Saturday, June 27, 2015

Applauding During Church Services

Edited by Azizi Powell

I became interested in the subject of congregants applauding during church services after watching a video of President Obama's eulogy for African Methodist Episcopal pastor and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney who was murdered along with eight other church members by a White racist on June 17, 2015. The audience applauded throughout President Obama's eulogy and at the end of that eulogy. I published a pancocojams post featuring that video and the text of President Obama's eulogy and wrote a comment attempting to explain what that applause meant.

After writing that comment, I searched online for more comments about applauding during church services and found that it is a rather hotly debated custom in the United States and elsewhere. Also, the custom of applauding in church-as distinct from clapping to the beat of music- also appears to have become a rather recent practice in the United States. The earliest online comment that I found about that subject is from 1986. Most of the comments on this subject that I found online focus on congregants applauding choirs, and particularly children's choirs. However, I focused on comments about applauding a pastor or priest during or after a sermon. This post features twelve of those comments.

The content of this post is presented for sociological reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all who are quoted in this post.

Note: I found no comments online about applauding during funeral eulogies. However, in my experience, African American funeral eulogies are very much like sermons.
Definition of "eulogy" from
"a speech or writing in praise of a person or thing, especially a set oration in honor of a deceased person."
Like sermons, eulogies are usually given by a pastor. At the end of a number of eulogies that I've attended, the pastor even "opens the dooors of the church" (invites people in attendance who haven't accepted Jesus as their Lord & Savior to come forward and join the church.) Full disclosure- I really dislike that custom. And I'm old school about applauding during church services or eulogies (in other words, I prefer verbal exclamations like "Amen!", "Yes!" and "Preach!" to applauding. But if other people want to applaud, so be it.

I'll begin with my comment. All other comments are presented in chronological order based on their publishing dates. Comments without a given publishing date are presented at the end. I've assigned numbers for these comments for references purposes only.

Note that Biblical references pro or con applauding in church are cited in some of these articles, but I only included examples that include those references within the comments.

Comment #1:
From "Video & Full Text Of President Obama's Eulogy For Reverend Clementa Pinckney"
Azizi Powell, June 17, 2015
"Audience applause usually occurs at the end of a performance as a public demonstration (indication) that the audience appreciated that performance. However, during the eulogy that President Barack Obama gave for South Carolina pastor and state Senator Clementa Pinckney, the audience (or part of the audience) clapped during the eulogy, at the end of and, sometimes, at the beginning of or during certain statements that President Obama made.

I believe that applause during sermons or eulogies isn't traditional in African American churces, including churches that belong to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination. Furthermore, I believe that many if not most African American churches disaprove of applause after a choir sings during a formal church service because the choir or others are supposed to be performing for God and not for themselves. However, according to my recollections, it has become acceptable since at least the 1960s for African Americans to applaud at the end of music performances or other performances such as church mime or dance during religious programs including recitals and revivals. That applauding is different from the traditional custom of the congregation clapping to the beat during a choir or other musical rendition of a song.

My recollections are of my regular attendance of church services and church events at a Black Baptist church in Atlantic City, New Jersey (1950s-1969) and my sporadic attendance at that same Baptist church in New Jersey, and at other Baptist churches and usually Baptist churches in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after 1969 to date.

A 2002 blog post and comments on "Applause in church" contains various opinions on the subject of whether it's acceptable for members of the congregation to applaud after a church choir and particularly after a children's choir ends their song. Although it's not indicated in that article or comments, I believe the blog poster and commenters are White Americans. One commenter wrote that he is embarrassed when people clap after his choir performs in church because "We are they're [sic] to worship, not perform. They are a "congregation" not an "audience"". Another commenter wrote that choirs aren't suppose to sing for "self-glorification" and another commenter wrote "My personal feeling is that the people performing should be doing so for the glory of God, and the edification of the congregation". All of those sentiments could have been raised (and may have been raised/may be raised now in African American churches.

