Applause during worship is a topic of concern for worship leaders. I will tell you right off the bat that we are not the only ones struggling with the “applause or no applause” question. It’s especially alive in congregations where music is a prominent component in the service. The conversation usually orbits around four questions: Why applause? Is the Sunday morning service a “performance” or not, and if it isn’t, then what is it? If the Sunday morning service is “something else,” then how does applause affect the experience? Are there alternatives to applause when you find something in the Sunday morning experience moving?
The origin of applause goes back to Roman politics, when the public was encouraged to recognize their leaders by clapping. That still goes on today, along with cued applause, hired clap-starters and clap-sustainers, recorded applause tracks, and applause meant to garner an encore. Applause is satisfying to the applauders and encouraging to the applauded under most circumstances. In our Sunday worship it feels very natural to clap when the musicians conclude a piece of music or when the speaker has delivered a particularly powerful message. But applause is a complicated sign and signal. When one person begins to clap, chances are everyone will clap. If a person doesn’t clap, it means something. If the applause is weak, it means something. If it turns out that clapping arises for this and not for that, it means something. If you are asked not to applaud and you clap anyway—on purpose or reflexively—the “no-no” vibe can be quite shaming.
A worship service is not a performance. It is a carefully constructed experience, the aim of which is to provide a glimpse of the sacred dimension of life for as many people as possible. The welcome of greeters and ushers, the preachers message, the liturgists (our WAs) presence and warmth, the focus of the musicians, the words in readings and songs, the mood and rhythm of the music, the quality of congregational singing and listening—all these things and many more interweave and interact to hold us all in a common experience that requires input and attention from everyone in the room. Worship leadership is the art of managing a very powerful, and at the same time very fragile, flow of energy through a group. In your own personal relationships, you’ve probably noticed that when you are trying to convey something very important and precious, there are certain responses by listeners that can suddenly end the conversation. Applause in worship is usually a breaker and a closer of the connection to the sense of the sacred we try to invoke. Applause at the end of the service is the least disruptive timing, but even there it can tear some of us away from our internal process in a way that feels abrupt and sad.
It IS entirely appropriate to let others know that you feel stirred/moved/amazed during a service. I love it when I see people nodding, smiling, or hear little murmurs of “Oh wow” or “Yes,” or less verbal sounds like the whooshes of sighs or excited out-breaths, or weeping, or hands on hearts or raised in the air, or standing or dancing, or voices singing along. Don’t be afraid to ride the energy out loud and visibly in a way that augments the flow. Listen to your body for hints. There are many good ways to say thank you, during the service and afterwards. These are my thoughts. What has your experience been like?