Silence. In a noisy world, folks from various faith traditions are craving it. Groups from Bridgeway Community Church in Fishers, Indiana regularly take silent retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, made famous by Thomas Merton. An adult Sunday school class of Zionsville Christian Church (DOC) outside of Indianapolis studied silence as a spiritual discipline and then arranged to have its own “Quaker meeting” at a historical Friends Meetinghouse in Indiana. Other congregations are inserting prominent portions of silence into their worship services. Something in people’s souls tells them that getting quiet is a good way to meet God, no matter whether their souls are settled or not—swamped by insecurity or swathed in peace.
Congregations can use communal silences to help members hear God speak to them—and give them, individually and corporately—the power to live as they should. The Quaker William Penn wrote, “True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.” While the wording is a bit archaic, the sentiment isn’t. Shared silence gives congregants the strength to live well in the world. In corporate silence, God’s spirit moves through and to worshipers and touches their hearts—in many of the same ways that singing, hearing the scripture, listening to a sermon, participating in Communion, and other elements of the worship do. The more opportunities congregations afford their members to encounter God, the more powerful the worship is and the more knit together as communities of faith they become. Silence can be one more vital ingredient to corporate worship.
Corporate silence also invites the faithful to ask, “What does God want?” instead of the usual “What do I want?” God’s direction is felt—and heard—most clearly when worshipers are provided opportunities for paying attention in love to God’s working among them. Silence practiced in community provides a space for such intentional attention. As Jesus told his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” Silence provides space for asking, seeking, and knocking. Together.
Worshipers, when properly prepared, find that silence is active as well as peaceful. True holy silence is not about being quiet; rather it’s an invitation to listen. The ministry of silence requires participation by every person present. Then, together, as they engage the depths of living silence, they do more than just wait for God—they encounter God.
Worshipers also encounter each other in stillness in a way that they don’t in the everyday world of “Hi, how are you” and other rhetorical niceties. As Elizabeth Magill’s article in this issue of Congregations points out, silence is not quiet. Sound reminds the wise worshiper that she or he is not alone—but is in community with a living, breathing family of faith. Far from a distraction, sounds in the silence enhance the community. An infant’s prattling reminds the hearers of the joy of new life. Likewise, a neighbor’s cough may result in a prayer for health and concern for life’s fragility. Silence in worship lets congregants focus on the people whom God has called together for this hour.
Silence allows the folks sitting close together to draw spiritually close. As they see their fellow worshipers’ heads bowed or eyes looking toward heaven, they naturally wonder, How are they? And then perhaps they remember a snippet of something said about a sick parent or school or a job promotion. They pray for each other. The congregation, in the silence, joins, holding each other in God’s presence. The wondering about whether the timer on the oven at home got set or how the trustees could ever have picked mauve carpeting passes away as together they feel drawn to each other and God.
Silence is just one of the dimensions of spirituality that congregations have come to the Indianapolis Center for Congregations for help with. In the last three years, the Center has had 130 inquiries from more than 100 congregations across Indiana concerning congregational resources for spirituality. In addition, one congregation in our service area received a grant to host a conference for their members and attendees about the traditional spiritual disciplines. They opened the event to other congregations and more than 450 people from a variety of denominations and congregations attended.
While many of the Center’s consultations are about what appear to be very practical concerns—building issues, technology, and so forth—the above reminds us, and anyone who works with or in congregations, that the life of the spirit lies at the heart of a faith community’s life together.
J. Brent Bill is the Indianapolis Center for Congregations’ executive vice president. He is a Quaker minister and author of Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality (Paraclete Press, 2005).