Applause in church

You’re thinking that I’m out of ideas already for this blog.

Applause in church? Really?

Stay with me here, because there are some important issues at stake. The people at my church like to clap their hands. They clap when the children sing, they clap when the adult choir sings, they clap for just about everything but the offering and – this hurts a bit – the sermon.

And not surprisingly, I’ve heard from a few people about it. The last person who wrote told me that it was my job to teach people how to behave in worship.

So, here goes.

On one side of this argument you have people who think that applause is appropriate for entertainment, not for worship. God is the only one in worship who gets to clap his hands. God is the audience for all that we do. So, stop it with the applause!

Support for this view comes from none other than Karl Ratzinger. Never heard of him? He’s now known as Pope Benedict XVI. Back when he was just Karl Ratzinger, here’s what he wrote…

“Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”

You get the feeling that he disapproves.

And part of me is sympathetic to this point of view. I like worship that’s filled with wonder, awe, and reverence. I like silence … sometimes. When we fill our worship with noise and applause, we tend to diminish the wonder. We make it less about God and more about the people who are performing up front.

On the other hand, I’ve served a church that had plenty of wonder, but very little joy – or hospitality, for that matter. We were long on reverence, but tended to be short on spontaneity. I missed it too. I serve a church now that’s demonstrative, that hugs and claps, that laughs at my humor, for which I’m grateful. A couple of weeks ago, following a report from the mission team that went to Africa, we even danced – a little.

For those who like to search the scriptures to find support for their positions, you probably can’t do better than the Psalms, especially Psalm 46:1…

“O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.”

Whoever wrote the Psalms is a big proponent of expressive worship. But one of the problems with this use of scripture is that it tends to be selective. We like the part about clapping, sure, but just about everyone ignores the part about shouting. I’m not sure Presbyterians are ready for shouts “with the voice of triumph.”

So, where does that leave us?

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.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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6 Responses to Applause in church

  1. Sue Brandon December 10, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    Well said Doug. I applaud you!

    • Doug December 11, 2012 at 5:03 am #


  2. Don Wagner December 11, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    You strike a good balance, Doug, with your thoughts on applause. I used to think it inappropriate to clap during worship; however, at the right times, I believe it is good.

  3. Clark Ellis December 14, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    I have to agree with you Doug.
    I have only seen 1 time that after a sermon the whole congreation got up and appluded the pastor.

    • Doug December 14, 2012 at 10:26 am #

      I remember that time too, Clark. One of our youth preached (on youth Sunday), and it was probably the most moving sermon I’ve ever heard. I don’t see how we could have sat in stony silence that day.

  4. Ron Rienstra December 15, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    Hi Doug. We often have to deal with applause in worship at WTS – especially during our Honors Convocation at the end of the year. Here’s a short video I made to explain what we did / do.