Silence in Public Prayer

What can happen in the silence?

Photo © Francesco Speranza/iStockPhoto

by David Sparks

When we came to the pastoral prayer slot in church the other Sunday I was surprised (and not at all unhappy) when I realized that the person offering the prayer was using one of the prayers from my Pastoral Prayers to Share Year B book.

The pray-er offered the first, “Prayers for the world,”  section of the prayer and then, without a pause, was on to the “Compassion” section. I wanted to say out loud, “Slow down, I haven’t been able to make some of the phrases mine yet. Please give me some silent time to think about them.”

The experience got me thinking about the silence we don’t usually have in public prayers, or in the worship service as a whole. There are exceptions — the gathering and centering silence before the service and the silence before the prayer of confession or affirmation or challenge. I wonder, is there enough?

But before we allow more space in our worship experience it is probably good to ask the questions, “What happens in the silence?” and, “What can happen in the silence?”

For some, the silence is difficult and embarrassing. This is generally because worship leaders do not educate their congregations about how time without words might be used.

When we taste a good wine, we carefully consider its colour, swirl it round in the glass, smell the aroma, slowly taste it, rolling the wine around on the tongue to excite the taste buds before swallowing. To make the most of our tasting experience we take our time. And there is a consequent reward.

So it is with tasting a prayer in silence. Let’s take a pastoral prayer phrase:

“Children are a blessing to our world.
Hungry children call us to speak out and act so that hunger is banished
from our planet.”

As the phrase is spoken by the worship leader, children we know come to mind — our own, or maybe grandchildren that are special to us. We wonder how any child could be left without enough food, but we realize that this happens among refugees and where there is famine. We see in our mind’s eye a starving child.

And then we leave a space and try to keep our own thoughts out of it. We pause to allow God’s word to come to us. Is there a word?

Finally we consider the practical action we can take so that we can be a part of the answer to our prayer. We are present in the silence with Spirit.

Can we find out what “Save the Children” or a similar fund does to eliminate hunger? Can we give money? Are we able to support a children’s project sponsored by our church mission fund?  Can we write a letter of friendship to a worker in the field of child poverty?

How many seconds does this thinking time take? How much silence should be given in the prayer? Certainly there is a significant space to be left if we are to do justice to each prayer phrase. In most pastoral prayers, including the ones I write, the time isn’t there.

Thomas Merton wrote “We must slow down to a human tempo and we’ll begin to have time to listen.”

Maybe we could reduce our praying tempo. Who knows what we might hear?

David Sparks was educated theologically in England and Canada and has served for 30 years with The United Church of Canada. David’s three-book, lectionary-based series, Prayers to Share, has been welcomed and widely used in North America and Europe and further afield in India and Australia. He is also the author of the more recent three-book series Pastoral Prayers to Share (Year C is available Fall 2012). David has led many workshops on public prayer.

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Categories: David Sparks, Meditation, Prayer

Author:Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at


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