Paraphrasing their words, several commenters to that blog post wrote that applause after choirs sing is comparable to saying "Amen!". I think that's significant because I believe that the applause that members of the audience made during President Obama's eulogy for Reverend Pinckney was made instead of (and often along with) verbal affirmations such as "Amen!". It should be noted that often when the transcript of this eulogy gives the applause description, some members of the audience also gives some verbal acknowledgement in the traditional call & response style of African American churches. Also, some "responses" (exhortations/exclamations) to President's Obama's "call" are made during that eulogy without any indication in that transcription.

To be somewhat more specific, I believe that the audience's applause during President Obama's eulogy for Reverend Pinckney didn't always indicate approval (agreeance) for what he said. Sometimes that applause meant that the audience (or some members of that audience, and particularly the African Americans in attendance) appreciated the way that President Obama said something, or appreciated that President Obama "dared" to speak about a particular topic. And the audience's applause during the eulogy could have meant all of the above.

I wonder if African Americans in attendance at Reverend Pinckney's funeral applaud at intervals during that eulogy because they thought doing so was more acceptable in an interracial gathering than making verbal responses to President Obama's statements? Did some of the non- African Americans in that audience lead the applause?

I'm curious what your thoughts are about that applause. Is it your experience that congregants applaud a sermon or eulogy and when did this custom begin?
Note: I should have also written that the audience also clapped at the end of President Obama's eulogy.

Comment #2
From "What's Wrong with Applauding in Church" By Laurence A. Wagley, December 1988
..."The goal of participation seems like a persuasive reason for welcoming applause. It is clear that applause has a cathartic effect at concerts, performances and sporting events. People want to participate, they need to participate, and they will participate. That's true in church too.

But church should provide opportunities for participation that are less directly tied to encouraging performance. 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. Members of the congregation may, on reflection, realize that certain things in the service were done very well. But if the worship leaders draw attention to themselves and seem to ask for applause, then they are not fulfilling their roles.

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….
The most likely occasion for applause—in response to children—may be the time when it does the most harm. Applause may lead children to learn patterns of exhibitionism, competition, and self-centered behavior. There is also considerable evidence that by substituting appreciation for a cute baby for awareness of the presence of God, adults have undermined what is, in some communions, one of the holiest sacraments of the church, infant baptism.
Preachers and liturgists seldom provoke such a response, but the applause we do receive, as well intentioned as it may be, is a sign of misunderstanding. Those who applaud may think they are being supportive and encouraging to one another, just as the people in Lystra who prostrated themselves before the disciples thought they were showing honor to people who deserved it. But, in this case, the good can be the enemy of the best. 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. Encouraging self-consciousness rather that God-consciousness will finally destroy worship entirely, making us the First United Admiration Society rather than the church.

Reprinted by permission from The Christian Century, December 3, 1986."

Comment #3:
[This comment had no date or commenter's name. But all of the dates that were given are from 2002.]
"I have very strong feelings about allowing people to respond as they feel. Applause is a normal affirmative response in this country. What's wrong with affirming the offerings of people in our congregations? (musical or otherwise) We might applaud for someone's 50th anniversary. We might applaud for an inspiring and challenging sermon. We might applaud because we raised enough money to pay off the mortgage. We could also remain silent but that hardly seems like an overt response.....and who is to say that silent reverence is the best response. I personally know that silence on the outside is sometimes an indication that not much is going on the inside. Who is to say what action is "spiritual"?? Any action can become spiritually affirming as well as humanly affirming if the intent of the sprit is towards the Spirit. I've told some people who didn't seem to feel comfortable that if they were concerned about applause going towards human accomplishment....then how about aiming the applause and the intent "upward" or "inward" ...or wherever the spirit of God is for them. And who is to say that the Spirit of God is not in the individuals who are doing the performing??!! Sorry, to go on and on.....I've taught worship and church music at a local Christian college....we have wrestled back and forth on this one. I'm happy with what we practice in our church....and that is to encourage people to respond to God
in the way in which they are most comfortable,. Hope that this helps."

