Posted by: rcottrill | February 16, 2010

Hold That Applause…Please

Applause has its place. But for some it seems out of place in the worship services of the church.

The sanctuary lights dimmed, as costumed young people made their way to the platform. The story of Joseph began to unfold. His coat of many colours, the dreams, the jealousy of his brothers. The youth group of the church my wife and I attended some years ago was presenting the familiar account in the form of a contemporary musical. Eventually, they came to his time in Potiphar’s house and Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife. A teen-age girl slunk across the platform singing a song called “Mae East”–a take-off on Mae West, the movie vamp of the thirties.

It was an impossibly difficult task, singing that song. Not musically, but dramatically. Play it for laughs and it trivializes the conflict between holiness and wanton wickedness. Play it too sensually and it crosses the border of good taste. My impression was that the singer came perilously close to the latter. With the sexual innuendo in her walk and her look, she left no doubt as to what this was all about. At last she ended her siren song, on a spectacularly high note. “Praise the Lord!” proclaimed a gentleman seated in front of me, in a voice loud enough to be heard rows away.

It was startling. Disturbing, that note of praise. What was he lauding? This woman’s wicked seduction of a godly young man? No, not that. His attention was on the performance. What thrilled him was that sensational finishing note. It was the singer’s ability to climb higher up the musical scale than the average person. And in that moment, a deep concern was ignited in my mind and heart.

Will you excuse me if I “stops preachin’ and goes to meddlin'” for a moment? It sometimes distresses me when we applaud the ministry of music in our church services–especially during those times designated for worship. What are we applauding? I am sure that in many cases it is the skill of the performance. I know there is a breezy style abroad that says, “Let’s give the Lord a hand,” but I wonder. Are we sincerely worshipping when we applaud at the end of a song. “My Jesus, I love Thee…”–and we clap enthusiastically. What? Whom? Jesus? In the majority of cases, I doubt it.

Those of us who serve publicly in this way need the attitude of John the Baptist who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). And the outlook of the one on the platform ought to promote a similar response from those in the pew. Augustine once said, “When I am moved by the voice of him that sings more than by the words sung, I confess I have sinned.” Let’s determine to direct our attention to what the words communicate. Let’s respond to the sentiment of the message, not assess the competence of the performer.

So, is there a place to encourage the one who sings? Certainly. Time enough later, after the service, to express personal appreciation for the ministry. It is entirely appropriate to approach a soloist after the meeting, and say how much the ministry has blessed us. God’s servants need our support. But as Ecclesiastes reminds us, “to everything there is a season” (Ecc. 3:1). Worship celebrates His worth-ship. In services designed for such a purpose, we must be careful not to confuse emotional excitement with spiritual energy, or worship with entertainment. Hold that applause…please.


  1. For the “special music” in a church service, WHO is the real audience?

    • Well, to be technical, if it’s a hymn, it’s addressed to the ever-present Lord. If it’s a gospel song, it’s addressed to the people present, but should honour the Lord as well, and direct attention to Him, not to the musician. He is the most important “Audience” in either case.

      Paul said, “Do I seek to please men?…If I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). That is the attitude I like to see–both in myself and others.

      And I never use the term “Special Music” in an Order of Service, preferring instead “Ministry in Music,” hoping that at least some will get the idea! This isn’t special entertainment to amuse them. It’s a ministry of God’s Word that just happens to be to a musical accompaniment.

  2. Robert, THANK you again! “…so is good news from a far country” [bet you can give the first half of this proverb]! Though Canada is not a “far country” (at least from the States), I’ll “mess” with you here just long enough to say that what you’ve written here ~ and so eloquently ~ IS a type of “good news”, even if from a “near” country!

    I have always believed (and still believe) that any time a person is taking the “attention” (i.e., the “glory”) away from God, that person is treading on dangerous ground: “My glory I will not give to another” (God’s words). Nevertheless, through the years while offering music (played at the piano in the context of a worship service) as an “offering” back to the God Who gave it to me, I have often felt very, um, awkward (is the best word I can presently think of) when, upon my last chord, or note, an uproarious applause fills a “worship center” or sanctuary (and we’re not even talking for something that was played with a high-decibel level), for it seems (and this is simply my own “thing”, but I believe that I do have a Biblical basis for it) that the applause (while generally well-intended) is STEALING the attention away from what GOD was trying to communicate to the congregation through the music!

    Thus, I am one of those “odd” individuals who does NOT “acknowledge” the applause… In fact, to do so (this is my own belief) would be to *distract* the listeners from thinking on, from pondering on GOD — whether their ponderings were related to the text of the hymn/gospel song just played in their hearing, or whether God was “connecting the dots” (so to speak) in the minds of the hearers (i.e., using the music, the text, and possibly the overall concept (especially in the case of a medley). When I, when we, say to God, “…and THINE be the Kingdom, the power, and the GLORY forever…”, it seems to me that we are actually asking God to “rule” here & now (making even the present His Kingdom, in addition to His future Kingdom), that His inexplicable power also be displayed “here and now”, and… that He put His Glory “on public display” at this very moment!

