Applause is not appropriate for church: applause directs attention to the human performer, while saying “amen” gives glory to God. Or is it really that simple?
During my Bible School years I enjoyed attending various Christmas or Easter dramas in local churches. One year I found an Easter drama that sounded promising, so I went. That was over 20 years ago, and I’ve long since forgotten what church it was at, whether I was there on my own or with a group, or even exactly what year it was. But I’ll never forget when suddenly, unexpectedly, “Peter” came running up the aisle shouting, “He’s alive! He’s alive!” The moment was electric as the reality of the resurrection washed over us anew.
And we spontaneously began to applaud.
Wait – applaud? What was there to applaud? The script writer’s skill? That Peter shouted so well?
No – it was a heartfelt expression of praise for the resurrection.
I’d always heard that applause praises the human while saying “amen” praises God – but that was the moment that I realized there was more to it than that.
The Bible does speak of clapping for a person – exactly one time, in 2 Kings 11:12. And the Bible also exhorts us to clap in worship – one time, Psalm 47:1. Clapping is associated with joy (Psalm 98:8, Isa 55:12), but also with anger (Numbers 24:10), grief (Ezekiel 6:11), rebellion (Job 34:37), and contempt (Lamentations 2:15). So apparently clapping had a wide variety of meaning, depending on the culture.
But in our culture, isn’t applause always – or at least usually – used to direct attention to a person? We applaud at the end of a concert, and the volume & length of the applause reflects what we thought of the performance, right?
Right. But that’s only one use of applause: depending on the circumstances, applause can have very different meanings.
Of course, applause often does contain an expression of appreciation for a performance – but does that automatically make it inappropriate for a worship service? Even in a church culture that frowns on applause during a service, we’ve all heard the service MC express appreciation for the quality of a performance: “Wow – that was absolutely beautiful!” “Wasn’t that awesome?” “When I get to Heaven, I’ll be able to play like that, too!” Am I the only one who sees a double standard here? Is it ok for a speaker to express appreciation but not for the congregation? Or is the difference that words are fine, but not applause? Or maybe there really isn’t a difference, and we should stop inventing one.
In many cases, applause also serves a second purpose – appreciation for a person. I serve on the board of Carolina Christian Youth Camp, and I’ve noticed that when a young person gives a testimony or sings a special, the response is basically always applause. It’s not because of the great performance or the stunning oratory – it’s a way of showing encouragement and support for the person. And that is absolutely appropriate during worship, or at any other time.
I was at Bob Jones University when Dr. Ian Paisley, the statesman (or rabble-rouser, depending on your point of view) from Ireland was introduced. The applause was long and loud. But I noticed a friend who had served as a missionary in Ireland – he stood with everyone else, but didn’t applaud. When I asked him about it later, he said that in his experience, Dr. Paisley’s outspoken opposition to Catholics in Ireland was harmful, and so he didn’t feel that he could applaud Dr. Paisley. So, to applaud would express appreciation: lack of appreciation = no applause.
I wonder how often our refusal to applaud is interpreted as lack of appreciation or support. I know of one case in which a visitor was in a service where applause was strongly discouraged. After a special song, the visitor began to enthusiastically applaud, realized that he was the only one, stopped, looked around, and declared, “Well, I thought it was good!”
A third use of applause in today’s culture is to express agreement. Clarke McPhail, a professor of sociology who studies applause, states, “There are some common features to applause across a wide range of religious, sport and political gatherings… People clap to show approval of the utterances or actions that correspond to their preferences or biases.” And in his extensive study of political speeches, Peter Bull notes that “for some messages, speech content may be so significant that it will receive applause” even when the speaker doesn’t intend or expect it. In other words, applause often expresses agreement with the message, not necessarily appreciation for the person.
This is especially noticeable in political speeches. In US politics today, applause points are carefully planned and orchestrated on both sides of the aisle in order to make political statements in agreement with or at the expense of the speaker, an approach that goes back to Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Before this, applause was spontaneous and generally expressed agreement with the speaker’s point. For example, notice how the audience used applause to signal strong agreement with specific points during Roosevelt’s address to Congress on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed:
The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. APPLAUSE
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. APPLAUSE
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us. APPLAUSE
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God. APPLAUSE
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.” SUSTAINED, STANDING OVATION
In the Bible applause expresses strong emotions, including praise and joy. Today applause is an audience’s way of showing appreciation, support and agreement. All of which is appropriate for worship.
So applaud already!