Applause in Church

Received an email recently from someone who performed at a church concert where the audience was asked to not applaude between songs. They were a little upset about it and wanted to know what I thought about it.

I’ll start by saying I’ve played at a lot of churches that applaud, and a lot that don’t. I never tried to change the ways of each group, just went with the flow. I was usually a hired musician and didn’t feel it was my place to make calls like that. Each church has it’s own culture. I was raised in a Lutheran church that rarely clapped – so later in life I had to get used to hearing clapping in church.

My last church post was at a Presbyterian church – and official guidelines is that all music should be for the Glory of God or to bring people closer to him. Would I always follow this? No. Why? Because I feel strongly that sometimes an instrumental piece by JS Bach can lift people’s spirits and bring their thoughts to a higher place. To me, that is also part of bringing people closer to God, or preparing them for worship.

As I’ve said many times on my blog – there is no inherent beauty in the arts; it is all perception. If one piece moves us and another doesn’t – it’s because of us mostly, not the music (generally speaking).

I understand why many people don’t approve of applause in church. Applause is for the performers and technically that takes away the focus from God. So I guess that is the politically correct answer, and one that would appease most theologians.

But my views are different. I don’t think music in church is for God at all. I don’t think God really cares how good the music is – he cares about our hearts. If a tone deaf singer is performing from the heart I think God is all smiles. It’s true, however, that the congregation will be cringing in their seats. So I say play your music the best you can for your congregation and use as many people as possible. If there are musicians in your group that are a little off but trying hard – I think the congregation will understand (if you manage it well as music director). Work on all your hearts so that no matter how it sounds, God will be pleased. (And I’m still not sold that God has to be “appeased” in this manner, but it does make it more emotional to play while thinking that.)

And what about applause? If people feel like clapping, let them clap. If they don’t, then don’t make them. Let them experience the art in the way that moves them the most – don’t dictate what that is. And if some members feel like reaching to the sky and talking in toungues – then let them do it. And if you see me just sitting there listening – don’t tell me I’m not waving my hands enough. It’s not my thing. Let me enjoy just listening…

I did a performance of a new piece on Christmas Eve of 2007. At the end the congregation erupted into appplause and a standing ovation for 30 seconds (Yes, I timed it). It’s not normal to clap on Christmas Eve – in fact it may be borderline heresy. But you know what – I worked very hard on preparing the presentation and it was my last service at that church. The congregation has forgotten the appluse – but I remember it well. In fact I think of it first when I feel a little down.

Did I point my hands in the air to redirect the applause to God? No. Maybe I should have, but I really enjoyed it. To me, they were applauding a feat that had been accomplished and moved them with deep emotion. God didn’t write it, I did. He gave me traits that enable me to improve my craft and create things like that performance. THAT is what they were applauding – not me, but what had been accomplished.

One last note. I hear it said so many times how happy and free Christians should be. Yet at so many corners it seems that the “church” cuts our wings. When I say the “church” – I really mean this notion we are brought up with about what church “should be”.

We are so many different kinds of people – such a complex tapestry. And many things we argue about are just preferences – nothing more.

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