I was in the choir when I was in high school. Not only that, of my own volition, I joined the male chorus, which I was part of for all four of those formative years. We’d sing such seminal songs as “My Little Buttercup,” “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” I went to a Christian high school, so our performances usually took place in churches in the area that were part of the denomination associated with the school. It was always strange to me, when after a rousing rendition of “Little Deuce Coupe” the congregation would sit in silence and stare at us. No applause. Crickets. Not being of this particular denomination, whenever my parents were in the crowd, they would erupt with vibrant clapping regardless of whether anyone else joined in their appreciation.
Though I don’t personally find anything wrong with applause in a service of worship, the non-clapping ritual did at least get me thinking as a high schooler mostly interested in soccer and skateboarding.
Our churches are filled with some pretty talented people. They are in the congregation as well as on the platform. And musicians are amongst the most visible—skilled guitarists, vocalists, keyboard players, and so on. These skills are being put to use in order to unify the sung prayer of the congregation—a prayer that, hopefully, declares great is the Lord!
But we have all likely witnessed other declarations on a Sunday morning. How great was that guitar lick? How great was my vocal prowess? How great was I at preaching? How great were those visuals?
Worship is a place to use our skills in order to shine a light on how great our God is. I still think it’s a good idea to let people respond to a male chorus group belting out “awimbawe, awimbawe” in a way that feels natural. We do a lot of things when we gather: We give announcements; we shake hands; we disagree with the pastor; we check our text messages; and some of us say, “Thanks for that!” when someone inspires and directs us to God with their musical skill. This is life, and our congregations are filled with human beings. But on the other hand, it is important that whether we clap after sung worship… or we don’t, we must stand firm in one thing: if we do not at least praise the Lord, then we have missed the point. Leaders can’t force their congregations to do this, but they can lead in such a way that reminds the congregation who is the center of the narrative. It is surprising how easy it is to leave that out, or at least make it secondary on our priority list.
We experience, join in, take hold of, and become part of God’s mission in the world when we declare: Great is the Lord and he is greatly to be praised. We are here to make him known, and he is just; he is love, and he is moving amongst the nations so that all hearts will find their peace in him.
Jeremy Armstrong is managing editor for Worship Leader magazine and Song Discovery.