Asking Tough Worship Music Questions – Applause in Worship


Often when I write I find that my favourite starting point for any non-fiction piece is to begin with the Oxford English Dictionary. It serves as a steady baseline for the definition of an English word, and provides interesting context for what I intend to write about. This is even more important when dealing with words which have lost specific definitions as time goes on.

sub•jec•tive adjective /səbˈdʒɛktɪv/
Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions

So much of the Christian life ends up being “subjective” to us because, unsurprisingly, subjectivity is how we experience the Christian life. Our experience of God’s love is subjective – though God’s love is objective. Our experience of the sacraments is subjective – although their importance is objective. Our experience of worshiping God is subjective, although it could be argued that many expect our worship to be objective – “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”.

I recently encountered a 2011 article reprinted by Banner of Truth on the subject of “Applause in the Worship Service”. The author, Rev. Doug Barnes, the Pastor of Hills URC, MN, represents one possible answer as to whether or not we should applaud in the church service – by which, I think the original question referred to applause, rather than clapping along to the beat of a song, and specifically applause to God in a song and in response to an item or individual. I am choosing not to simply disagree with Rev. Barnes, because the argument was well composed, even though I thought it seemed to make several unnecessary assumptions.

The real questions at the heart of this particular question – “Is it appropriate to applaud during the church service?” – are whether the Bible speaks about such applause, and whether or not such applause can be separated from applauding human achievement, specifically, the skill of the music team?

Firstly, let’s look at what the Bible has to say about clapping, and applause in general.

There are several examples in the Old Testament of the Israelites clapping, and being encouraged to clap during worship. “Clap your hands, all you peoples,” writes the Psalmist in the opening line of Psalm 47. The people of Israel clapped their hands when Jehoiada crowned Joash. (2 Kings 11:12) “Let the river clap their hands,” the Psalmist writes again in Psalm 98, using imagery his readers would well have known to portray the very creation worshiping God. The same imagery is found in Isaiah 55: “You will indeed go out with joy and be peacefully guided; the mountains and the hills will break into singing before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)

Unsurprisingly, the Bible does not actually reference applause in connection with worship. Only two instances in the HCSB is ‘applau’ found – in Matthew 6:2, where Jesus prohibits giving to the poor so that it will be seen, “to be applauded by people”; and in Romans 1:32, where Paul uses it as a means to portray the evil to which men have descended.

However, a word’s absence from the Bible does not preclude its usefulness to us. There’s also no mention of “microphone”, or “soup kitchen”, but these are not prohibited, but are rather valued.

This brings us to our second question: can applause ever be separated from applauding human achievement?

It is true that, predominantly, applause is used for giving accolades to a performance of some sort – be it theatre, music, sport, etc. We applaud an excellent rendition of a song as excitedly as we applaud someone’s graduation from school. It is a very human means to display accolades. It is an outpouring of praise for something or someone.

This is why, in his beloved paraphrase of the Bible, Eugene Peterson begins Psalm 66: “All together now—applause for God!” (Psalm 66:1) In fact, Peterson repeatedly uses the word “applause” throughout Psalms where we see in our English translations words and phrases such as “Shout for joy to the Lord”; “Let the sea resound”; “praise you, Lord”. Peterson can paraphrase like this because applause is one means by which humans praise something, or someone. It is not a one-for-one translation – because it does not need to be. When the Psalms recount or encourage praise, applause is a viable way in which that can be translated.

To return to the Oxford English Dictionary, we find that ‘applause’ is translated: “Approval or praise expressed by clapping”.

Though I do not like rebutting specific points made by others, I do want to address something Rev. Barnes said, specifically: “But we should respond as a congregation – as the collective people of God, which is the body of Christ.” His point, if I may be so bold as to summarise, is that applause is a personal response, and cannot be a collective, congregational response.

This underlies the primary question that I believe is at the heart of this entire issue – whether or not we can separate applause from applauding human achievement.

And the answer is – maybe?

The reality is, worship must come from our own heart, and is utterly subjective. We must, where possible, adhere to the Bible’s teaching on how to worship and what is and isn’t correct. We must also adhere to how the Holy Spirit works in us, and through our church leadership.

This is all to say, I do not believe there can be a strict, legalistic response to the original question – “Is it appropriate to applaud during the church service?” This is why I can say I disagree with Rev. Barnes, but still respect his argument. It is unwise, in my opinion, to be too legalistic about one’s interpretation of this particular issue.

Is it appropriate to applaud someone’s musical talent displayed during worship? Is it appropriate to applaud someone’s baptism? Is it appropriate to applaud a musical item? These are answers to which I would lean towards saying “No, it’s not appropriate” – though I’m not willing to be too legalistic about saying no, either.

Is it appropriate to applaud God within worship – either by myself, or as part of a congregational applause? I tend to lean towards saying “Yes, it is appropriate” – but again, I am not willing to be too legalistic about it.

What is most important, however, is for each and every one of us to do two things: 1) worship God from our own heart, according to the Holy Spirit’s leading, and the Bible teaching, and 2) refrain from judging someone else’s worship if their decisions clash with ours. For only God knows what is in our hearts, and only He can judge the intention of our thoughts. In worshiping God in spirit and in truth (Romans 12:1-2), we must do just that, and not be concerned with others’ opinions – be we looking in, or they.

Image Credit: Steve Johnson, Flickr