Worship: A Refuge From The Noise

But Yahweh is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him (Hab 2:20)

Noisy By Nature

How noisy is our world? Answer that question by asking another. Do you own noise-cancelling headphones? Would you like to own a pair of noise-cancelling headphones? Jackhammers, planes, sirens, fireworks, helicopters, leaf blowers, snowblowers, busses, trucks, and cars. The sources of noise seem almost innumerable. Before Christmas, I was in an Apple Store. The din in an Apple Store seems particularly and acutely painful and so, when I tried on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, I was quite impressed by the difference between the noise of the store around me and the near total silence with the headphones on. At that moment, I was impressed again by how little silence I hear any more. Some of the noise is inescapable, but some of it is self-inflicted. When I leave the house, I always have my phone and frequently I have an EarPod in one ear to catch up on a podcast or two.

In the entertainment business, silence is often considered either risky or deadly. In radio, one of the first things I learned was never to permit “dead air.” A good broadcaster ran a “tight” board, i.e., sound was constant and uninterrupted by silence. In most stations, if, for some reason, silence lasted more than a few seconds, alarms begin to sound in the building to alert people to the fact that something must be wrong. In Vaudeville (think of the Carol Burnett Show), in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, entertainers (jugglers, singers, comedians, clowns) were “played” on to the stage—their movement from the wings of the stage to center stage were “covered” by musical accompaniment. It was called traveling music. Television shows still follow this rule. Maybe the most famous entrance in modern television was Johnny Carson’s, whose movements were covered by the Tonight Show Orchestra. As his signature theme played, he fiddled with the curtain (as though he couldn’t find his way out) and made his way to his mark (literally taped on the stage) to begin his monologue. All that was derived from Vaudeville.

Silent By Grace

There are two great spheres in life: nature and grace. Entertainment belongs to the first. It has a nature and the rules of entertainment, or construction, or traffic are what they are by the nature of the thing. Ordinary secular life is noisy. There is, however, another sphere of life and that sphere comes to its highest expression in the public worship of the church, the congregation gathered to hear God’s call to worship and his Word, to receive his sacraments, and to respond as he has commanded.

To be sure, even when she gathers for corporate worship on the Christian Sabbath, the church has to obey nature to a certain degree. We call those natural rules to which we adhere, circumstances. We must meet at an agreed time, in an agreed location, and use a shared language (or provide a translator; 1 Cor 14—notice how Paul considers musical instruments in v. 7 as indistinct languages or tongues that need to be interpreted). The service itself, however, is ruled not by nature or natural revelation but by grace and special revelation. It is God’s Word (i.e., the law and the gospel) and God’s sacraments (the gospel made visible) which control what is said and done in the service. Ideally, the church would even respond to God’s Word by singing his Word back to him.

To the degree that worship is a creature of grace rather than nature, we should expect it to be different from nature. One way in which it could and arguably should be different from nature, as worship is distinct from entertainment, is by making use of silence. Just as practical matter, were we to return to the ancient Christian practice of being deliberately silent for some moments in worship we could hardly be more counter-cultural. One of the greatest mistakes the church has made throughout its history and particularly in the Modern period is to imitate the culture at every turn rather than intentionally doing the opposite of what the culture is doing.

Imagine, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 14:23–24, that a pagan walked into a Christian worship service. What should he find: the same din and chaos as he might find in a nightclub or a podcast? Paul expects that he should find order and reverence. Silence is one unmistakeable expression of order and silence. When a teacher needs to bring a chaotic group of students to order, what does she demand? Silence. How do we know when something significant is transpiring? Silence. Should you meet the president or royalty, you probably would not do it while conducting a phone conversation. “Hang on Prez, I’ll be right with you.” That is a rude way to treat a clerk, let alone a president or a king.

Yet, the way modern worship services are conducted, it is almost as if silence has been banished, as though it was forbidden. There is music as the congregation enters. There is music during the offering. There is music as the congregation exits. In some traditions, there is traveling music for the minister as he moves to the pulpit or as readers or others come and go from the platform (not a stage). All of this traveling music, whatever fancy names we give it, is nothing but nature imposed on the pre-eminent realm of grace (in this life).

I have my criticisms of the use of musical instruments in public worship. I am with the ancient Christian church (pre-AD 754 or perhaps later) and with the 16th and 17th century Reformed churches who removed musical instruments from public worship as types and shadows incompatible with the New Covenant. Nevertheless, that is not the point of this essay. As a practical matter, I understand that everyone is not going suddenly to agree with the ancient church, with Calvin, and with me and return to the order God instituted. Instruments are probably here to stay for now. That does not mean, however, that we must play them any time the minister is not speaking or praying. The idea that we must cover with sound any “dead air” in a worship service is an idea that comes from Vaudeville and radio, not Scripture, not the ancient church, not the medieval church, not the sixteenth-century Reformed church, and not even the church of 50 years ago. It is a very recent idea indeed and it is one we need to question.

The Revelation gives us pictures of heaven and, to be sure, there is a lot of noise—good and holy, but noise nonetheless. There is, however, also silence. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev 8:1; ESV). The silence signifies that something important is about to happen. It is not a time for chattering. It is a time for reverence and awe. This is a turning point in the narrative. We know instinctively that when something truly important is happening, we should be silent. We have lost that sense in our time. We need to recover it.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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Posted by R. Scott Clark | Monday, February 13, 2023 | Categorized Worship | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. Read more» He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

One comment

  1. Amen and amen. Further, the loud, raucous “worship” styles that grew out of early 20th Century vaudeville had a well known 19th Century precursor – that hawker Charles Grandison Finney and his traveling shows. And out of that tradition grew what we have today in the form of American evangelical-style worship, a platform at the front of the sanctuary filled with choir, orchestra, organ console, often a large pipe organ installation, etc. Twist and turn it any way you like, to borrow a title from a Hollywood production, “That’s Entertainment!” Possibly not so much any more, but there was a time when Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and a few other denominations placed the choir and the organist in a loft at the rear of the sanctuary where none of their actions would detract from the congregation’s focus on proper worship.

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