Monday, November 2, 2009

Dead Air: Making the Most of the Inevitable Silence

As I pour over magazines, articles, and books for advice in leading worship, one thing I constantly run into is the subject of what to do in between songs. It is a common topic for discussion amongst song leaders as this must be dealt with every Sunday. There are all sorts of ideas that I have read about but each one boils down to one thing, and that is this; Do something! Do anything! But make sure there is no dead air!

There are countless reasons behind this, and many of them are even good reasons:

Silence is awkward.

If there is no ‘flow’ then dead air leaves a ‘stop/start’ feeling to worship.

People will become quickly bored.

A lack of smooth transition indicates a lack of excellence and God deserves our best.

But for the most part, the reasoning can be pretty much summed up like this: If there is silence in between songs then people are uncomfortable and therefore distracted and unable to worship.

Fill It In!

So the worship ‘experts’ then offer us ways to fill in this ‘dead air’ (which is just a code word that places a negative spin on the word ‘silence’). From my reading the most preferred method seems to be transitioning one song to the next without a pause in the music. When done right, this can be very smooth and pleasing to the ear. It also allows the leader to connect one theme with another quite seamlessly. I utilize this when I feel it is necessary, but it becomes impractical in many situations. Every Sunday just cannot be a five song medley.

So the next best ‘method’ is to fill the silence in with talking. This can be done in a variety of ways. Two of the better ways are Scripture readings and prayer. But most often, from what I’ve personally seen and read (and unfortunately, done myself) is spontaneous chatter. Some have called this ‘The Mini Sermon’, others have called it ‘Worship Cheerleading’ but most call it ‘Annoying.’

Fill It In?

The problem I have here is not the desire to have a smooth transition. I find nothing wrong with Scripture being read in between songs. But what bugs me is that these ‘fillers’ become nothing more than a ‘solution’ to silence. Instead of a 15 second pause between one song and the next, the popular advice is to ‘fill’ it with something. Eradicate and exterminate all forms of silence because, I am told, it makes people uncomfortable, distracted, and it hinders worship. Well I’m here to say it’s not true.

I’ve bought into this type of thinking for too long. Many times I have found myself standing awkwardly on stage in between songs, looking slightly fidgety awaiting the introduction of the next song. I’m sure my presence didn’t help the congregation feel any less awkward. But my thinking was always aiming to end the silence. And awkward silence, as I have found, will make a talker out of a mute. And talking simply to fill in the silence leads to unnecessary rambling and idiotic phrasings that edify and glorify no one. Well, I’m done with that. As I strive to increase my understanding of sound doxology I just cannot continue to participate in this game. Silence is inevitable and I aim to make much of Christ through it. I believe that the benefits of silence in between our songs can far outweigh our feeble efforts to fill it. I also believe that these benefits can prevail over the common concerns of awkwardness, distractions, and the inability to worship.

The Benefits of Silence in Worship

The first benefit is Authenticity. What is more fake than conjured spontaneity? As I pointed out above, in my experience, it just comes off as awkward. There are appropriate times for leaders to talk in between songs, but in between every song is unnecessary. If the Spirit is moving, I'm sure He can move just fine without me talking compared to whenever I open my sin filled mouth. If there are a few moments of silence while the musicians to end one song and start the next then so what? If it takes a couple seconds to turn the page to prepare for the next song, big deal! Is it less excellent to pause for a few moments rather than to play seven songs without stopping? Why should our music at church imitate a concert or a radio station? Imitation is the antithesis of authenticity! Authenticity through silence can serve as another reminder to us and our people that we are not professionals and we don’t aspire to be. That doesn’t mean we fail to plan or rehearse, but it means we make the most of the inevitable silence to come and not try to shoehorn in our often unnecessary noise.

A second benefit silence provides is Reflection; a time to think and a time for prayer. How many times do we as ministers provide opportunities in the worship service for the congregation to meditate and reflect on what they have just heard or sung? If you sing one song after another, without a break, and then seamlessly start the sermon, the congregation has never had time to ponder what they just sang. Many times the few brief moments of silence between each song might be the only silence available for the church to reflect. Mark Dever’s church has embraced the silent times in their service. He says, “We LIKE "dead air space." "Dead air space" gives us time to reflect. To collect our thoughts. To consider what we've just heard or read or sung. The silence amplifies the words or music we've just heard. It allows us time to take it all in, and to pray.” (Read Dever's full post here)

With that in mind, ‘dead air’ is also an opportunity for Participation. Instead of doing something to break the silence, do your best to participate in that silence. Dever continues, “Everyone works to be quiet. People stop moving their bulletins or looking for something in their purse. There's no movement. We, together, hear the silence. It engulfs us. It enhances our unity. It is something we all do together. Together we consider what we've just heard. Together we contribute to each other's space to think.” Active participation in silence actively works to get rid of distractions. Which makes me wonder when people say that silence itself is a distraction!

Lastly, another benefit of silence, and I believe the most important, is Worship. In fact, any benefit derived from this silent time should culminate in worship. Everyone talks about Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” but that’s exactly just what everyone does, talk. Rarely do we see this put into practice. The silence between one song and another is a perfect time to obey this command. In light of this passage it is quite telling to me when the ‘experts’ say that ‘dead air’ hinders worship. What that tells me is that either their understanding of worship is skewed or that they don’t understand what worship really is. If not, then they should really consider the logical outcome of their claims. To make the claim that ‘dead air’ causes people to not worship God is evidence that our faith resides in our methodologies rather than the Creator of silence. It is also a sign to me that many believe worship to be a product that can be manufactured or manipulated to produce an anticipated outcome, which is often called the ‘worship experience’. Many times this is based solely on feelings and nothing else.

One thing to be aware of is that just because silence takes place doesn’t mean that worship takes place. We need to train our people (and ourselves!) in the discipline of silence. And the best way I know how to train is to teach it and practice it. Instead of just expecting the congregation to ‘get it’, take a couple minutes and explain how the church can make the most of the silent times during worship. Explain how worship is not like any other venue in our culture and how silence can enhance reflection. Encourage participation. Take time to worship God when the opportunity of silence presents itself during the week. Even if it is for a few moments.

So instead of constantly trying to fill in the silence, make the most of it when it comes our way! And, most importantly, continue to measure everything we do in our worship services with Scripture to ensure sound doxology. Even the little things like the silence between our songs.


Update 3-26-10: Bob Kauflin at Worship Matters has posted a three-part series called "What Do You Say When You Lead Worship?" He provides some humor as well as great advice.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3