“Is it okay to applaud in worship?” I often get asked this question, as I did this past Sunday. We were all moved to express our joy after a particular piece of music and we started to clap. But then, because we are Presbyterians, we wondered, “Is this okay? Are we being irreverent, disruptive? Are we turning worship into a performance?” All good questions. Here are some answers – at least here are my answers!
When we enter into worship, there is a sense of reverence, of course. We often step into the space seeking sanctuary from the noise and chaos and confusion of the rest of the world. Sometimes we step quietly into the space and breathe deeply, listening for the stirrings of the Spirit, the whispers of the Holy. In certain moments of worship, quiet reverence is appropriate.
When we gather as the People of God, however, we are also gathering to celebrate together and to offer praise and thanksgiving. So, joyful singing is appropriate. Laughter and smiling is often the way we express joy and thanksgiving. When we see someone we have missed, delight is expressed in a laugh or a shout of joy.
And when we worship together, we are all participants, not spectators, in the act of giving thanks and offering worship to God. As participants, we speak aloud the words of prayers and litanies. We sing the hymns together. We speak words of peace to each other. Some stand and read scripture aloud. Someone stands and offers words of a sermon. Some others share an anthem, a choral piece, a solo piece, an instrumental offering. And because we are participants in worship, not spectators, sometimes we are listening so actively that what we hear moves us to respond – by clapping, or saying Amen, or nodding, or murmuring a sound of agreement.
When people gather for family occasions of joy and celebration there will always be noise and confusion and chaos and laughter and singing and shouting. When the People of God gather for worship, noise and confusion and chaos and laughter and singing and shouting (and silence and reverence and listening) are all to be expected and embraced. That includes applause when it is a natural expression of our joy in the moment. Joy expressed out loud is the sign of a lively congregation hard at work and worship!