A Time to Be Silent: Wordless before the Word


Neal just e-mailed his topic for Sunday’s service. Texts are Genesis 1, John 1, and Ecclesiastes 3—“A Time to Be Silent.” Says there’s a rhythm between silence and speaking, a rhythm as old as creation, seen in the Incarnation. In the fullness of time, God finally speaks the Word into the world.

Makes sense to use silence in the service. The trick will be how to make the silence as lively and participatory as the singing.

­ To do: Find “silence” songs.
­ E-mail LOFTtalk group for suggestions.


Funny, funny, funny. I’m starting to get suggestions for the service. Song suggestions I’d expect: “Silent Night,” “My Soul in Stillness Waits,” “In the Secret,” “Be Still and Know,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” We’ll probably use some of those. Someone sent a pretty cool sonnet by Madeline L’Engle about falling wordless in prayer. We might use that. Someone else sent an excerpt from Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. Can’t use that. But no one at all suggested we actually be silent during the service. No one. Is it too obvious or too foreign?

When are we ever silent during our services? We aren’t silent in preparation for worship—not the way earlier generations of Christians often have been. And when we have opportunity for wordless prayer during worship, it’s not silent. Like most contemporary services, there’s still music, a bit of emotional guidance. If we finally do fall quiet, there’s still the spare cough and the rustle of restless rears on the seats.

But we have had that electric stillness a few times: usually when we’re deep in confession, attentive to someone sharing something very personal and very painful, or when we’re smitten with God’s holiness.

How can we invite folks into this sort of silence?

12/1 Planning

I started out thinking we’d try to create still “spaces” in the service corresponding to the three occasions for silence I’d thought of the other day—spaces where we’d have significant stillness and invite people to enter it. But I liked Aaron’s suggestion better: start out like a “normal” service. But then, in song texts and in transition words, gradually diminish the verbiage as we approach the sermon. A “declamatory decrescendo” into a context of completely silent prayer. Then the sermon. After that wealth of words, silence again, until we gradually gain a voice and respond to the Word.

12/3 Rehearsal Notes
  • We’ve got four chant-based songs: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and Taizé’s “O Lord, Hear My Prayer.” Chant is purest sung text. How to accompany for best effect? Solo voice? Solo instrument with somber timbre? Have we an oboist? Viola? Clarinet? Work this out with them. Shoot the arrow and let them chase it down.
  • Remind folks to be at ease with calm movements, with longish pauses between songs, and with big stillness before each of the Scripture readings.
  • Start rehearsal out with silent prayer to begin to orient us to the different “feel” of worship at less noisy level.

12/6 Post-service

Good service. Neal’s sermon was, as always, profound. The silences before were fine. Not the “deep and mysterious” silences Neal spoke of, but not the bored “what’s happening next” silences either. But after the sermon—wow! Silent prayer. Stark unison singing. Then silence again, this time so deep I don’t even know how long we were there. Long enough that I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore, just resting in it.


“All in All”
“Cry of My Heart”
Scripture: Genesis 1
Brief comment on joining with creation in singing to Creator.
“Cantad al Señor”
“Sing a New Song”
Call to confession: Malachi 3
“Purify My Heart”
Prayer (largely silent)
“O Lord, Hear My Prayer” (Taizé)
“O Come, O Come Immanuel”
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3
Sermon: “A Time to Be Silent”
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
Scripture: John 1
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”
“Knowing You”



Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra has been a regular contributor to Reformed Worship over the years. He is the director of worship life and professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America , author of Church at Church, and coauthor with his wife, Debra, of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Together they have three grown children, a multiplicity of living-room instruments, and a tame backyard they are slowly rewilding.

Reformed Worship 61 © September 2001, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.