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Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord! Come into His Presence with...Applause???

Musings on Applause as Part of the Worship Experience

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article will be longer than most of the Pinnacle blog posts, because it is important for readers to consider different sides of the question. After speaking first about why most Protestants have shied away from applause in worship, the article will then address why some churches are accepting it. A number of resources have been consulted, and will be mentioned both in the blog and in the footnotes at the end of the article. A continuation of this important discussion will be offered by Dr. Wes Avram in next week’s blog.

“From time to time in Massanutten [Presbyterian] Church, those attending worship applaud during the worship service. Some members of our congregation have expressed concern and the opinion that applause is not appropriate during worship. It is not customary; it seems “worldly”; it makes it seem that those being applauded have “performed” to please the congregation rather than offered their praise to God; it raises the possibility that those who lead in worship may come to expect the applause and be hurt if others were applauded and they are not...What guidance do we have beyond our varying opinions?

We have guidance from the Bible and our Book of Order. Since applause almost always occurs in connection with music, instrumental or vocal, we should note that the Book of Order says, “In worship, music is not to be for entertainment or artistic display.” (W-2.1004) This observation is made in the context of music being described as a form of prayer by the congregation...” 1

In my long career as a professional conductor, I am accustomed to applause. The house lights darken as the concert performance is set to begin. My ensemble awaits me on stage as I walk out to an audience’s enthusiastic greeting – its applause. At the end of the concert, I turn around and warmly acknowledge the audience’s applause as they show their appreciation for a performance well done.2

Conversely, many music worship leaders, including professional conductors, organists, and soloists, sincerely believe that any music offered within the context of worship is not a “performance” as described above. Rather, music in the church is an act of “ministry,” and as such, it is a prayer to God.3 Along with worship leaders, many congregants also sincerely believe that the music of the church is an offering to the glory of God and not for personal applause.4 Entering the worship space prayerfully, all gifts (musical or otherwise) are offered to God prayerfully. Within worship, a special music solo is offered as prayerful commentary on an Old or New Testament reading, or as a meditation on the topic of the sermon. A choral anthem is sung to bring heightened attention to an important theme for the day, or to raise or soothe one’s spirit. An organ Prelude or Communion meditation is offered to move individuals to adoration, love, penitence, thanksgiving, or any one of a number of varied emotions.5 Any music offered is to God, the subject and object of worship, rather than to each other: it is for God’s glory, not for our own. In this context, then, taking the definition at its most strict interpretation, applause for musicians in worship is both unnecessary and unbiblical.6

Dr. Ronald Preston Byars, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, Lexington, Kentucky, answered the question of applause from someone in his congregation in the following words: 

“Applause, by itself, certainly doesn’t offend the ears of the Almighty. It may be quite appropriate to applaud in church when an announcement of some particularly good news is made: a miraculous recovery from illness, an impending wedding, making the budget! But the public assembly of the church for worship is significantly different from any other public assembly, and different rules apply. In worship, when a choir stands to sing, or a person stands to pray, they stand as representatives of the congregation before Almighty God. The 'audience' to whom they address their songs and prayers is God. If applause is appropriate, it is God who will applaud. This relationship between choir and congregation is entirely different from the relationship between performers and audience in a concert of theatrical production. To applaud a choir . . . is to distort that relationship and confuse everyone. 

There is a second objection to that kind of applause in church. And that is that once you begin, where do you stop? If you applaud once, do you applaud every time? If not, do you run the risk of offending those who expect it? If you applaud for a children's choir, how about for the chancel choir? The preacher? Pretty soon, the whole business becomes so perfunctory that it's as routine as the standing ovation Lexington concertgoers seem to feel obligated to offer anyone who does us the kindness of including us in their tour. 

The anthem sung by the...choir is their offering to God on behalf of the assembled. (We) don't(want to) spoil it by presuming that our approval or disapproval is of any importance here.”7

That said, the following is also true:

“Now, it is also appropriate for us to encourage those who give leadership. If a particular song or dance or reading or sermon has been used by God to touch or inspire one of us, and the exercise of another's gift has brought joy and encouragement to us, we rightly -- outside of the worship of God - - need to express our thanks and encouragement to the one whose gift has blessed us. We are commanded in Scripture not only to worship God, but also to "Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." (1 Thessalonians 5: 11) We have a responsibility to express thanks to others for their gifts and contributions in song and dance, and in word and deed. Such expressions of encouragement for others, however, appropriately find expression outside of worship so as not to detract from worship, which is rightly directed to God alone.”8

Personally thanking a musician(s) or the choir after worship is a heartfelt way to show appreciation for the gifts of Spirit-led musical leadership they provided. In addition, congregational leaders can plan congregational events or place special notices in newsletters, bulletins and other informational materials that allow for such public thanks to be given.

