When Silence Isn’t Golden

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I was once pastor of a church where the Sunday morning worship service was broadcast live on radio. I never dreamed what a difference that would make in how we thought about what happened during the service. My first lesson was that for radio listeners, silence is not golden. It is weird. In fact, it takes little silence for someone to change the station.

The gaps that came from less than careful planning and attention to detail actually took away from their worship more than we had realized. Much of the flow and feeling of the service was lost as we kept putting worshippers’ attention on hold, even if for short periods of time.

In listening to tapes of the services, we discovered that worship had a great deal of silence that no one had planned. It just happened, and through it we were losing the attention of listeners. Some examples included:

  • Pastors and staff not ready to begin one portion of the service as soon as the previous portion ended
  • Readers taking time to walk from a pew while it was already time for their reading to begin
  • Musicians taking undue time to begin their music
  • Ushers not moving until the offering invitation was concluded
  • Announcements by various people without all coming to the microphone together
  • Someone speaking without a microphone
  • The time for singing groups to move to their places and return to their seats

You get the idea. There were many “dead spots” in the service. With a little planning, each of these was addressed. The service became a better experience for radio listeners because their attention was not constantly distracted by silence. But we discovered an even more important result of these changes. The service was a much better experience for those in the sanctuary as well. The gaps that came from less than careful planning and attention to detail actually took away from their worship more than we had realized. Much of the flow and feeling of the service was lost as we kept putting worshippers’ attention on hold, even if for short periods of time.

Our biggest challenge came on the first Sunday of the month when we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. At first we had no good solution for the radio silence while several hundred people came forward for communion. Then we developed a series of recordings that ran throughout this otherwise “empty” radio time. There were messages that began, for example, “As worshippers come forward for Holy Communion, we remember that one of the meanings of this sacrament is …” These messages continued covering different themes for as long as was needed.

Silence often can be a significant element of worship. But “planned silence” is very different from the “dead time” that results from a lack of planning and inattention to detail that detract from the experience of worship.

What “dead time” do you have in your services? Pay attention next Sunday. Or listen to an audio version of the service. Watching a video of the service can also help. While you are doing this, notice what else may seem strange or off putting to people not already familiar with your service. Some small changes can make big differences.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.