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To Applaud or Not to Applaud

By Carey Cannon, Minister of Music

There have been instances in worship at South Main when our congregation has offered up applause. Moments such asthe announcement of a newly married couple, the end of a moving testimony, or a musical offering by choir and orchestra have lent themselves to a just and worshipful response of applause. But is it right for us to do so? 

My answer is – it depends. 

I know. You wanted a more black and white answer, but the truth is…it does depend.

Attending an African American worship service you will find applause to be quite common throughout the service and offered in such a way that is worship-filled and not as a response to entertainment. There are those moments in worship where the only expression of gratitude to God is through applause. Psalm 47:1 states, “clap your hands, all you peoples.” Clearly this command by the psalmist gives support to the argument that applause is not just welcome,but expected, in worship. Note that clapping rhythmically as a musical expression is not what I am speaking of here. 

This said, there have been worship services through the years where I have felt awkward, uncomfortable, and quite honestly frustrated by the use of applause. Usually these feelings center on the question, “to whom are they directing their applause?” Sometimes congregants may applaud because we have been taught to do so for any performance. A great play on the field or a successful speech or presentation merits applause. While acknowledging a performance with applause is encouraged in a secular experience, expressing gratitude in a service requires a bit more consideration. An article by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America addresses the fact that these concerns are not just for the musicians and pastors but the worshipers as well. They state that presiders in worship must remember, “Their role is to proclaim and praise God, not to entertain God’s people in worship. Those who preach are proclaiming the Gospel, not entertaining. Worshipers, too, are to be reminded that they gather to worship, not to be entertained.” Our participation in worship through prayers, singing, or grateful applause should come from a place of sincerity and reverence with a purpose of giving God praise.

In worship, we model for our children the difference between applauding a school musical verses singing in choir at church. Our children must learn that sometimes the voices they offer in song are for a greater purpose. Consistency is the concern here. Sometimes applause is a worshipful response yet it should not be given every time. Otherwise how will they learn God is the recipient of thanks and not themselves?

During this past Advent season, our Sanctuary Choir sang one of the most beautiful musical offerings I’ve heard them sing – John Rutter’s Magnificat.  The ministerial team worked hard to create a worship service that was seamless from Prelude to Benediction. So much so, there really wasn’t a moment for the congregation to offer applause that expressed thanks to God for the gifts of time in preparation and musical talent they offered. I received quite a few emails from congregants who were sincerely worried the choir didn’t know how the congregation felt about the gift of their music, when in fact they were modeling quite well one of the many ways we can express thanks to God in addition to applause. We can write a note of thanks. We can offer up silent prayers. South Main is fortunate to have fellowship lunch after each Sunday service, which is a great venue to express gratitude to God for the gifts being offered in worship.

If a moment in worship moves you in such a way that you can do nothing else but applaud and give thanks, then by all means do so. Chances are good that other worshipers are sharing what you are experiencing. There may be others that may not have been moved to applaud. But isn’t that what we expect in corporate worship? We find that we are not alone in what we experience and not all of us agree.Yet, we lay each of our offerings, applauded or not, in worship at the altar.


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