It is without controversy to state that the arts in a worship context are meant to glorify God. That said, congregants are also human beings with deeply-felt responses. Have you not found yourself overcome with emotion at a song, a poem, the ballet, an opera, the symphony, a theatrical performance, or a fine work of art? Weren’t you moved to show your appreciation to those artists, dancers, theatrical interpreters, or musicians in some real and tangible way?  In the “arts” world, applause is our culture’s very real and acceptable vehicle for showing appreciation. But in the context of a worship service, what are we to do if we are moved by a sermon, song, or anthem in such a way that we simply must express thanks for the Spirit that has moved us?9 What, then, is the appropriate, twenty-first century cultural response in a worship setting?   

Doug Brouwer, pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich, Switzerland, has this to say:

"Culturally, we have few choices. Applause is one of the few ways we have to express ourselves in a group context. Frankly, I don’t think we’re going to get rid of it in church, and I’m not about to scold people who do it. I would be happy, though, if we became more mindful of what we’re doing. Applause after a particularly rousing choir anthem? Okay. But what about some silence following a more meditative or contemplative piece of music? Not every element of worship calls for us to make noise. Sometimes our quiet reverence is more fitting and – can this be? – more pleasing to God."10

In answering the question, “Is Applause Appropriate in Worship?” the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America takes a more disciplined stance:

"In American culture, applause is most often understood as acknowledgment or acclamation of a performance. Therefore, it is very closely linked to entertainment. Americans tend to applaud after all performances, regardless of quality...At best, such applause may simply be a courtesy. In a secular setting, applause may not be a weakness. When transferred to worship, however, it may not function in the same positive way."11

Jerry Rubino, Minister of Music at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Professor of Music at Carleton College, offers this view: 

“Applause is a normal affirmative response in this country. What's wrong with affirming the offerings of people in our congregations (musical or otherwise)? We might applaud for someone's 50th anniversary. We might applaud for an inspiring and challenging sermon. We might applaud because we raised enough money to pay off the mortgage. We could also remain silent but that hardly seems like an overt response...and who is to say that silent reverence is the best response...Who is to say what action is "spiritual"? Any action can become spiritually affirming as well as humanly affirming if the intent of the spirit is towards the Spirit...I am happy with what we practice at our church....and that is to encourage people to respond to God in the way in which they are most comfortable.”12

Some thirty years ago, an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times. In it, John Dart, the Times’ Religion Reporter, described the scene at Billy Graham’s Southern California crusade, in which the crowd periodically would burst into applause as people came forward for altar calls. Graham was initially “taken aback,” but later said “it bothered me a great deal until I began to think about it. If the angels can rejoice in heaven (over religious conversions), then maybe people have a right to also."13 In response, The Rev. John A. Huffman Jr., senior pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, said “Applause at worship services may be a new way of saying 'Hallelujah' and 'amen' for some people.”14

Most modern churches have learned over the past many decades that attempting to enforce a clap/no-clap policy does not work. Rather, a more inclusive tone is set when congregations encourage each other to practice empathy and a mindful “tuning in” to the flow of energy in worship.15 Part of “mindfully tuning in” to the musical aspects of worship might include, among others:

1.Listening to Pastoral opening words of guidance as you are informed about the appropriateness (or not) of applause in the ensuing worship service.

2.Reading the text and information about the selection provided in the Bulletin’s “Singing the Story,” and taking a moment to meditate on both mood and meaning of those words.

3.Tuning in to the mood of the music by active listening.

4.Taking into account the collaborative nature of soloist and accompanist. For example, the end of a soloist’s sung text does not necessarily indicate the end of a piece. Often, there is instrumental music before or after (or both!) a singer’s words. Allow the Spirit to speak through the entire piece, and make sure all musicians have fully completed their offering to God’s glory.

