Performance or Offering?
As a people, we may be more familiar with entertainment and performances than we are with religious offerings and sacred ceremony. When we go to the theater or to a concert, and are moved by the performance, it is common to applaud, stand, and maybe even to hoot and holler. Does the same hold true in church? When we are inspired by a piece of music, do we applaud in the same way? If so, what are we applauding? Is it the musician or the delivery, or are we applauding and affirming, with our response, their offering to God?
Amongst the Pueblo people of the Southwestern United States, strict rules govern behavior during religious ceremonies. Guidelines vary by pueblo, but most do not allow photography or applause during their dance ceremonies, since these are religious ceremonies, not arts performances.
I realize applause is not necessarily one of the major issues of worship, but I think it does deserve some comment. Although it might seem arbitrary, much consideration goes into shaping the order and flow of our worship. On one hand, the notion of our being so awed or overwhelmed or moved by an aspect of worship that it can’t but be transformed into a spontaneous outburst of appreciation is appealing. However, if this reaction is merely a rote response [I hear a singer, therefore, I clap.] then its meaning begins to leach away. Why do we applaud one portion of service and not another? We don’t applaud hymns, but the music, scripture, and other elements of worship are no more or less collective and collaborative efforts of all of us to grow closer to God.
Laurence Wagley observes that, “Congregations are not audiences, and leaders of worship are not performers. The role of the liturgist (and of the choir, organist, and ushers) is to enable the congregation to participate, not to win people's approval. … What if the congregation applauds a sermon? That means the sermon was pleasing to the congregation. Now, preachers need approval, but I think most would not welcome the implication that their sermons are preached to win people's approval. Instead, they think a sermon is successful if the people—far from judging the performance of the preacher—consider how pleasing their own lives are to God. Leaders of worship encourage people's participation in worship so that in that participation the people may respond to God.
Applause may, in fact, have a negative effect, making us self-conscious about our performances. And too little applause may make us feel unappreciated. Applause may communicate approval and support, and often an individual or a group needs that. People do come to church seeking a sense of worth, wanting to be loved. But applause is too cheap a response to those needs. If that kind of support is all that worship has to offer, then worship has been impoverished. The poor, those robbed of self-esteem, those who are oppressed—they, too, need approval and support, and the good news of God's love is their best hope. If they see concrete signs of the church's concern and are enfolded into the Christian community, they will feel supported in a way far beyond the effect of applause.
Applause can also lead to a sense of competition. If we applaud the choir's anthem today, why didn't we applaud last Sunday? Do we applaud every Sunday, every event, every person? Do we withhold applause for a particularly good anthem so the choir will work harder?
It is appropriate to show honor to one another but not at the cost of denying honor to God. To applaud a solo, a dance, or a sermon is to draw attention to the means rather than to the end.”
I am not calling for an abolition of all applause and appreciation in worship, but I am calling for us to be mindful of who and what we are celebrating. Is it the person who sings or the God they sing about? Let us not become so enamored with the finger that we miss what it is pointing us toward. Next time you are moved by music or an aspect of worship, feel free to add your offering of applause in service and of God. It is merely of matter of where your heart and mind are directed. May all aspects of our worship serve to bring us into a closer, deeper, and more joyful union with God.
 from The Christian Century, December 3, 1986.
Pastor Messages >