I grew up in a church where no one would ever think of clapping. Applause was fine for a concert or a sporting event, but certainly not forworship. Clappingin church, whether keeping time to the music or responding to a sermon, was just simply not the done thing. I remember being shocked the first time I attended worship with a friend and discovered there was a whole lot of clapping going on in her church. When I commented on that, she reminded me that the Bible itself encourages applause. Psalm 47:1 says, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.”
Applause has become a common practice in many churches and is not unheard of in our own congregation. And from time to time the subject has come up in our Worship Committee meetings, with choir members, and in other arenas of discussion. Is applause appropriate or not? Does it enrich our worship or does it distract from it?
Some folks have commented to me that we should always clap for the choir to show our appreciation for their performance. I believe the first thing to consider in this regard is this: who is the “audience” in worship? The audience is always God. Whatever we do in worship is meant to be an offering to honor God. While we certainly want to offer God our very best, nothing we do in worship is meant to be a performance to entertain the congregation. In the one place where scripture mentions clapping our hands, it is clear that the applause is meant as an act of worship and praise to the Lord, not as an expression of approval for what the choir has sung or what the pastor has said.
There are times when clapping along with a piece of music is an expression of joy and enables us to enter into a richer worship experience. There are occasions when the congregation spontaneously breaks into applause because an answer to prayer has been announced or new members have been welcomed into the church or a newly married couple has been introduced to the congregation—and what a wonderful way that is to express our gratitudetoGod! There well may be times when the music is so uplifting and so encourages our souls to praise the Lord that the only fitting response is to raise our hands in applause and thanks to God.
But applause can become an awkward thing in worship. Do we applaud only for the children’s choir? Or only for a particularly “good” anthem? And if we applaud the music of the choir or the soloist, why not the pastor’s sermon? And if we applaud only the music, what about those pieces of music that are reverential in tone and prayerful in nature? Applause can be distracting and seem out of place when the music itself calls for a reflective, silent response.
I encourage us all to think about clapping in church as carefully as we consider any other act of worship. Trying to develop some hard-and-fast rule will only lead to legalism, and that is never good for God’s people. But it is always good for us to think about how we can best honor the Lord with our worship. When we are overwhelmed by the goodness and greatness of our God, we might respond with either joyous applause or reverential silence. Either can be an appropriate expression of our gratitude. Thanks be to God!
Blessings, Mary Saylor