Oh, Clap Your Hands! Or Not.
Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. (Psalm 47: 1-2)
Last week, our Interim Director of Music and Arts, Sharon Hansen, gave us our weekly blog post: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord! Come into His presence with... Applause???" She gave us just about all the background we'd ever need to talk in a really smart way about clapping in church. I recommend her post to you if you haven't read it. It came out of weeks of conversation with staff, between she and I, with the Worship, Music and the Arts Ministry Group, and with other folks at Pinnacle who've been weighing in on this. And, truth be told, it's part of conversation that's been going on at Pinnacle for many years. I saw her post ahead of time, and learned from it. And she and I agreed that I'd write a response the following week. That's this week! You can clap for that if you want!
Given all that any church does in its worship, and all that happens at Pinnacle, I can say that aside from comments about individual sermons or pieces of music, there's no single thing in worship that I've gotten more comments about at Pinnacle than applause. It gets people going, on both sides! I've been amazed at how emotional the topic can be. It touches something deep that might not be about applause at all. It seems to touch something about why any one of us comes to church in the first place. And we all know that in the end, none of our individual faith lives will be dramatically changed by where I (as your worship leader) come out on whether we clap in church or not. But our faith lives may be impacted by how we think about what lies underneath.
So I thank Dr. Hansen for informing us so very well. She quotes Presbyterian worship guidance and compares it to guidance from other denominations. She quotes pastors and theologians. She gives reasons why applause has traditionally been discouraged in our traditions, and she gives reasons why is in being allowed more often these days. She lays the questions out. She has her own perspective, for which I'm grateful, and she shows respect for others'. She's given us a great example of a teaching, learning, leading spirit. Bravo.
For me, one point in her blog stood out as strong reminder. She quotes what the nineteenth century Lutheran thinker Soren Kierkegaard's said about worship. He thought that worship in his own day had become too much of a spectacle, more about how vestments, and pomp, and formality, and clever words raised the importance of the folks leading worship over the One worshipped and lulled folks in the pews to sleep. He wrote that in worship, God is the audience, not the worshippers. All in worship--leaders, musicians, ushers, and pew sitters alike--have their designated parts in the work of worship. There's no division, except the division between everyone present and the divine. In that sense, God applauds, not us. Theologically, at least, that's right on. But is it also true to our experience?
I knew a professional singer once who occasionally sang in church. When he did, he refused to face the congregation. He'd only face the cross. "I've sung in a lot of nightclubs and on a lot of stages," he told me. "I know the difference between them and church." He might have gone a bit too far, for I'm sure that when one of our extraordinary soloists sings toward the congregation we all know we're in church. But, for him, it was important to put his body toward the cross. One can only respect that, and get his point.
This may be similar to why I only rarely leave the pulpit when I preach. I do sometimes, but not often. And that's because the pulpit is a witness stand, before the cross, and I believe there's a difference between preaching and teaching. But like singing to the cross, that's one view. It's not the only view.
Some of us are so moved by something in worship that we want to show our appreciation—first to God, and second to leaders (that order is important). And we remember that psalm I quoted above, calling us to clap our hands to honor God. And that's okay. It's okay to use your body in worship, to sing with gusto, to feel the communion, to respond with your heart, to show your emotions. It's also okay to be quiet, reverent, respectful of others, and modest.
We're left a legitimate difference. How do we strike a balance?
Sharon Hansen suggests that we be mindful, that we allow a meditative piece of music to end with silence, and not worry that the choir or the musicians will feel disrespected by our silence (They won't.) And she suggests it's also okay, now and then, offer a hearty "Amen!" or even clap our hands.
That's a helpful approach. But how do we know what's appropriate when, and what will or won't interfere with others? For it only takes one person to start clapping, right? And we live in a culture in which feedback is more and more immediate, and in which children especially depend on instant reinforcement. And we sure don't want to feel off putting to people who don't know the "rules."
I think the answer might be to give some guidance right in the service itself. It might be uncomfortable for some, but more and more often we'll let worshippers know when it might be appropriate to applaud and when we'd invite silence instead. We might even let you know when it's okay to say, "Amen," or even "Preach it sister!" (well, maybe not "Preach it sister!"). I want all to feel comfortable in worship, not nervous; so simple guidance might help.
And so what about the kids? Some of us believe applause never belongs in worship, and that children should be taught that we sing for God and that God applauds them. Some of us believe it's okay to applaud anything that moves us, from songs to sermons and especially the kids. Some of us take a middle place, and say that adults don't need applause but we should always affirm our children with applause. There's no pleasing everyone here. I think we'll never stop applause for the kids even if we want to, so we should embrace it. But, we should—and will—remind our kids before every time they help lead worship that they're up there for God and that God cherishes the spirit in which they perform more than how 'well' they do. The same is true for adults, by the way.
And what about sermons? Hmm. Sermons aren't political speeches. They don't depend on instant response, or agreement, or entertainment value for their faithfulness. You might not know how a sermon has (or hasn't) impacted your faith until long after it's preached. A 'good' sermon can disturb as much as it can please. And the quality of a sermon isn't a matter of vote, measured by agreement vs. disagreement. Someone uncomfortable with a sermon is as much a part of the congregation as one who is so moved theirs hands come together. So while I know that there may be sermons that evoke spontaneous response of applause, that kind of response should be rare—very rare.
There are ways a preacher knows. . . Don't worry about that! Let your first response be to God. For I assure you that in the moment after every sermon I preach, I pray that God will heal my imperfect words and seal on each hearer's heart what God would have them hear that day.
In the end, worship is a part of culture and not separate from it—and applause is a way we express pleasure in our culture. And yet worship is also its own culture, with its own language. It's a world apart, even as it's part of the world. And in worship we spy a new reality. We open a two-dimensional plane into three dimensions, with God the third. And so in worship, we can behave a bit differently—with joy as well as restraint, with full heart as well as full mind, with patience as well as eagerness, with silence as well as hearty voices, in tune and out of tune, in multiple languages and with a variety of metaphors. We can clap. But we don't need to, and sometimes don't want to. We'll help everyone along, and pray that our worship will be all of these things, and more.