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Tapping the Power of Visual Silence in Worship

“Be still, and know that I am God…” — Psalm 46:10

In the world we live in, it’s difficult to be still. The very idea of being still is often overlooked, not only in our everyday lives but also in our worship services.

Some fellow visual worship leaders and I have struggled with the topic of visual silence—environments and programming elements devoid of color or visual flair—within our church communities. The idea of being intentional about our use of media is nothing new, but what about being intentional about not using media?

On the topic of visual silence, I challenge churches and leaders to look at their usage of lighting and visual media to see if there is a moment within their worship service in which the tools can be turned off. Of course, this can be a scary thought. For some leaders in churches, going dark can seem to go against everything we believe in as Christians. Light, hope, salvation, redemption, and celebration are all bright words that describe our life in Christ. But what about the first part of the story? Though some people choose not to talk about darkness, hopelessness, sin, and death, those themes have a place in the story. Including the first part of the gospel story in our worship reminds us why we have life, joy, and hope in Christ. I believe we can communicate that through our use of visual elements.

Visual Silence in Practice
There has to be some heart-logic to your use of visual silence—a natural, unnoticed feeling of purpose and flow. Switching back and forth from full-on lighting and motion graphics to nothing and back again can be jarring and unnatural. I’ve seen a lot of churches start off their service with louder, faster songs of celebration and then transition to quieter, slower songs right before the message, typically followed by even deeper worship songs after the message. I see a lot of churches do visual media well in this example—the motion backgrounds stop, the colors get subtler, and the lights get turned down.

But maybe there could be one more step.

Slowly fade the background to black on your screens during a song that your congregation knows well. Take the lyrics away for an entire song as a means of saying, “Stop reading; just sing and listen.” Gradually dim the lights during the worship as a way for people to encounter God for themselves. Imagine yourself in a totally black room with no light. All around you are fellow Christ-followers singing praises to Him. God meets with us in the quiet places, and I think it’s important for us to remember that.

There are also ways to create extended seasons of visual silence as a way to transition a church body into this mindset. When I was the visual worship leader at a local church, we stopped using environmental projection for the entire season of Lent as a way to prepare our hearts for Easter. Over those 40 days, I slowly stopped using amber colors in lighting, and instead dwelled on darker colors. (This echoed the old practice of not singing “Hallelujah” during Lent.) It was somber but refreshing. Imagine how it felt on Easter to bring back the sunshine and the joy!

Last year, I spent a week in Nashville with my good friend Stephen Proctor (@worshipVJ), and it was dreary and cloudy the entire time I was there. We were driving around the last day when the sun finally broke through the clouds. It sometimes takes a season of gray clouds to remind us of the joys of bright sunshine.

Resistance and Balance
Several months ago, I had the privilege of serving at a conference that I hadn’t worked for previously. While planning for the event over the phone and e-mail, I was told that the leadership had invested a lot in the screens and lighting, and therefore, wanted to make sure I would use them all the time. I gently mentioned that there probably would be times during worship where I would take everything to black—no imagery and no lighting. Let’s just say that the idea of visual silence didn’t make much sense to the conference organizers until they saw it for themselves.

As the band ended “How He Loves Us” with the whole crowd singing a capella, I took every light and projector to dark, including my computer screen. There is something extremely humbling, powerful, and majestic about hearing 1,000 believers worshiping at the top of their lungs. It was an unplanned moment, and I’m grateful for it. When you take away all the visual noise in a room, the focus of the audience can become something internal rather than external.

The bottom line is that there is a need for balance in how we use visual media. I find myself looking more and more to visual silence as a means of retuning myself to what God wants me to see. After all, for a lot of us, the only time our eyes are closed for an extended period of time is when we are sleeping! In this visually noisy society, periods of visual silence are both refreshing and necessary. Sometimes, we forget that we don’t need any of this “stuff” anyway.