to occur to many such people that worship and entertainment are different animals. The ‘dead spot’ which TV producers fear translates to a moment of reflection or contemplation during worship. The very comprehension the conductor wants by explaining every line of poetry to us (which can sometimes feel like a man explaining a joke to us, removing all its power) might be achieved by giving the congregation a little more time to digest what is being said and sung. A little bit of silence won’t send people scrambling for the doors. It might actually communicate the message that they need to settle down within, and give God their reverent attention. In fact, a bit of awkwardness isn’t bad either. Awkwardness is felt when we feel that we do not quite ‘fit in’ within a given situation. I’d say that some element of that ought to be true when worshipping God. People ought to know that worshipping God is not an ideal fit for their current lives, that there is a climb to be made here, that He both takes us as we are and demands we not stay there.
Of course, introducing silence and reflection will be uncomfortable for many congregations. Being quiet enough to face the presence of God, hear your own conscience and remain without fleeing is uncomfortable, and may explain the poor attendance of even the better-planned and better-executed prayer meetings. Nevertheless, we will never worship aright without it. Perhaps we need to squirm before we can delight.