Recently our congregation has begun applauding the singing groups in our worship services. This offends some people. If we discouraged applauding, others would be offended. What advice can you give?
James F. Pope
It is not likely that I can resolve this tension, but I hope I can give both groups spiritual food for thought.
Applause in society
There is nothing innovative about applause. History is replete with examples of applause in the politics and theater of ancient civilizations. Regardless of the venue or the objects of applause, people have long seen clapping as “a pat on the back from a distance,” in the words of sociobiologist Desmond Morris. With applause in society, people are stamping their “secular Amen” on the efforts of others.
Informal worship styles and cultural differences among Christians worldwide are among the factors that explain the presence of applause in worship services. As your question illustrates, that can create tensions in congregations.
Freedom in church
Christians will want to recognize that the Bible does not address the topic of applause in worship services. Certainly, Scripture states, “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (Psalm 47:1). Those instructions of clapping and shouting, framed in the language of Hebrew poetry, guide children of God in their overall praise of the Lord. Yet Scripture is silent on applause—for songs or sermons—in worship services; that practice is one that God neither condemns nor forbids. That means there is Christian freedom in this area of worship.
Christian freedom is definitely a topic the Bible addresses. 1 Corinthians chapter 8 and Romans chapter 14 instruct Christians to exercise their God-given freedoms with an eye toward others. While the sinful nature in us likes to assert our freedoms “because we can,” the new self in us is very willing to pull back on those freedoms for the same reason: “because we can.” Christian freedom is also the right not to do something out of consideration for others. Christian thoughtfulness and selflessness can go a long way in resolving differences of opinions and personal preferences in congregations.
Gratitude to God
If applause in worship services remains a practice in your congregation, perhaps there is a way for those who are bothered by it to adjust their thinking. Rather than seeing the singers as the objects of applause, perhaps they can view the acclamation being directed to God. That suggestion is not far-fetched.
In one of the congregations I served, volunteer help for church cleaning and lawn maintenance was essential. To recognize efforts and express appreciation, the Sunday worship folder listed the names of the volunteers under a simple heading of “We thank our volunteers.” One family that volunteered regularly did not want any public expression of thanks. If I had honored that request, one could have wrongly concluded that our volunteerism was suffering or that church maintenance happened on its own. So I asked the family what they thought of having their names listed in the service folder under a new heading: “We thank the Lord for our volunteers.” They were okay with that, and a new custom started.
That custom was not new to the apostle Paul. He informed the Christians in Thessalonica: “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing” (2 Thessalonians 1:3). The faithful lives of Christians moved Paul to thank God for them. Likewise, the singing efforts of others can move us to thank God—perhaps even in audible ways.
Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 106, Number 8
Issue: August 2019
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