Nobody goes to church anymore, it's too quiet

Noise creates excitement and speeds up life:

“I can tell you,” he said, "people don’t want a space that’s really dead quiet, because that feels empty. And if it feels empty, it’s not going to feel successful. It’s not going to feel fun. You know, noise makes a place feel like it’s got a buzz."

He cited, unexpectedly, September 11th as the moment when the trend toward raucous, informal, let-it-all hang out urban hoedown aesthetics took off. “People want to enjoy life more, and be more in the world. They don’t want to have these insular kinds of experiences of coffin-like, very tailored dressy restaurants. People want to be in the flow of life.”
And a study completed in the summer of 2008 in France found that when music was played at 72 decibels, men consumed an average of 2.6 drinks at a rate of one drink per 14.51 minutes. When the sound level was cranked up to 88 decibels, the numbers spiked to an average of 3.4 drinks, with one consumed every 11.47 minutes. Reasons for this acceleration may include an increase in ambient energy, and a consequent increase of difficulty in talking, which makes it easier to just signal the bartender for a refill than to engage in conversation. It may also be explained by actual changes in brain chemistry.
As I discovered repeatedly while researching my book, In Pursuit of Silence, we must always bear in mind that noise is a real, physical stimulant. Sound waves literally energize us. Moreover, the stimulation that noise provides is one that’s particularly effective at heightening other forms of stimulation. (Hence the jacked up volumes in our sports stadiums and the tendency for soldiers on battle missions to crave heavy metal.) To begin unraveling the problem of noise in our restaurants, like the noise of our culture in general, we have to acknowledge the actual energy dynamic at work in our hunger for over-stimulation—and start thinking about what might replace it as an ideal.

That's George Prochnik. Here's how he describes places of worship in his book:
There are many complaints believers and nonbelievers might level against God in the big Western city today, but one thing you have to concede is that He is supreme at keeping the places where is He is worshiped silent. The vast majority of churches in a city like New York are usually empty. The withdrawal of faith from the urban house of faith has left some awfully dark holes filled with glorious, ecumenical silence.

... I sat in one of the pews thanking God, or God's absence, for the quality of silence that remains behind. Silence in a deserted temple is to God is as the imprint sleep left on some soft bed is to a departed dreamer.

If silence is good for us, why does it repel us? Should we be trying to make our churches noisier places, or should they be preserved as sanctuaries?

Comments (6)

Attempting to follow the latest societal trend will always leave us behind the curve.

Besides all that, it's a quixotic pursuit. What do we do when silence is in style again?

I think we're too scared of our own racing thoughts. Anxiety has penetrated so many people, and to keep from dwelling on terrifying thoughts in silence, we drown them out with music and TV and conversation. Ala "Reign Over Me." Or "The Places That Scare You."

Kate Haralson

People who need real silence will find it, and probably not inside the building. I imagine each parish develops it's own mix of sound, noise, and quiet. That seems like the way it should be.

a study completed in the summer of 2008 in France found that when music was played at 72 decibels, men consumed an average of 2.6 drinks at a rate of one drink per 14.51 minutes. When the sound level was cranked up to 88 decibels, the numbers spiked to an average of 3.4 drinks, with one consumed every 11.47 minutes

Good thing we're not running a restaurant then! [I'd say "...but turn up the music in the potluck/soup-supper/feeding program" . . . but Hello, Obesity?]

Another vote for Holy Silence, here!

JC Fisher

I'm a bit late on commenting on this thread, but I think one of our problems with "silence" is not having any specific Christian instruction on what do do with it. As Episcopalians, we are very much attached to our prayerbooks and corporate liturgy that is, of its very nature, going to have to be more non-silent than silent.
Other than just "pray in silence" we do not provide instruction to persons in "how" to do it. I think that this is one of the many reasons that persons of Christian faith have been drawn to Eastern practice. Imagine what a church school would be like if we started giving kids and teens lessons in silent spiritual practice?
As for the noise aspect, I think that the article is relatively right on. Big "mega" churches are far from "silent" places. Although I attend a Cathedral church, I have often felt that we were just a bit too timid at making big musical noise, probably because we are too uptight about "taste," I suspect. As a former church organist, I have to admit that the organ liturgically can and must at times be a big "noisemaker." So what if the noise is not going to be the next 5th Symphony? If people are inspired and uplifted (just look at the smiles on the faces when one turns on the Zimbelstern or uses a big trumpet stop on a descant or a big rumbling 32' stop to punctuate a text like the "God of glory thunders" and you'll get it.)
I think that we need both the noise and the silence, and for different reasons. We just need to cultivate our talents in dealing with and using silence more effectively. Would that we spent as much time instructing people in prayer and meditation as we did on the latest fund drive for project "x."

At one parish I attended for some time there was just enough silence left between the readings and/or before the sermon to have people take note and retune their attention. It worked well on several levels -- including teaching by doing.

But yes, turns on the too!

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space