We’ve all been there. On a rare Sabbath morning a competent musician delivers an awe-inspiring rendition of a spiritual song ushering the congregation into the presence of God. And upon their conclusion the congregation enters into the valley of wide-eyed uncertainty and indecision.
To clap or not to clap? THAT is the question.
Gratitude is not something commonly expressed in Adventist congregations. Taking a dutiful approach to ministry it is expected that you share your gifts on demand because God—or the Nominating Committee—says so. Your thanks is the warm feeling produced by hours of last minute frenetic practice mixed with anxiety percolating in the pit of your stomach.
“I just freeze up” said one rural church member after a traveling musician stopped on their way through town for church. “I was so moved inside, yet my outside was paralyzed. I heard one or two people give a couple token claps, but when I didn’t hear a third or fourth join in I… I just couldn’t go through with it.”
He went on to say that their previous pastor once vigorously clapped after a performance and three months later found himself in a new district. “They can’t fire me as a church member for clapping” added the church member. Then ominously concluded with “…but they have other ways of making you comply.” I tried to find out who “they” were but he only shook his head.
I have attempted more interviews with indecisive clappers but they were as reluctant with their speech as they were with their hands. One stalwart defender of traditional church, however, did step up to the challenge and clarified, “It’s not that I don’t appreciate musicians, it’s just that clapping worships the person not God. I prefer a hearty amen to clapping.” When asked if he ever said louder “amens” for some performances than others he made no reply.
One pro-clapper came forward and suggested Psalm 47 as supporting the clapping platform. The text says, “O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph” [Psalm 47:1, KJV]. “So you see, it’s a biblical MANDATE that we clap” she said triumphantly.
Since she was a women—known for a hermeneutics of sentimentalism and not cold logic—we confirmed this position with a man and it is indeed true that this is a “proof-text” in the pro-clapping camp.
As I’ve surveyed other Midwestern churches, another member offered an answer to the Psalm 47 conundrum via a website he had googled. The site explains that the “fact that hand clapping was commanded in Old Testament worship does not authorize it in New Testament worship any more than the fact that the burning of incense and the offering of animal sacrifices in Old Testament worship gives authority for them in New Testament worship” [http://www.tftw2.org/Tracts/handclapping.html].
Excited by this revelation I quickly asked what anti-type fulfilled the practice of clapping in the New Testament? The obvious answer is “the cross” stated the first elder of the no-clap congregation. He stated “Jesus’ hands were nailed making it impossible to clap.”
However one impertinent youth piped up that in Ellen White’s six volume biography written by her grandson she states, at a Campmeeting, “I was stopped several times with clapping of hands and stomping of feet. I never had a more signal victory” [Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1984,) vol. 3, p. 46.]. This proved an horrific turn of events for the first elder who said he knew nothing of that quote and since it was in a biography it most likely fell under the category of hearsay from a grandson with a faulty memory.
Further complicating the issue is Pope Benedict the XVI’s statement in The Spirit of Liturgy where he states, “Whenever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.” [p. 198]. This sets up a tricky dynamic for those who agree with traditional worship practices but also hold to the traditional position of disagreeing with whatever the Pope says.
The issue doesn’t appear to have any sign of abating.
Until then we are forced to endure the bold claps of the few, the timid claps of the indecisive, and the scowls of those whose hands rest firmly in the lap during service—save when for reasons unexplained waves of applause make their way through church service once or twice a year. Factors currently believed to contribute to widespread clapping are persistent efforts of the 10% who do know when to clap influencing the 10% waiting for the first 10% to clap, the visible clapping of leaders on the platform, and verbal cues from the pastor such as “let us clap.”