We United Methodists are a friendly, chatty family. Even in worship. When we pastors invite people to greet the people around them, the members of our congregation jump up and its like a family reunion (without the watermelon seed spitting contest). The room just roars with conversation and laughter!
Even during the sermon there is a low-level "buzz" or hum in the congregation. Not that people are jawing away at one another, outloud. (Well, okay, there are some people who turn to their neighbors and just talk and talk and talk while the preaching is going on. But those verbal non-conformists are few.) But there is a hum in the room.
Every now and then, though, the rooms gets absolutely still. It's like people have stopped breathing.
Now, as a preacher you know people can get quiet because they have fallen into a deep sleep. The way the young man, Eutychus, falls asleep when Paul is preaching in Acts 20:9.
There are other times, though, when the people are absolutely still because the preacher has stepped into a place...a subject...that is so real to them they almost can't bear it. Sometimes people stop whispering to their neighbor, they stop scribbling out their shopping list, and sit absolutely still because they didn't think anyone else in the whole world knew how they were hurting...and apparently the preacher knows. Because she is talking about it as if she is very familiar with the territory of the parishioner's silent, desperate pain. "I didn't think anyone else knew about that," people think to themselves. "In fact...I have been trying to pretend my life, in that particular area, isn't torn wide open."
So you have to interpret the silence.
It is almost always surprising to me, as a preacher. We are working along, the room is humming, and then I make a statement and suddenly everyone is still. When that happens I -deep inside- lean back, and tell myself, "Okay...we have arrived. We're someplace important for these people I love." It's must be the way a deer feels when he walks out of the dense, shaded, undercover and finds himself unexpectedly standing in a open space in the woods. The air is still...the sunlight is bright...and nothing seems to be moving.
"The Lord is in his holy temple," Habakkuk 2:20 says. "Let all the earth be silent before him."
The silent spaces in worship, during the sermon, when the hum stops and people almost stop breathing? They are usually a surprise...unexpected. And they are almost always holy ground.