To Clap or Not to Clap?

In response to my mention of clapping at the Together for the Gospel conference, Steve commented:

“I grew up in the type of church where clapping was extremely frowned upon.  Later, as an adult, I got involved in more contemporary settings…where clapping, along with and after songs, was the norm…I recently watched a live DVD recording of a particular band doing an incredibly delicate and moving rendition of “I Love You, Lord.”  As the last soft chord decayed, the audience began to cheer and clap.  It suddenly seemed inappropriate to me.”

In a more general sense, Jon asked:

“How we are to treat the commands of the psalms….clap, shout, dance, that aren’t necessarily repeated in the NT?   Are we responsible to obey them as commands or are they biblical expressions that give us example of how to love the Lord with our bodies?”

For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to focus on clapping in this post. I plan on sharing some thoughts on physical expression later on.

A right understanding of what God says about clapping begins with acknowledging that God’s Word both commands and exemplifies worship that is external, and not simply internal. In fact many of the Greek and Hebrew words that we translate “worship” have to do with physical movement, whether it be bowing down, bending over, or throwing out the hands.

Second, we need to recognize that what we do with our bodies is meant to reflect what’s taking place in our hearts. Any kind of physical expression, clapping or otherwise, is unacceptable as worship to God unless it springs from a heart that truly loves God or desires to love Him more. (Amos 5:23-24 ; Mk. 7:6)

Third, we need to distinguish between applause and rhythmic clapping to a song. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that God is speaking of rhythmic clapping when Scripture tells us to clap our hands. However, it can be one way of using the members of our bodies to give glory to God if we are more focused on the truths we’re singing than the music itself.

In Scripture, clapping connotes different attitudes, depending on the context. It can signify rejoicing, approval, mockery, judgment, or praise. (Ps. 98:8; 2 Kings 11:12; Lam. 2;15; Ezek. 6:11; Ps. 47:1). The question that we need to ask is what does clapping mean when our local church gathers? Does it always mean, as some contend, that we’re giving glory to men rather than God?

This question reminds me of what often takes place at weddings. When the bride and groom reach that long awaited moment when they’re permitted to kiss, people often wonder how to respond. Sometimes, there’s a restrained but reverent silence. Other times there’s a collective, “Ahhhh.” However, I’ve also participated in a spontaneous burst of joyous applause, shouts, and cheers.  Are the guests being irreverent? I’ve never heard anyone say or imply that they are. Are they glorifying the bride and groom? That thought has never crossed anyone’s mind either. People are allowing the joy that is welling up in their hearts to overflow into their hands. They want to express their excitement, joy, and gratefulness to God for what He has accomplished in the lives of this new married couple.

In a similar way, there are appropriate times to applaud in a congregational meeting and inappropriate times. Here are some thoughts about how to distinguish which is which.

1.    Study and teach on the role of physical expression in worshipping God. Explain it scripturally, thoroughly, and pastorally. This could be done in a sermon, or during a time of congregational singing.
2.    Model appropriate responses. Our pastors (there are over 20 of us) typically sit on the stage partly so that we can model enthusiastic, joyful engagement with God as we sing. Pastors need to remember that many aspects of the Christian life are not only taught, but caught. (Phil. 4:9)
3.    In smaller churches, address individuals who consistently respond inappropriately or in a distracting way. This may sound difficult, but if we encourage a person to consider others more highly than themselves as an act of worship, we will be more kind than critical.
4.    Don’t allow applause to become routine or mechanical. Our church regularly applauds at the end of the preaching of God’s Word, in the middle of a song or message, or when someone is testifying of God’s grace and power. It is generally a faith-filled response to express appreciation for a clearer view of God, his works, or His Word. Of course, we also use applause to honor those to whom honor is due. (Rom. 13:7)
5.    Above all, preach the magnificent attributes of God, centered on the Gospel, to raise the affections of people for their God. Don’t get distracted by the secondary issue of HOW our hearts express devotion to God. Rather, focus on WHO we’re giving glory to and how worthy He is to be exalted in our minds, hearts, wills, and bodies.

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4 Responses to To Clap or Not to Clap?

  1. jon May 6, 2006 at 2:45 PM #

    Very helpful. Thanks for dealing with this question. Perhaps a follow up for a later time….this came up during a discussion with a person in my church: how do we consider the psalms’ expressions of physical worship effected by Christ’s work? Are they fulfilled in the same way that animal sacrifices were…and therefore are no longer binding on us in any specific way, or is there another way of thinking about them in light of the gospel?

  2. Steve Sensenig May 9, 2006 at 9:50 PM #

    Bob, I’m a little behind on my blog reading, so I apologize for not commenting sooner, but thanks for dealing with my question here. I appreciate the balance in your answer.

    God bless,
    steve :)

  3. Fred Freed May 11, 2006 at 2:54 PM #

    Thanks so much for your write up of clapping or not clapping. We have come to understand also that there are many physical expressions for what is stirring in our hearts or what are hearts long to express. I think there are many instances – many congregations – where the only physical respnse they know/understand or are accustomed to is clapping. Often times in their particular church they are not accustomed to bowing, laying prostrate, kneeling, or awe-filled silence, and the only expression they may be familiar with is clapping, even though just to sit in awe and silence for even 2-3 minutes might be more appropriate.
    In cases like these, it is the responsibility of the pastor(s) and/or worship leaders to teach the congragation some different forms of expression that we find in scripture. Lead them in – and teach them about – what it means to sit in silent reverence before the Lord of glory. Teach them that sometimes at the end of a song, scripture passage, or truth set forth in preaching, it is more appropriate to get on our knees before the Lord and ask Him to burn this into our hearts so we might live it out.
    In all of this, it is imperative that we teach our people to be sensitive to the Spirit of the Lord as He moves through our services and our congregations. As we all are in one accord, we all can follow the leading of the Spirit in our responses, and no one has to say anything (i.e. “let’s all kneel”) but it will be a natural and corporate response. It is a beautiful thing when at the end of a song like “I Love You Lord” or “If You Say Go” when an entire congregation senses that God is moving and speaking and we just need to be still for a few moments and let Him speak to hearts, or let us worship Him in stillness.
    Thanks again,
    Fred Freed

  4. KBrodskky June 21, 2009 at 6:01 PM #

    Bob: How do you teach a congregation, or those few who clap along with a song, to clap in beat with the rhythm of the music? Our congregation is rhythmically-challenged, which is very distracting to the musicians trying to play instruments in time with the music.

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