Peaceful. Still. Reflective. These are not words that are typically used to describe urban life in the modern world. If you live in a city, “anxious,” “fast-moving” and “noisy” are better descriptors. While I, for one, love the busyness of living in the city — the people, the buzz, the noises, the creativity — I am also aware that this busyness and noise wears me down.
That feeling of watching too much television. The feeling of consuming too much information, music, clothing, or food. At some point, the life of a consumer makes us feel hollow inside. Yet churches, sometimes unwittingly, are capitulating to the rules of the market.
When was the last time you sat in silence?
I recently had a pastoral chat with a student who was feeling restless. He had many things clamouring for his attention: busy schedule, demanding relationship, academic pressures. St. Augustine’s words, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you” echoed in my ears as I chatted with him. The medicine I prescribed was to create some space for prayer. He accepted this proposal and joined me a couple days later. It was a regular mid-day prayer session in liturgical fashion. Nothing fancy about it.
The prayers included a time of silence. When new people attend prayer, especially prayers that include silence, I always wonder if it will be awkward for them. You know, like the feeling of a dinner conversation with a new friend that degrades into silence, providing you with the opportunity to listen to him or her chew. But to my amazement the silence was his favourite part. He said it had been ages since he sat in silence — no smart phone, no television, no Facebook. It was only five minutes of prayerful silence, but he suggested that there was something “healing” about it. This got me pondering the noise experienced in many evangelical churches, including my own.
There is genuine pressure on ministers to compete with a society that has mastered the art of distraction. The thinking goes, that to grow the church we must make services more compelling, more palatable, more action-packed, more attention-grabbing.
Some churches are able to pull this off: lights, smoke, music, coffee bars, and all the trimmings. These things in themselves are not bad — far from it! They can be used in the service of the church, and for the worship of God. After all, the Catholics were using smoke machines — incense — long before evangelicals!
But does being heard over all the noise mean becoming louder, more flashy? In the church, is more noise, more action, and more busyness helpful for a society that is panting for air and can’t remember the last time it stopped to catch its breath?
I happily acknowledge that for many evangelicals (myself included) the atmosphere that is created by lively church services does create positive life changing experiences. But maybe the way to evoke a deeper, more disturbing, more provocative experience — maybe the way to be heard over all the noise — is to subvert the noise, with less of it. This is not a call for dull, boring church services — far from it. It is a suggestion that less might be more. One thing we desperately need as city dwellers, and what my friend needed, is space to hear the still small voice of the One who provides rest for our restless hearts. A rest that cannot be attained in the hyper, over-stimulated experience of urban life.
Photo by (Flickr, CC) susieq3c.