    For me, or for any person participating in a worship service to STEAL the people’s attention from GOD (yes, even just a teeny-tiny slice of the attention, or the accolades), that is…in direct violation of the commandment, “Thou shalt have NO other gods before Me”. I understand that my take on how a “creative person” (in this instance, a church musician, though I do believe that the application extends to every individual in the creative arts who offers their abilities back to GOD in the context of a worship service) may be upsetting to some who read this. We all need to especially be on guard for the “pride of life” (cf I Jn. 2:15ff), including the temptation to “bask” in the bliss of human applause. It seems that we should have the understanding that “every gift ~ including every creative ability that is used in a worship setting ~ is given by GOD, and therefore, one must earnestly seek to resist the temptation to be proud, or in any way to draw the attention **away** from the message of [in this case] the music in order to keep the praise/applause for one’s own honor. At any instant, God could most certainly destroy a person or a group who chooses to take HIS glory! While He may graciously NOT strike a person dead, YET… He may strike a “death” of creativity, or a “death” in limiting a person’s ability to again offer his/her creative gifts…

    Guess I take these things very seriously (like you couldn’t tell!). THANK you for addressing this “applause” issue; it is a high-priority issue among current church music/worship topics.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and impassioned response. I think applause in the worship services used to be more of an American thing. (We Canadians tend to be a bit more reserved.) But sadly it is catching on here–perhaps because of the many American church services we can watch on television.

      And I’ve noticed another interesting trend in churches where I have either been a pastor or a guest speaker. Congregations that do not normally applaud the ministry in music will do so when children are involved. The rationale is that “We have to encourage them.” (I even heard applause once when a boy read the Scripture passage!) But to me, this is folly–and it misses a prime opportunity to teach our youth what ministry is all about. Instead of inflating the egos of the little darlings for putting on such a good “show” for us, they need to be taught before and after the fact that their song is a gift to the Lord, and He is to receive the glory. Pastors, parents, and friends should support this perspective.

      Years ago, the male choir in which I sang was asked to minister at a banquet that was part of the dedication and celebration of the building of a huge new church facility. Also on the program was a well-known soloist. I’ll never forget it. After he sang, there was rousing applause, and he sternly rebuked those who clapped, saying he wasn’t singing for their approval but for the glory of God. It was a courageous thing to do. But I wonder if that’s the best time to deal with the problem. The rebuke may have taken even more focus away from the message of the song. It’s something that should be carefully taught from the pulpit at other times.

      Thanks again for your input.

  3. Excellent post.
    This “applause” issue is something I personally struggle with. In fact I refuse to participate in the “applause” at my church for the exact reasons expressed in this post and comments. It has been almost 1 year since I have personally participated in the ministry of music (playing or singing, except in some congregational singing) at my church. The applause issue is one main reason. I do not want to be responsible for encouraging this wrong trend. Even last week I was contemplating making a public request just prior to my solo, asking the congregation members to refrain from applauding… But alas, I did not sing.
    It is a difficult issue to approach especially when “applause” itself is almost a tradition. I am not sure how to approach it with church leaders. Thanks for an excellent post.
    With your permission I would like to repost it on my own blog.

    • Thanks for your comments. And yes, you are welcome to repost the article. (I’d appreciate a link to my blog, so that readers can visit and read other things there.)

      I, like you, do not participate in applause after a ministry in music. But changing the trend is, as you say, more difficult. I was applauded for a solo a couple of weeks ago, in a church other than my own. Of course I have no control over their policy. But I believe next time I will ask before I sing (as politely as I can) that the folks refrain. Another thing you might try is to have the congregation join you in singing the refrain of the song, if it is a familiar one. Most will not clap after that, as it seems more as though they are clapping for themselves! (I have a video clip coming on March 8th of Stuart Hamblen doing that with his song “It Is No Secret.”)

      Once or twice when I was pastor of the church, I’ve included the article on applause in the Sunday bulletin as an insert, and called attention to it. But it does seem to have become an ingrained habit. I have less problem if a guest speaker (or singer) is introduced and the service leader says, “Let’s make him/her feel welcome,” and leads in a round of applause before the music ministry. And I’ve also seen churches where the pastor as he preaches will call for an “Amen!” to something he has said, and there is a sprinkling of applause as well. In either of these cases it does not seem people are applauding a performance. But maybe most will not discern the difference!

  4. Thank you so much for the article on “Hold That Applause…Please.” Are we being entertained like at the theater, or are we being “still” before God (Psalm 46:10)?

    • Thanks for your comment–and your good question. I know that there are lots of clap-happy believers who are perfectly sincere. But I find applause at the very least an unnecessary distraction. At its worst, it amounts to glorifying the individual when we should be glorifying God. Many centuries ago Augustine wrote, “When I am moved by the voice of him that sings more than by the words sung, I confess I have sinned.”


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