It was a typical Sunday morning when I discovered a hot button word that should not be used lightly in a sermon: applause. I was preaching about how we are not spectators, but we are all active participants in worship because God is the audience. I then casually said, “That’s why some traditions do not clap in worship,” I preached a few more minutes and sat down, took a deep breath, and reflected – “not my best sermon and not my worst.” Well, apparently nobody heard the sermon – because the focal point became, “Do not clap in worship.” I had unintentionally opened a can of worms…
Growing up, I could probably count on one hand the amount of times we applauded for something in worship. The choir sang an especially beautiful anthem and one person started clapping so others joined in. It would usually be a short topic of conversation at lunch, but I had no idea why we did or didn’t clap in worship. Being reminded to, “Be quiet!” so many times growing up during worship made me believe that worship was just a very quiet place.
So, why is applause in worship even an issue? Tradition is the number one culprit, but there’s a more theological explanation by a theologian with arguably the coolest first name ever: Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard used theater terms to argue that during worship God is the audience, the worshippers are the actors, and the minister is the prompter. Therefore, our focus is completely on God – everything that we do in worship is to God’s glorification. The choir or praise team are not singing to perform for the people in the pew – but to glorify God. There is not a stage in a sanctuary, but a chancel, because worship is not a performance. Now this is extremely countercultural; we go to sports, to concerts, and to plays where we are strictly the audience – sit, watch, and applaud. However, worship is meant to be a different mindset – you are no longer sitting in the stands watching the game, but you are now a player in the game. Your thoughts matter! Your actions matter! Your presence matters!
So, does this mean that we need to sit like the frozen chosen in our pews or chairs during worship? Nope. Should we overcorrect and get worship cheerleaders? Maybe – your call. I, personally, am all for clapping and applause in worship – but I believe it is important to acknowledge and talk about the role that each of us plays in worship – that we are all active participants worshipping God together.
What we need to do is teach and talk more about what worship is. Why is worship important? What’s the history behind the order of worship? What is the theology behind baptism and communion? How does our understanding differ from other traditions? Why do some churches refrain from applause in worship even after an amazing anthem? Can clapping and applause add life to worship? I believe that these are important conversations we should be leading and teaching more often as pastors.
How does your church talk about worship? Would you be interested in learning more about worship? What do you think about applause in worship? Does applause in worship have more to do with theology or tradition?