Applause in Worship

Have you ever felt so moved in church after a performance that you wanted to applaud, but you stopped yourself, looking around to see if anyone else wanted to, and then just felt awkward about it?

It’s a subject that every congregation handles differently, and each congregation tends to firmly believe in their reasons. And that’s tricky- if you were a visitor and accidentally clapped at a church that doesn’t condone applause, you may very well get a stink-eye for it. But if you don’t clap when a congregation does, it looks like you’re not supporting or approving. So what do you do?

Well, the main reason for congregations not approving of applause—and this seems to be the basis for our congregation’s tendency not to applaud—is that the performers, whether they’re singers, dancers, or ringers, are not seeking earthly approval, and applause can seem like people are saying “Wow, you’re so talented! Hooray, good for you!” But to the musician, the thanks and praise for the gift of the performance should be directed at God, who gave them the blessing of their gifts. He should receive all praise and thanks for it. The musician or performer is there to enhance the service, and to bring our minds and spirits closer to God, which gives us an opportunity to see Christ more clearly. Applause for them can seem awkward when that’s the intent of the performance.

However, in this increasingly secular society, we are taught that applause is an appropriate way to express a variety of feelings: joy, excitement, pleasure, appreciation. And if you’ve ever been to a concert or performance outside of church and felt that same spiritual closeness to God through the music you were hearing, applause was the appropriate response at that time. People can feel restrained, or awkward, when they’re not permitted to express these feelings in church through the outlet in which they’ve become accustomed. Plus, since we’ve been trained in the secular world that applause follows a performance, it seems awkward to have silence when a piece ends.

So how do we acknowledge the reasoning behind these two viewpoints, and if both of these are indeed reasonable, what then should we do about applause in church? It truly depends on what works best for the congregation. The dangers of applause come when it isn’t done in the correct spirit. That’s when it can become all about the individual and not about the gift of their blessings shared with the congregation. And yet, having no applause tends not to work well for groups like children’s choirs, or our own ARC chime group, when it’s more difficult to convey the spiritual aspect of the performance.

My rule of thumb is, if you feel led by the spirit to do something after something particularly moving and spiritual in the service, you shouldn’t hold back. As long as your reaction is coming in the right spirit, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, if you visit other churches, keep in mind that to some congregations, applause can be misinterpreted to have a different meaning than you intended, simply because of the nature of it and how it overlaps with our secular world. If you’re not comfortable with applause, an alternate appropriate response is simply saying “Amen!” This might be awkward at first for our congregation, since we don’t usually “Amen” during service, but it’s the clearest way to share in the moment how the music or performance affected you, and cannot be misinterpreted.

What A Mighty Fortress

Today we’re looking at the well-known hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, which is #110 in the UMH. Martin Luther wrote this chorale tune and text in 1529. It is one of the best-loved hymns of the Lutheran tradition, and became popular throughout many of the Protestant denominations, including our own.

The text is a paraphrase of Psalm 49:

Mighty Fortress

The text of this hymn tells a story over the stanzas. We sing of God’s strength, our own weakness and saving by Jesus, the devil’s attempts to conquer us, and praise for the Spirit and the temporary nature of this world compared to the eternal life with Him. It’s a remarkable and complete exclamation of our Christian faith.

Stanza one above is a declaration of the Lord’s strength against our “ancient foe”, the devil. It doesn’t matter if we have a “flood” of concerns, problems, worries; without question, God can take care of it.

In stanza two, we sing of our own human weaknesses. If we relied on our own strength, we would be doomed. There is no way we can make it through the trials and concerns of life without Jesus, and we are so blessed that He has taken on the battle for us, so we don’t have to fight it ourselves.

“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.” Stanza three is about perseverance, steadfastness, and trust in God. The devil will try what he will, but “his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure…” and all we have to do is trust that God will take him down for us.

We end with a stanza about the blessings of the Spirit, and we sing of God’s eternal kingdom. “Let goods and kindred go,” and our temporary mortal lives; our bodies may die, but God’s truth and eternal kingdom cannot be killed.

I hope that when we next sing this hymn in church, you will read the familiar text anew, and use the stanzas as your personal declaration of faith and renewing of your covenant to serve and worship the Lord throughout your life.

 

Musician’s postscript: This recognizable tune has been used by many other musicians throughout the years as well. Among the instances of its use, Bach set the tune twice in his Choralgesänge (Choral Hymns), BWV 302 and BWV 303 (for four voices). Bach also wrote a version for organ, Chorale Prelude BWV 720. Dieterich Buxtehude wrote an organ chorale setting (BuxWV 184), as did Johann Pachelbel. Felix Mendelssohn used it as the theme for the fourth and final movement of his Symphony No. 5, Op. 107 (1830), which he named Reformation in honor of the Protestant Reformation started by Luther.