Volume 14, Number 2
What, if anything, is wrong with hand clapping in worship services?
It was friday evening and I sat under the large camp meeting tent, listening to the musical program preceding the evening speaker. After forty-plus years of attending Seventh-day Adventist camp meetings, this was a familiar and enjoyable experience. It was good to be in fellowship with God's people.
But I was to have a shock this time. As the first musicians finished their number and walked off the platform, the audience applauded! Again, following the next number, and the next. This was a first for me, and I began to feel quite uncomfortable. For a moment I even questioned my orientation. This is the Sabbath, isn't it? This is a sacred service, isn't it? Why the applause?
As I have attended other camp meetings and Adventist gatherings over the years since, I have tried rationally and biblically to analyze my discomfort in an effort to answer the question, What, if anything, is wrong with hand clapping in worship services?
A Secular Ambiance
Through long association, hand clapping acquired for many Christians a secular feel. Its historic venue was the theater, the sports arena, the social gathering. Its intrusion into sacred worship offends the spiritual sensibilities of those who were reared with that understanding. For them, applause during a sacred service shifts the focus from the vertical to the horizontal. It spotlights the human while pushing the divine backstage. It is a jarring anomaly, like a rock beat at a communion service. It secularizes the sacred.
Hand clapping is yet another indicator of our changing concept of the greatness of God. We have reinvented God in our own image. We inform Him regarding what He is or ought to be. His sovereignty, omnipotence, and holiness have been supplanted by more human (and humane) qualities. Our new God is not so particular about the details. We were mistaken; now we know. Or so we think.
The Israelite sanctuary service was designed to create respect for the holiness of God. Every rite, every utensil was infused with holiness. When two intoxicated young priests were incinerated at the door of the tabernacle, the Lord said to Moses, "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified" (Lev 10:3 NKJV).
We worship the same God. Our plush churches and electronic sound systems and musical instruments have not diminished the holiness of God in the least. We must magnify, not decrease, the difference between the holy and the unholy, the clean and the unclean (see Ezek 22:26).
Seventh-day Adventists understand that in the closing of the great controversy, worship is the issue. We have always known that the battle would rage around the day; now we know it will also include the way. Hand clapping, as innocuous as it appears to some, is letting the camel's nose of secular influence into the church. Shouting, whistling, and foot stomping have not yet arrived, but can they be far behind? Those who dare to touch the mountain will be tempted to touch the ark.
The Entertainment Quotient
At the college I attended as a student, an "applause meter" was used to select the prize winners in amateur-hour-type programs. We clapped with all our might in an effort to drive the indicator up for our favorite competitor. Congregations are now "voting" with applause for their favorites, and worship leaders urge them on, much like talent-show emcees.
I have observed that a breathy, "contemporary" song, sung with swaying body motions, eyes half closed, microphone held close to the lips, can "bring the house down," while a cathedral-quality violin or clarinet solo may receive but a light patter of applause. It is clear that most congregations can easily ignore the hard work and time invested in learning to play or sing well; they simply applaud that which makes them feel good. Applause measures entertainment value.
The message thus conveyed to musicians is both instructive and cruel: Give us that to which our carnal natures have been habituated or your performance will not be appreciated. Besides giving false testimony about the purpose of music in worship, if the practice of applauding continues to spread throughout our churches, this alone could very well discourage many young people from pursuing an interest in serious music.
Be that as it may, this is not the most important consideration regarding applause in our services. More fundamental is the question, What are we trying to accomplish by clapping? Is it to give praise and adulation to the performers? If so, we have defeated the purpose of worship, which is to give honor and praise to God.
We are accustomed to being entertained. Our homes have entertainment centers. Our automobiles are similarly equipped to make sure our minds are constantly distracted. It is not easy to find "a quiet place, far from the rapid pace, where God can soothe my troubled mind."1 It seems reasonable that the church should be that place, and not a kind of Sabbath theater.
The Music Makes Them Do It
As already noted, the creation of the applause dynamic is not only in the congregants' I'm-here-to-be-entertained attitude but in the performer's choice of music. People applaud what they instinctively recognize as "gospel entertainment"--a term used without embarrassment by many in "music ministry" today.
I have yet to hear any group of worshipers applaud the singing of "The Lord's Prayer" or "Just as I Am," although I'm not ready to rule out the possibility. I'm glad the hand clappers, for the most part, seem to have a modicum of respect for things sacred. Few congregations, I think, would clap as wildly and profanely for a harpist's rendition of "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" as they might for a trumpet trio version of "Do, Lord."
It is apparent that the music itself either encourages or suppresses the inclination to applaud. If the music ends with a flourish and crescendo, the congregation's emotions rise with it, and applause is often the response. Such music begs for applause. The more subdued closure of sacred hymns tends to leave the worshiper more thoughtful about the message. In other words, the more closely the music reflects what the listeners are accustomed to hearing in the entertainment world, the more vigorous the applause; the more sacred the music, the more likely the applause is to be "polite" or absent.
Shades of Pentecostalism?
Hand clapping, as a religious exercise, is not a stand-alone phenomenon. At least, if it is, I believe it is unlikely to remain that way. Waiting in the wings are the raised arms, the swaying bodies, and the ecstatic utterances so characteristic of Pentecostalism.
