On the subject of applause during worship, let me start by referencing Psalm 100 which reminds us that we are all entitled to, challenged to, invited to, and perhaps expected to make a joyful noise as we recognize the gift of God's grace. I personally don't have a problem with applause during worship, and have yet to hear a satisfying argument as to why applause can somehow negate sacredness. My view on the subject is far from doctrine however. Applause in worship can be downright startling to some people. Even though there is no scriptural basis to prohibit applause and worship, it is a prevailing culture in denominational churches to refrain from applause out of a sense of reverence. I think it's important to recognize both sides of the equation and make choices based on what is best for the people you share congregational life with.
A common argument against applause during worship is that it's a violation of the sanctity that we ascribe to the symbols of sacrament. Applause seems a little too colloquial for those who would want to protect this sense of mystery and sacredness. Applause, for some, steals from them the opportunity to let silence do its job in helping a song sink into our minds and hearts. One argument that I've heard several times against applause in worship is "We are here to praise God, not the band.” These people concluded that when they offer applause that it is just for the worship team and not the worship event. For the people that I talk to that reject applause as legitimate part of worship, what they feel is strong and they should be taken seriously.
As I mentioned, I personally support applause in worship. Applause is a joyful noise, and it allows a connection with the entire congregation with the worship team. There is a connection through applause that invites a deeper sense of community. Often, members of your worship teams include younger musicians. And of course when younger musicians are offering their talent, even the most traditional worshippers are inspired to offer applause. For the rest of us, I think it's possible to have applause in worship and not assume that the applause is for the band itself. Sometimes applause is a recognition of something good you have connected with. Have you ever been to a movie that was so good that at the end the whole theater broke into applause? Who were we applauding? Were we giving praise to the film projector? Were we congratulating the movie theater for offering a great movie? Were we offering applause to all of the creative people that went into making this film? My point is that applause sometimes is used to celebrate a moment, and not necessarily particular people. Here's another example: I used to go to dances when I was a kid. We would play songs on the stereo and then dance to those songs. At the end of each song, we would applaud. Who were we applauding? Are we applauding the stereo? Not really - we were applauding the moment. The point is this – applause can be very much the appropriate response to dances, good movies, or any event that we find a connection with and celebrate with others. Applause need not be a culmination of a performance, but a celebration of a meaningful moment that we share together as a community.
So what do you do? How do you deal with applause? You could always take either one side of the equation or the other. If you are compelled by both sides of the debate, there is a third way. It is possible to manage the applause that happens during worship so that it is offered at the most appropriate moments and minimized during moments where it's less appropriate. This approach takes planning and choreography with the pastoral staff. For example, if there was a song that you do not want to have applause afterwords, have your pastor put her or himself in position to start talking immediately at the end of the song. Preferably with their arms raised to visibly get people's attention. This will expedite the transition into the next liturgical event without applause. If there are moments in your liturgy that are immediately preceded by songs and you want to avoid applause, try ending the songs differently than usual. Don't let the song end abruptly, but let it trail off by discontinuing the vocals at the end of the song, but continue with instruments until your pastor has successfully transitioned into the next element. I found this technique to be particularly effective when prayers immediately follow a song. It takes some planning to do this seamlessly, but it makes for powerful moments in worship.
Let me conclude on the subject by noting that applause is something that I've seen develop among the congregations that I have led over time. I have found that applause is something that a congregation grows into, it's a sign of evolution. Applause can be considered a sign of growth and comfort within your congregation. I've been part of intentional efforts to completely suppress applause of worship, but I've never seen these efforts work. My experience tells me that congregations want to applaud. My advice is to be professional and strategic about applause. Manage it to your congregation’s benefit. Don't try to stifle it but embrace it for its liturgical value.