5.Being mindfully aware of how the musical worship leaders have completed a musical selection. To participate in this sort of mindfulness means the listener first visually engages with the musicians, observing their demeanor as they conclude their offering (are they enthusiastically Spirit-filled — or are they prayerful, for example), then considers an appropriate response based on that.

Once those parameters mindfully have been met, then:

  • If a spirited anthem, inspirational sermon, or rousing solo moves you to express gratitude, you might: 
    • Say “Amen”;
    • Say “Thanks be to God!”;
    • Rub hands together in “warm applause”;
    • Applaud; or
    • Shake uplifted fingers in American Sign Language applause. 
    • If a solo or anthem is quiet, peaceful, soothing, meditative, or has a particularly penitential or inward-looking text, you might:
      • Breathe in and out, in a state of quiet reverence;
      • Give thanks to God in silent prayer; or
      • Simply emit a peaceful sigh, allowing the Spirit to wash over you.16

The musicians will not be offended by this silence in the least: most often, they will be praying adeeply-felt “amen” along with you.  The appropriately mindful response in this case might be, as artist Paul Gauguin described, “Let everything about you breathe the calm and peace of the soul...”17

  • If a solo is offered between two Scripture readings, silent reverence or a quiet “amen” might be more appropriate here than applause, given the location of this special music in the overallworship flow. [Note: Of course, any appropriate response here would greatly depend on being especially mindful of number five above: how the musical leaders have completed their offering, e.g., joyfully Spirit-filled or prayerfully. Given the location of such special music between two Scriptures, however, quiet reverence might be the more fitting response, to use Doug Brouwer’s words above.] 

The following passage from Colossians springs to mind as I prayerfully conclude this article:

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father." (Colossians 3:16,17) 

Indeed, there is much to consider in this discussion of applause in the context of worship — there appears to be no “one size fits all” response. Susan Peck, President-Elect of the Unitarian Universalists’ Musicians Network, encourages all of us with her words: “May we continue learning from one another and creating vibrant worship in community.”18

And may we all endeavor to be mindful as we learn.

1 From a report submitted by the Worship Committee and adopted by the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Roanoke, VA a number of years ago when the issue of applause was under discussion there. An excellent summary of their recommendations is found in this document. 
http://www.massanuttenchurch.org/ApplauseInChurch.pdf
2 “Applause: For Whom are you Clapping?” by Paul S. Jones. In Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today. P&R Publishing Company, New Jersey. 2006.
3Ibid.
4 Statement on the Music Program by Peter Pursino, Director of Music, Faith Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee FL.http://www.faithpcusa.org/ministries/music/
5 The Theology and Place of Music in Worship.”https://www.rca.org/resources/theology-and-place-music-worship
6 “Philosophy-Theology of Music.” Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia PA. Approved by Session March 22, 2005.http://www.tenth.org/resource-library/articles/philosophy-theology-of-music
7Dr. Ronald Preston Byars, pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Lexington, Kentucky.http://www.rivermont.org/frequently-asked-questions
8 Pastor James T. Hurd, “Soli Deo gloria: On the difference between praise and encouragement.” Parkwood Presbyterian Church, Ottawa, Ontario.http://parkwoodchurch.ca/jth1502.html
9 PCUSA Order of Worship Brochure, Page 4, December 2008. https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/order_of_worship_brochure_dec_2008.pdf
10 “Applause in Church,” by Doug Brouwer. Posted December 10, 2012. 
http://www.dougsblog.org/2012/12/10/applause-in-church/
11“Is Applause Appropriate in Worship?” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Worship Formation and Liturgical Resources: Frequently Asked Questions. http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Is_applause_appropriate_in_worship.pdf
12 “Applause in Church.” Response by Jerry Rubino in discussion thread located on ChoralNet. http://archive.choralnet.org/view/221465
13 “Applause, Once Rare, Seen as Expression of Exuberance: Congregations Taking a Hand in Services.”
John Dart, Los Angeles Times Religion Writer, August 03, 1985.
http://articles.latimes.com/1985-08-03/local/me-3305_1_worship-service
14 Ibid.
15 “In Harmony,” by Susan Peck. The Messenger, First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque. http://uuabq.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Messenger_Mar_2016_2.pdf
16 Ibid.
17Paul Gauguin's intimate journals. Paul Gauguin, trans. Van Wyck Brooks. Crown Publishers, New York. 1936.
18 “In Harmony,” by Susan Peck. Op. cit.