Faith Works 3-20-10
A Round of Applause Says Something
There's a tradition, unwritten in most classical music programs, but widely understood among audiences, that you don't applaud between movements of a symphony or concerto.
I once attended a Pinchas Zukerman performance in a large Midwestern hall where he played the audience almost as well as he did his violin, holding the bow at the close of a note and turning away from the orchestra in such a way that even those who were new to a classical concert could tell that this moment was not a time to clap, yet. It was a collaboration that taught, with respect, and I've never forgotten that.
At other performances, I have to admit I've not only seen clapping between movements, but many so-called cultured members of the audience take just a little too much pleasure in looking around indignantly at their less well informed neighbors, either letting them know that they've committed a breach of etiquette, or wanting to show clearly who is with the in crowd, and who has mud on their face.
Which is kind of silly, considering that if you read contemporary accounts of concerts in Vienna and Berlin back between Mozart and Beethoven, audiences applauded wildly between movements, to communicate their liking (or dislike) of the new music as it came to the concert hall straight from the pens of the not yet classical composers. The convention of non-applause is really a creation of the late 1800's Victorian era sense of propriety, not a timeless given of concert life throughout history.
On the other hand, I very much enjoyed a concert I attended last year at Denison, in Burke Hall, where a string quartet played for just a hundred very attentive, focused, intent listeners, and there was great appreciation shown by the performers to us as an audience for our engagement in the music. Not a candy wrapper rustled, nor a cell phone went off, and there were no false moves by anyone between movements to make as if to clap. It made for a near transcendent moment, but I would have felt very bad for any one poor newbie who had stumbled in that night, had they started to show their appreciation in the best way they know how.
Should you clap in church? The stock response in "non clapping" congregations is that the singer(s) or players are offering their gifts to God, so our applause is itself inappropriate, since it's the showing of human approval which is getting in the way of the intended purity of the gift.
As you can probably tell by how I worded that, I don't quite see it that way. To be fair, I think there are times and situations where clapping is not appropriate, and the sustained focus of worship is the goal of the entire congregation, so an individual decision to clap is a very real distraction.
Sometimes, though, I fear that the whole non-clapping thing is more of a "we know who is in the know" deal, and a way to let people know who does and doesn't belong. Is applause really just a sign of human approval? Can you put your hands together to give thanks to God for the gifts just offered up, musically, as some worship leaders I know have said? It seems right to me.
The counter-response is often, "Really? So why aren't very powerful spoken prayers ever applauded? When was the last time you heard a sermon get a round of applause at the end?"
Exactly. There are cultural norms and expectations working both for and against applause. Spoken word presentations don't normally draw applause, but musical offerings do – except in church, or at least some churches. And churches that clap after are also ones more likely to clap during, or speak up (if not applaud) during (if not at the end) of sermons, with an "Amen, brother" or "Hallelujah, sister" after a particularly good point.
What's important to remember is that neither approach is Biblical or binding throughout church history. Clapping or not clapping is a cultural choice, and should always be secondary to the central intentions of any one worship service – and if there are strongly held opinions in any one church, it wouldn't hurt to make the local norm clear in the bulletin. Just spell it out, OK?
I know good Christians who wish their churches were more accepting of congregational participation through applause, and I also know good Christian folk who wish that they didn't have to clap for every wobbly, excruciating solo that's offered in worship. The strongest argument for non-clapping is that you can't gauge the relative merit of silences following two different performances. It's an equalizer.
And I know lots of performers of all sorts and with varying religious preferences who equally wonder why we started giving every concluding applause moment a full standing ovation, and what should we do about that?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he likes to applaud musical offerings in worship except when he shouldn't, whenever that is. Tell him your preferences on clapping at email@example.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.