Comments #4, #5, #6, #7, #8
From "Heart → Ratzinger on applause in church" Posted on 8 June 2009 by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf
"From the blog Sober Inebriation comes this timely note:

An important liturgical message from Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI

"Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. " (Spirit of the Liturgy p. 198)

This message has been brought to you by Sober Inebriation Weblog.

If you should encounter applause during Mass in your parish do not panic. Immediately after Mass go out and get a copy of Pope Benedict’s book "The Spirit of the Liturgy" by Ignatius Press and give it to your pastor as a gift. Be sure to highlight the above passage on page 198. Yellow highlighter works really, really well"

Four selected comments from that blog post:
CDN Canonist says:
8 June 2009 at 1:41 PM
"I wonder what Benedict XVI thinks of the applause which frequently accompanies his Masses."

Rich Leonardi says:
8 June 2009 at 4:15 PM
"I wonder what Benedict XVI thinks of the applause which frequently accompanies his Masses.

At the April 2009 Papal Mass in Yankee Stadium, his homily was interrupted by several rounds of applause. He politely paused, but did nothing to encourage it. No big smiles, hand gestures, or waves."

Geoffrey says:
8 June 2009 at 2:46 PM
"I think it greatly depends on the nature of the applause. Let’s take the Pope for example. In a large gathering, it is the only way the faithful can manifest their love and esteem for him. In such a case he is not being “congratulated” for a “job well done” as in some choirs are, etc."

Dominic says:
8 June 2009 at 4:34 PM
"Applause broke out five times in the course of Archbishop Lefebvre’s sermon at the ceremony of episcopal consecration on June 30th, 1988."

Comments #9 & #10
From "Re: Why Do People Clap For Men Of God When They Are Preaching?"

[Pancocojams editor's note: This is a Nigerian forum.]

by alexleo(m): On Apr 24, 2010
[quoting Gunnaz007]
"The entrance of the Word giveth Light, it giveth understanding to the ignorant(Psalm 119:130)!!! Do you have any account that men of bible days did not respond to teachings the way it is done now? Have you ever solved a mathematical problem that u got stuck with for months, and you are like, yes!yes!yes! I gotcha!!! Waooohhhh! i solved ya!!!? [end of quote]

As you rightly quoted in hebrews4:12, a response to the word of God that you are being taught (or you are studying) is expected whether in (claps or shoutings or nodding, whatever), because the word of God is "SHARPER THAN ANY TWO EDGED SWORD. . ."; A quick analogy, if one slices you with a sword, wont you respond to that stimulus by either shouting or crying? Yet you expect the WORD OF GOD, which is "SHARPER THAN ANY TWO EDGED SWORD" to be of non-effect on the reciever

This is the importance of recieving the Holy Spirit, because He opens your understanding to respond impromtu in anyway to the Word taught or studied! Only that a natural man or canally-minded Christian might miscontrue those responses by the brethren as being for the Pastor's eloquence in speech, but remember, it is the Holy Sprit that gives the man the utterances that he presented to the church!!!" [end of that quote]

"my dear, there is a difference between a shout or cry from someone who has received a sharp cut and no sharp cut makes one to go into wild Jubilation as you may want me to believe by saying whichever way the person reacts. When some salient points are made during sermon, people can affirm that by voice response which is not bad but the kind we witness in some churches today depicts that of a pastor being applauded or clapped for because of his oratory skill. Mind you not anyone that mounts the pulpit is being led by the Holy Spirit. Truth is that Nigerians are desperate money seekers and because they have seen that church business yields much money and again its an easy way of shooting yourself to fame these days thats why everybody is claiming to have a calling from God so that they will mount big banner with a picture taken with their wives on every road. They want to display their oratory skill and be applauded for it. But bear this in mind, Soon and very soon God shall seperate the sheep from the goat. When you see a real man of God full of the Holy spirit preaching the difference is usually clear and those men of God doesnt even encourage applause for them when they are preaching. They are more interested in the change the word will have in you."

Re: Why Do People Clap For Men Of God When They Are Preaching? by tazevedo3: 5:39am On Jun 04, 2013
"I have three reasons why clapping during a sermon should be well received. I have been teaching my launch team this.

