Yesterday morning we began our service with the hymn “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” (verse 1, 2, 3, and 5) as the first song of the opening set. The worship team played well on the song, and the congregation seemed to be engaged as we all sang. When the song ended, we had a brief “awkward moment” when a small number of people scattered around started clapping/applauding, without it catching on more widely in the congregation.
You’ve probably experienced this in your own setting, when a song ends and a few people start clapping, the rest of the congregation doesn’t know what to do, and it ends up just fizzling out. It’s hard to know quite what to do.
I think there are a few ways you can handle this.
Yesterday, I encouraged it and pointed it in the right direction. When I heard the clapping start and could tell it was sputtering, I went ahead and said “Let’s do that – let’s offer our applause to our everlasting King”. Then as we clapped I spoke over it saying things like “Lord, we do applaud your greatness” or “we praise you this morning, merciful God”. This (I hope) helped (1) encourage a biblical expression of praise, and (2) focus people on the fact that our clapping was directed to God, not just “filler”.
Other times, it’s more appropriate to just let it go. I’ve been in settings when we’ve finished up a song and a few people started clapping, but I didn’t feel it was necessary to encourage everyone to respond in that way. I suppose it might be awkward and/or a bit bumpy for a few moments, but there’s no need for me to rush in and try to smooth it over. Let it go and transition into whatever is next.
Now and then, with care, worship leaders might need to gently discourage it, particularly if it has become a mindless, perfunctory reflex after every song. I wouldn’t suggest you try to stop the clapping once it has already started, but instead try to discourage it preemptively. Perhaps you could say something like “we’re going to sing this verse once more, and then let’s be silent before God for a few moments”. Try to be sensitive to whether or not there are ways your congregation is responding on auto-pilot, and then gently wake them up. When we clap it should be intentional and God-focused. If it’s not, we’re better off not doing it.
The best way to handle the awkward moments when there’s a nervous sputtering of clapping is to make sure we’re helping the congregation think biblically about clapping. It’s not for the band, it’s not “filler” to give the guitarist time to move his or her capo, and it’s not something we have to do after every song. If you don’t clap we won’t look down on you. Your salvation doesn’t depend upon your clapping. We won’t excessively focus on it. But it is an expression of praise commanded in scripture (Psalm 47:1), and therefore it’s perfectly appropriate and should be encouraged.