There it was again. I knew it would happen, but I really couldn’t do anything about it. Besides, who was I to judge what was in someone’s heart?
They probably meant well, but more likely, they weren’t thinking about what they were doing, just functioning on automatic. I felt guilty for wondering if the ringleaders would be there today.
Then I reminded myself that worship was ultimately not about me, nor my carefully laid plans. God’s Spirit could work in people’s hearts no matter what I did or did not do. …Still, I wished our worship services could be different.
One of the delights of my job as Music/Worship Pastor is getting to plan and lead worship services, trying to “create space in which God might act.” I like creating worship segments that flow together meaningfully.
The plan that day was to lead a congregational hymn of praise followed by a Scripture litany from the Psalms, segueing into a meditative choral anthem followed by a pastoral prayer.
The worship segment was flowing smoothly, and the anthem ended on a beautiful pianissimo. The mood was set for the upcoming pastoral prayer.
But—as anticipated--as soon as the last note of the anthem ended, two or three pockets of “church clappers” in the congregation started up, effectively disrupting the flow. Aargh!
Clapping during worship is an issue for many churches. Clapping takes one of two forms: 1. rhythmic clapping, incorporated into music and dance, or 2. random clapping (applause), a universal response to or in anticipation of a pleasant experience.
Applause is found everywhere in secular society: sports events, musical/dramatic arts performances, political/patriotic gatherings, school/civic club meetings, graduations.
Most often, applause conveys one of the following meanings:
• “That makes me happy!”
• “I’m excited!”
• "I enjoyed that!" or
• ”I want to encourage you!”
Sometimes, applause is enthusiastic, perhaps accompanied by standing and cheering. Or it can be merely “polite”--something the hands do while the rest of the body does something else, like chatting with someone nearby.
Nowadays, applause is heard more frequently in American churches. Whether or not applause is welcome depends on where a congregation’s style of worship falls on a spectrum between informal and formal.
Congregations that prefer formal or contemplative worship experiences—liturgical or Taize--will not appreciate applause during worship services.
Congregations that prefer informal, boisterous, “noisy” worship experiences--contemporary or Pentecostal or African-American—expect to participate with verbal and bodily responses (rhythmic clapping, applause, shouting, swaying, dancing) throughout their worship services.
“Traditional” churches (broadly defined, with worship styles somewhere between formal and informal) are more likely to have issues with applause during worship.
The problem with applause is mostly rooted in a lack of understanding about what constitutes a worship service vs. a secular gathering.
Well-planned worship services are designed to help participants encounter God. They are not civic club or PTA meetings where people gather to be with their friends and enjoy nice, entertaining programs. Just mentioning God’s name a few times does not constitute a worship service.
Congregations are not the same as audiences. Audiences mostly observe (and critique) the “performers” on the platform. Congregations—authentic congregations--actually worship; they are participants in praising God and seeking God’s will for their lives.
Author Terry York says in Rehearsing the Soul: “The words congregation and audience are not interchangeable in a worship setting. We have learned that God is the audience, those in the congregation are the players, and the worship leaders are the prompters. …We play, then, to an audience of one. To perform for one another in the worship setting is to ignore God or reduce God’s place of prominence. …It’s a matter of the heart.”
God is not only the audience; God is also the “star” of the worship service, the reason we’re all gathered in the first place. Any applause should be directed toward God, not talented worship leaders. We are to celebrate the Giver, not the gift.
It’s often easy to tell if a congregation thinks of themselves more as an audience than a gathering of worshipers. From my observation, “church clappers” usually applaud after loud, rousing selections by a musical soloist or group (though some will applaud after all “special” musical selections, loud or soft, as if attending a concert).
“Church clappers” also applaud anytime children or youth do anything “unique” during the service—singing, playing instruments, presenting dramatic readings—mostly to encourage them. But worship services are not school programs, and constant applause for children’s presentations teaches them that they are primarily there to please adults, rather than to offer their creative gifts to God in worship.
The dead give-away in identifying an audience-minded congregation is that, except for the two examples above, “church clappers” don’t usually applaud for anything else.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard applause after a meaningful litany, a scripture reading, a beautifully-worded prayer, a congregational hymn or a well-crafted sermon—except for a few “stem-winder” sermons at denominational rallies.
Lest I be misunderstood, there is nothing inherently wrong with applause during worship services—there are a few biblical references to people “clapping their hands” as they praised God.
But that’s just the point: they were worshiping God, not applauding each other!
I suspect that God is not delighted with polite applause (where one person starts applauding, then others nearby join in half-heartedly). More likely, God is disappointed at being taken so casually, at having people just go-through-the-motions of so-called “worship” while their thoughts and intentions are focused elsewhere.
Authentic worship puts the spotlight on God, not the worship leaders or congregation.
I am still affected emotionally when I recall two worship experiences where I was pretty certain that applause was for God alone:
One occurred in Georgia years ago during a preschool choir session at church. To introduce a new song to twenty kindergarten children, I asked them--at their level of understanding--to think of some attributes of God.
Soon they were on-a-roll. Momentum built as they eagerly raised their hands, quickly naming good things about God.
Suddenly, the whole group burst into applause. They were cheering God!
Another happened in Kentucky. The Southeast was experiencing a severe drought, and it seemed that the little bit of rain that fell in the area somehow kept skipping over our small town.
For several months, we prayed in desperation as rain clouds passed us by.
Then, during worship one Sunday, just as our pastor was stepping into the pulpit, a huge cloudburst suddenly began pounding on the sanctuary roof. There was an audible gasp from our grateful congregation, followed by spontaneous, heartfelt applause. We were truly praising God!
That’s the kind of worship God wants from us—focused, enthusiastic, grateful and sincere, with or without applause.
Personally, I think a robust “Amen!” is preferable to applause during worship, anyway. The word “amen” is used around fifty times in Scripture, and means “So be it!” or “I agree.” It does not mean “I enjoyed that.”
“Amen!” also is uniquely suited for use in worship services rather than in secular gatherings where an audience applauds performers. Using “Amen!” instead of applause leaves no doubt that the person knows, “I’m in church, where I worship God!”
Whether we applaud, say “Amen!” or just quietly think about God during worship services, only God knows the intentions of our hearts. Our worship will be authentic only to the extent that we focus on God rather than on each other.
See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi