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.

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4 thoughts on “Applause in Worship

  1. I like the Amen, Kristen. Somehow I want church to be different from all the other things I so enjoy taking part in. I have not helped my singing voice at all by all the yelling done at all our children’s sporting events, as well, as the professional sports that I love, but I don’t really like the clapping in church for most things. After you’ve played a particularly beautiful piano or organ piece, it breaks the worship moment for me to hear clapping.
    I’m understanding what you’re saying about the ARC class, tho, who really do need some form of reaction. Maybe Livingstone could say a quick and enthusiastic AMEN, followed by a request for the congregation to express their appreciation, which could be clapping..

    Thank you for addressing this.

    Liz

    • I feel your pain, I’m expecting not to do my voice any favors during the Syracuse basketball game tonight 🙂 And that’s a good point, that by not doing the same thing as a response in church as we do in secular activities, it helps differentiate the experiences.

      I have heard Livingstone, on occasion, say a soft “Amen” during those occasions, and I think it’s a good practice for us to follow– but I’m sure I’m the only one who hears him, and that’s only because I’m sitting up front too!

  2. I’m often moved to react to an especially beautiful or meaningful performance (message, hymn, anthem, dance, instrumental arrangement…). Sometimes I shed a tear or three, but I prefer to be coached into applause rather than it being expected of an audience. Livingstone’s way of saying “Amen” is very appropriate. then it is often echoed by those who agree with him. If our worship leaders initiate the clapping, I think it is appropriate that we all join in. Also, we could just stand at our seats as a sign of appreciation and reverence. Let’s see what happens on Easter Sunday! Helen

  3. Kristen, you did it with pedals and with flying hands yesterday. The prelude was BEAUTIFUL!! Thank you. So was the postlude, but the first one surely got my adrenaline ( and my tear ducts) going!!

    See you Wednesday.

    Liz

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