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This post was written first and foremost to provoke thought. Please read with an open mind.
A small group sings a music number at your church before the pastor preaches. Do you A) clap because they did well, B) clap because they didn’t do well but you don’t want them to feel bad, or C) smile and say “Amen” or thank God silently for His gift of music?
If you chose A or B, for whom are you clapping?
Clapping in recognition of a human “performance” during a worship service is a relatively new phenomenon in our culture, at least in the circles I usually rub shoulders with. Twenty years ago it would’ve been considered terribly sacreligious, and while some groups still hold to that view, an alarming number are drifting toward a new standard. I think this drift stems from two things: a) a lack of respect for God, and b) a lack of thought. People get caught up in the emotion of a performance, so they clap without stopping to think about whom they are clapping for. There hasn’t been enough instruction on the subject of music and its place in worship, and it’s time for us to take ownership of our actions. We need some teaching on the subject!
As you may have astutely guessed by the title of this article, I’m one of the straight-laced individuals who doesn’t clap for sacred music (for the purpose of this article, I’m defining sacred music as music that is purposely God-centered). Clapping for sacred music is my biggest pet peave. Actually, to me it goes beyond a pet peeve – it provokes me to righteous anger (see the bottom of the post for an update on what I mean when I say “righteous anger”). Strong words? Maybe…and maybe not. Here are a few things for you to ponder before you clap:
Music in church is not a performance, it’s worship. What is the purpose of music in a worship service? Music in worship is a form of worship. It is not, and I repeat, NOT a performance for your entertainment. If the musicians did an aesthetically pleasing job, the glory goes to God and God alone and should provoke an appropriate response of worship. While clapping to God can be part of worship, it needs to be done in the right way at the right time. Doing so after a musical number in today’s culture would be blurring the lines. An “Amen”, “Bless God”, or just a silent prayer to God is a great response instead.
Music should provoke thought, not just emotion. Music appeals to the emotion, but music in worship should most importantly provoke thought, specifically thought about God. Clapping has a penchant toward being a man-centered emotional response, but an “Amen” is a God-centered response that comes from an engaged mind. You’re basically saying, “I agree with what you just said through song.” As I said before, there can be a place for clapping during worship, but I believe that thought should precede emotion, not the other way around.
Worship in any form should be God-centered, not man-centered. Worship is God-centered; a performance is man-centered. You clap for a performance. Clapping after a special music number in church blurs the lines between performance and worship. Clapping gives man glory instead of God, and that’s serious business. If you want to know how seriously God looks upon men stealing the credit that belongs to Him, check out this post. (Please note that I’m not saying that clapping is always wrong; I think there can be a place for it when done for the right reason in the right attitude in circumstances outside of a worship service. There can even be some appropriate times to clap in a worship service as a way to praise God, but doing it after a special music number is associated with applause for a performance in our culture today and therefore should be avoided to “abstain from all appearance of evil” [1 Thess. 5:22].)
A personal anecdote
I recently attended a church service where a small group sang before the speaker got up to preach. After the group was done singing, someone started clapping and most of the room joined in. The clapping was a raucous change from the worshipful scene the music had been setting, and I really felt sorry for the preacher who had to get up and speak right after the abrupt change in mood. Music in worship should serve to prepare the hearts of the audience for the rest of the worship service. Clapping really detracts from that goal.
So how do we support our musicians?
You might think that your musicians will feel unappreciated if you don’t clap. Let’s get one thing straight: if they are offended because they aren’t recognized for their efforts, you should probably get new musicians or train the ones you have. Again, music in worship is not a performance. Any musician that treats it as such is not worthy to sing or play in a worship service. Ouch. I’m speaking to myself here; I know how hard it is to retain the right focus! That leads me to another subject about whether or not we should even have special music in church (I definitely think that most of the music in a worship service should include everyone present), but that’s for another time…
There are a couple of ways you can support your musicians. One of the best is to be attentive while they are singing, and please keep a pleasant expression on your face! Let the music provoke you to thoughts of God. Follow along in your mind. An engaged audience is such an encouragement to those singing! Another great way to encourage those who put effort into providing special music is to go find them after the service and tell them privately that you appreciated their ministry through song. Tell them how much it meant to you and share with them how God spoke to you through their songs. “Good job” probably isn’t totally appropriate for a worship setting because again, music in worship is not a performance.
A popular phrase among musicians who truly grasp music’s place in worship is Soli Deo gloria (sometimes abbreviated “S.D.G.”), which means, “Glory to God alone”. May this be our prayer in everything we do!
“Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.” (Psalm 115:1 KJV)
Edit – what I mean by “righteous anger”
I’ve gotten quite a few comments about my “righteous anger” statement so I thought I should clarify what I mean when I use that term. Some of you seem to get a different picture in your heads than I do when you see those words, so maybe a little clarification is in order here so you don’t misunderstand my intent. While personal anger is never right for a Christian, righteous anger is not centered on a person but rather the idea that God’s Name is being profaned (hillul hashem in Hebrew). This is the same type of anger demonstrated when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after talking with God only to see the Israelites worshipping the golden calf; you can also see it in Jesus when He routed the corrupt businessmen out of the Temple. Again, this anger is not a personal anger or grudge against someone, but rather a righteous indignation that anyone would dare defame the Name of God. Righteous anger (or “indignation” if you like that word better) should not provoke any sort of personal vendetta against someone, but should rather cause you to approach the person or people involved with a heart of love and teach them what God says about the particular subject (or maybe go to someone in authority to do so if you feel it’s out of your place to do the approaching at the moment). I personally feel like we should see more righteous anger these days. I think we excuse far too many things because we don’t want to offend people, but brotherhood accountability and a heart of love and understanding is the key here. Balance, balance, balance.
In Summary: The two main points of this article are as follows:
- Worship should be God-centered, not man-centered.
- Clapping after a piece of specially-performed music in a worship service carries the connotation of applause for performance in today’s culture and thus should be avoided to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22).
Please note that I am not saying that I believe all clapping in a worship service is wrong. I think it can have its place when done at the right time in the right spirit, but I don’t believe that doing it after a specially-performed piece of music is the right time because of association in our culture today. I think I was unclear on my stance on this earlier in the post, for which I apologize (and have done my best to fix the error).