1) It gives the preacher feedback. When a preacher is up there preaching and he's trying to make a point and no one budges or moves, the preacher might feel like they haven't grasped it. But when the church understands and agrees on a point that is so powerful and true, clapping tells the pastor that they are agreeing. Yes, saying amen is great too, but clapping can help the church be more alive.

2) It encourages the pastor. Let's be real. Pastors need encouragement too. Tough crowds are tough to preach too. When the crowd begins to clap the pastor keeps going and gets excited about what he's preaching about. It tells the pastor that the church is also excited about what you're saying.

3) It glorifies God. As it was put very well by some people here, it glorifies God. In sports games, people clap their hands when they favorite team scores right? Why wouldn't we clap our hands when we are reminded or when we learn that Jesus has beat sin and given us a second chance? I feel like not clapping and rejoicing after hearing truth like that shows the world that we're not really excited about this message. If nonchristians come in my church, I want to show them that we are excited about the Pure Word of God, we are excited about its message and excited about people coming to saving faith! If sports teams get applause, why not Truth spoken through a pastor. It's not meant to glorify the pastor, it's meant to glorify God. As Pastor Judah Smith always says, "A silent church is a dead church, and we're not a dead church!"
By the way, I have been thinking a lot about this topic because I just recently planted a church in Bethlehem, PA called Pure Word Church. Check out our website (under construction right now). God bless!

Pastor Tim Azevedo"

Comment #11
"Okay, I can't stay out of this discussion any longer! The particular problem at my church was that the congregation felt compelled to applaud *every* time the children sang or played (no matter how well or poorly they had done--just to encourage them, as one parent put it) and *never*applauded the adult groups (vocal or handbell). I wrote an article for our church newsletter explaining that singing/playing in one of the children'schoirs was worship leader education, and that we had been trying particularly hard to help the children understand that they were notperforming for the congregation, but offering their music to God. I also noted (as someone else recently pointed out) that I had never heard themapplaud the sermon, scripture reading, or prayers.The applause happens very infrequently now; in fact, that last time we heard it was when the adult bell choir played Bruce Greer's *Just a Closer WalkWith Thee* with a really hot clarinet soloist!” Ann Wood
Most of the comments at that site focus on whether congregants should clap in church after music performances.

Comment #12
From "Is Hand Clapping in the Church Scriptural?"
"Why do some clap their hands (applaud) during the worship of the church? Some clap when they agree with a point the preacher has made. Some applaud when he finishes his sermon. This is to show their approval of it. However, there is no Scriptural authority for hand clapping in the worship of the church! One of the principles which will help us understand the Lord’s will for worship is to “speak where the Scriptures speak, and to remain silent where the Scriptures are silent.” In other words, when the Lord teaches us by a command, approved example, or implication in His Word, we have authority to do it. If He does not, then we are doing it without His authority.

What is the proper way to show agreement or approval in worship? The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 14:16. Paul wrote:“ “Else if thou bless with the spirit, how shall he that filleth the place of the unlearned say the Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he knoweth not what thou sayest?” The manner of Paul’s question implies that the proper way to show agreement is to say “Amen.” Even though this passage is dealing with the miraculous spiritual gifts of the apostolic age, it clearly shows how the Lord expects His disciples to show agreement today."

Comment #13
"Applause (Latin applaudere, to strike upon, clap) is primarily the expression of approval by the act of clapping, or striking the palms of the hands together, in order to create noise. Audiences usually applaud after a performance, such as a musical concert, speech, play or a performance to mark the sign of enjoyment and approval....

Applause during church services is traditionally regarded as taboo, in light of the sanctity of the proceedings; stress is on the aspect of worship rather than the personality of the individual preaching or singing during the service. This rule may be relaxed to permit applause in honor of the bride and groom when the newly married couple may turn to be greeted by the congregation following the exchange of vows. Applause may also be permitted at certain services in honor of a specific individual, such as the investiture of a new priest or minister. In less traditional congregations, particularly in contemporary, evangelical "mega-churches", a more casual atmosphere obtains and applause may be encountered as frequently as at any secular performance

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