And we've been there before. In early Adventism we find several instances of individuals who went beyond shouting and clapping; they were "prostrated" by the Spirit and "slain by the power of God" (Spiritual Gifts, 2:27, 221). Ellen G. White even seems to have approved of these demonstrations at the time. So why are we so guarded against them today?
The Lord showed Ellen White where these things were headed and instructed her to apply the brakes. She wrote, "With some, religious exercises mean little more than a good time. When their feelings are aroused, they think they are greatly blessed. . . . The intoxication of excitement is the object they are seeking; and if they do not obtain this, they suppose they are all wrong, or that someone else is all wrong" (Selected Messages, 2:21).
It will not do to rise up in anger and say that we should not let the devil steal away something from us that is good and right. It is too late for that. Pentecostalism has gained a universal image of unbridled emotionalism; Seventh-day Adventists historically have chosen the path of calm reason and quiet joy so that the world might see us as "an intelligent, thinking people, whose faith is based on a surer foundation than the bedlam of confusion" (ibid., p. 24).
Those who defend hand clapping claim there is a need for more freedom and spontaneity, more "spirit" and less structure, in our meetings. Ellen White considered such an approach to worship dangerous. "In our speaking, our singing, and in all our spiritual exercises, we are to reveal that calmness and dignity and godly fear that actuates every true child of God. There is constant danger of allowing something to come into our midst that we may regard as the workings of the Holy Spirit, but that in reality is the fruit of a spirit of fanaticism. . . . I am afraid of it; I am afraid of it" (ibid., p. 43). Instead, she always taught that God's people were "to move with system and order" (Testimonies for the Church, 1:191).
Dealing an Uneven Hand
Even if applause were an acceptable way of showing appreciation in our churches, isn't it a show of partiality? If anyone should be singled out for a round of applause in most churches, it is the cradle-roll leader. Or the members of the kitchen committee. Or the church school teachers.
And if Heaven approves clapping at all, my guess is it would be for a struggling soul who has gained the victory over some besetting sin, or someone who has come through a great trial of suffering and loss with a triumphant spirit. In such cases, I can hear Jesus saying, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!" (Luke 15:6).
I think singling out the up-front people for recognition sends the wrong message to the people in the trenches.
An Intoxicating Wine
And it sends the wrong message to the performers themselves. In the several dozen uses of the word "applause" by Ellen White, I have found no instances where it is used in a positive sense. She speaks of people "panting" for applause, of those who "seek more earnestly the applause of those around them than the approbation of God," of some who "receive applause for virtues which they do not possess," and of some whom applause stimulates much as "the glass of wine does the inebriate" (Testimonies for the Church, 4:375; Early Writings, p. 107; Testimonies for the Church, 2:512; 3:185, 186).
If we had no other reason to withhold applause for performances during our worship services, we would need no other. We have innumerable warnings in the Bible and the writings of Mrs. White against engendering pride and self-adulation in our fellow men. Even a sip or two of that intoxicating wine can be addicting.
But what about the Bible references? At first glance, the Bible might seem to be on the pro-applause side. It speaks of the "trees of the field" clapping their hands in joy at the deliverance of Israel (Isa 55:12), and the rivers clapping their hands in anticipation of the coming of the Lord to judge the earth (Ps 98:8, 9). Second Kings 11:12 says the people "clapped their hands" during the coronation ceremonies of King Joash.
The only reference to hand clapping in connection with worship is Psalm 47:1, 2: "Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph! For the Lord Most High is awesome; He is a great King over all the earth." First, we note that God alone is the recipient of this exuberant expression of joy. Secondly, there is no indication here or elsewhere in Scripture that hand clapping was a regular feature in worship. And in any case, we can say with certainty that hand clapping did not come into the Seventh-day Adventist church as the result of a prayerful search of the Bible and Mrs. White's writings. It came, rather, as so many things have, out of "a desire to pattern after other churches" (Selected Messages, 2:18).
A Uniter or Divider?
I have observed that in any group there are usually a number who do not applaud. Those who do and those who don't do not fit into age or class categories. I see white-haired people applauding as vigorously as GenXers, the educated as enthusiastically as the unschooled. And I see baby-boomers sitting with arms folded.
Hand clapping is one of several elements in worship that divide us. We need to come together and resolve the issue with prayer and study and much humility of spirit. Any lasting reform will have to include our children. We have been faithfully educating our children in our schools and Sabbath Schools to sing "active" songs that employ rhythmic clapping. Perhaps, in so doing, we have trained them to find the meter and rhythm of the great hymns of the church dispirited and boring.
Cultural preferences must be set aside. If the end-time issue is worship, we make a terrible mistake in quibbling over cultural differences. The holiness of God is the measure of our worship.
"If all the proud and vainglorious, whose hearts are panting for the applause of men and for distinction above their fellows, could rightly estimate the value of the highest earthly glory in contrast with the value of the Son of God, rejected, despised, spit upon, by the very ones whom He came to redeem, how insignificant would appear all the honor that finite man can bestow" (Testimonies for the Church, 4:375).
1. "A Quiet Place," Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, No. 503.