The increase in clapping of the hands in churches as a response to musical ministries and even preaching is one of the obvious changes taking place in many churches. What I find intriguing is why? What is behind this growing preference for hand clapping as a sign of approval rather than “Amen”, “Praise the Lord”, or some similar phrase?
Some reading this are perhaps already questioning the wisdom and motivation of this topic. “Why spend time discussing something so insignificant and harmless?” I submit that the changes we see are not insignificant and harmless.
With any topic, the first step is “What does the Bible say?” To some this might seem ridiculous. “What could the Bible possibly say about ‘clapping’?” The Bible uses the English word “clap” less than ten times, with a mixture of positive and negative contexts, with perhaps slightly more positive than negative. People clapped their hands to show approval (2 Kings 11:12) or disapproval (Job 27:23; Lamentations 2:15). Psalm 47:1 indicates that people clapped hands in praise to God, and, in a metaphorical sense, nature “claps its hand” in praise to God (Psalm 98:8; Isaiah 55:12). Note that all of the references are in the Old Testament. The New Testament does not record any examples of clapping in worship nor do the epistles mention the practice.
Although these references give us an idea of how people in the Bible used their hands in this way, these references by themselves do not completely answer questions about the use of clapping in churches today. As with the topics of dancing and drums, which the Old Testament mentions, we have to determine whether our current practice of clapping is similar to the clapping in the Old Testament. To be honest, I’m not sure if we can make that determination. Do we have enough information about Old Testament cultures to know with certainty the specifics of their cultural practices of clapping hands? Do we have any video showing how they clapped hands? Obviously not. Thus, we should be careful in assuming that the simple mention of the practice in the OT is enough to justify the practice in churches today.
I have watched hand clapping become more common in many churches. As hand clapping has become more common, the use of “Amen” or “Praise the Lord” has become less common. This is very similar to the growing use of the word “blessings” instead of “The Lord bless you”. Recently our church held an end-of-summer picnic where we also had a gospel quartet sing. Before the quartet sang, I purposely did not make any announcement about clapping or Amen in order to see what people would naturally do. At this picnic, about half of those who attended were not associated with our church and many were unbelievers. At the end of each song, most people clapped – automatically, without any encouragement. People didn’t need instructions for them to do it. When I see something like this, one of my first questions is “Why are people doing this?”
I think cultural expectations and conditioning are part of the answer. In American culture, people assume that you show approval to entertainment or speeches by clapping your hands. This assumption and practice has now become part of many, if not most, churches. I think this practice reflects the influence of secular practices and culture in our churches. A person must have some degree of Biblical knowledge and spiritual depth to say the words “Amen”, “Praise the Lord”, or similar phrases (1 Cor 12:3). By actually verbalizing the words, the speaker is openly giving witness to the Lord. Generally, an unbeliever would have no reason to say those words. I suggest that one reason clapping hands is popular is because it doesn’t involve much spiritual depth or knowledge to do so. An unbeliever can join in clapping hands in church without any spiritual commitment since the practice of clapping is common in our society, and no one would associate spiritual depth or even knowing Christ as Savior with the practice of clapping hands. However, to say “Amen” involves a degree of spiritual depth that an unbeliever simply does not have.
When attending a public event where at some point the audience begins clapping hands or gives a standing ovation, you may not really want to clap your hands or stand up but do so anyway because everyone is clapping their hands and standing, and you do not wish to be the only one sitting down. Of course, the same pressure can work to influence an individual to say “Amen” simply because the people around him do so. However, I think clapping has more tendency to do so, since it is a group activity. It also makes an unbeliever more comfortable, and often is almost automatic, done without thinking.
I find it strange that those who talk so much about following New Testament patterns and examples so easily conform and accept a practice that doesn’t have any New Testament precedent. The New Testament uses words and phrases such as “Amen”, “Praise the Lord”, and other phrases but never indicates that believers used clapping to show approval. We should not ignore this.
Clapping hands in churches is another small sign of negative cultural influence in our churches and the tendency to minimalist theology and practice. Christians today are less interested in doctrine and theology and more interested in experience. This minimalist theological pattern is influencing a wide variety of changes, including clapping. Some consider this change innocent, irrelevant, and neutral. I do not. I consider it an indication of growing shallowness in many churches and the influence of secular society upon believers. Perhaps we should explain more clearly and carefully in our churches why we say the words “Amen” or “Praise the Lord” and use clapping as another example of the almost unconscious influence of secular culture on believers today.
Wally Morris is pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Huntington, IN. The church blogsite is amomentofcharity.blogspot.com. He has also published A Time To Die: A Biblical Look At End-Of-Life Issues by Ambassador International.