I am someone who abhors awkward silence.
I hate it. Hate it.
I blame this on a nightmarish experience in a graduate seminar. My class had been assigned a ridiculously dense and theoretical academic text. We’d dutifully read it but, as our hurried discussions prior to class indicated, we could barely make heads or tails of the thing.
The professor opened up class with a question that should have been simple, but wasn’t. “So why don’t we relate the theoretical framework in our text for today to some of the previous readings from last week? How does this differ from Foucault’s project, or what we see in Adorno’s Minima Moralia?”
The silence stretched. None of us were certain how this text related to anything, much less last week’s readings. We needed help. The silence kept stretching. Someone cleared their throat. I locked eyes with a friend across the table and he gave an imperceptible shrug of the shoulders. No one knew the answer. Soon, we hoped, the professor would step in.
And the professor did – but not the way we expected. Bless him, he was a recent Ph.D. grad with an experimental streak: the type of guy who wore glasses ironically and whose idea of a great time was making obscure puns over coffee in a little-known campus cafe. He leaned forward. “Guys,” he encouraged us, “I just want you to know that I hear your silence. And I know that science comes from a place of deep thought, and that I’m comfortable with that. Silence means processing. Silence means we’re all here in this space cogitating. Let’s just rest in that. Just rest in it while our thoughts blossom.”
That silence lasted for twenty minutes. I think I broke out in hives. One of my fellow students looked ready to collapse in tears. I wouldn’t have been shocked if someone ran screaming from the room. As it was, my friend across the table finally broke and spewed out a line of absolute gibberish – anything to get discussion moving again.
Now, looking back, I realized that was our professor’s way of forcing us to confront our own ignorance. To admit what we didn’t know, or didn’t understand – a near-impossibility for grad students who thrive on picking things up easily and quickly. To work through the difficulty and come up with an answer. Even then it wasn’t something we were accustomed to doing, and even if I haven’t experienced anything like it since.
I think about this often when questions, and their accompanying awkward silences, pop up during Bible studies or church events or small group sessions – as they do quite frequently. Most of the time, if I’m being honest, the questions aren’t that difficult: they’re often based on comprehension of the reading (what was the name of the giant David killed?), personal application (where in your own life do you need forgiveness?) or foundational concepts (Jesus came to do what for mankind?)
And yet: silence. Long, awkward silence.
In most cases, the awkward church silence means one of three things: 1) nobody did the reading and so they don’t know the answer, 2) everyone knows the answer but doesn’t feel comfortable saying it for some reason, or 3) some people genuinely need to work through the material and don’t fully have a grasp on the concepts/content they’re being questioned about.
It’s rare, though, that anyone (even leaders!) confronts these silences or thinks about what they might mean. Often the question-asker will simply offer the answer themselves after a few moments of non-responsiveness (sometimes after begging people to participate, which is in itself quite awkward). Other times someone in the group or crowd can be cajoled to begrudgingly spit out the correct response after a few awkward seconds tick by. And every now and again, in an effort to be participatory or simply end the misery, someone will pop up with what I call a “Sunday School response”: an answer that doesn’t really respond to the question, but that mentions God/Jesus/grace/love/redemption in a way that is satisfactory for all involved, and so permits moving on.
I’m not necessarily advocating that we should handle these silences in the way my old professor did. Frankly, the thought of just having to sit in numb quiet while I stare at other believers and we sweat and wait for someone to say something sounds like a horror story. But I do think, following that professor’s example, that it’s worth considering the silences that follow our questions in group studies or gatherings and what those silences mean.
If you suspect that the silence after a question stems not from ignorance or lack of reading but from people who are afraid to answer aloud in a group, what does that mean for your small group? Your congregation? Your Bible study? How do you create a space where these people feel able to answer or participate? How do you facilitate their involvement, rather than papering over it by providing the answer you want and then moving quickly on? Do you let them send you answers in writing beforehand? Give them the questions the week before? Call on them? It’s worth experimenting or asking. In groups like that, the people who don’t speak will never speak; they’ll continue to exist at the fringes, probably wondering what the point of a group study is at all.
If you suspect that silence stems from a lack of reading, isn’t that worth calling out or discussing in some form? I’ve been in (and led) so many studies where no one answers any questions and realized (when a few members admitted it) that no one was actually doing the legwork or even reading the minimal required Scripture for the study. And rather than bring that out into the light or address it, I and many study leaders move on because we don’t want to cause a fuss. But what’s the point of a study with no study? What’s the point of a group that purportedly wants individuals to get into the Word, but then shrugs and acts like it’s no big deal when they don’t?
And finally, if you suspect that the silence stems from ignorance – that everyone is doing the legwork, but no one has the answers – isn’t that sometimes okay or worthwhile? I sometimes have the impression that in small groups people feel like an unanswered question is a failure: that, if you haven’t grasped the entirety of a concept from your thirty-minute session, you’ve somehow failed. But people learn at different paces. Some concepts are complicated. A few people might have questions, or wonder about the intricacies of a particular issue. Maybe to them something just doesn’t plain make sense. In that case, the silence is an indicator that maybe it’s time to slow down, to explore, to grow together. Don’t change your questions. Don’t be satisfied with an answer that blurts out “Jesus!” when Jesus is really not the answer. Engage with the thorny questions. Learn from them together. Talk them through.
Awkward silences are always going to be endemic to church activities that involve question-asking. It’ll happen sooner or later. The trick, I think, is not to ignore that silence or what it might portend for your group. Spend some time deciphering what it means, and then address the need that it unveils – otherwise, your group risks the shallow satisfaction of a question-and-answer machination that produces no knowledge, no understanding, and no illumination.