A Theology of Clapping (Part 2): On Children

The following article was published in the August 2011 First Christian Church Courier–a monthly church newsletter.  I’d love for you to share your thoughts and responses.
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It did not take long to receive phone calls, carefully crafted letters, and heart-felt stories about “clapping in worship” after last month’s article.  I am thankful to each of you who have made an effort to contribute your voice to this discussion.  I hope more of you will do so.  I welcome your reactions, reasons, and reflections.

Again, the point of this endeavor is not to “close the matter” or hem in the diversity of perspectives that exist within our church.  Rather, the intent is to open up conversation so that we might be enriched by one another, increase understanding and respect for one another, and enhance our shared worship time together by gaining clarity on what our actions might mean.

What might clapping mean to a child?  I want to suggest two important facets to the meaning of clapping for children in worship:  1) Children often do not (maybe cannot) make grand distinctions between secular and sacred space, 2) Children are very sensitive to social expectations, sometimes more than we realize.

I have been informed by some that applause is not appropriate for a worship space, no matter what, who or when.  From this perspective, applause (a form of clapping) is a secular activity necessarily implying approval of a human performance.  Worship is primarily, if not only, about God—not humans!—and so there is never a context in which it would be appropriate to applaud.  We might call this the “Absolutist” perspective.

Implied in this line of thought is an absolute, exceptionless divide between sacred (worship) and secular (applause).  Whatever the merits of this argument (and we might want to question the merit of this argument), when it comes to children, they don’t easily notice this chasm between sacred and secular.  Children, as human beings, develop the capacity to make distinctions over time (a capacity that continues developing into adolescence and adulthood).  The abstract distinction between sacred and secular is not an easy one to grasp:  “Mommy, why does Rev. Michael wear a dress to church?”

This matters because in the “secular” world—school, home, work, etc—we give applause as a form of approval and affirmation.  Children understand quite well that a job well done merits applause in social settings.  When children sing, act, or are recognized, they expect—because we have taught them to expect—applause.  To withhold applause, even in church, maybe especially in church, is to imply the opposite of approval and affirmation.

While there is much we want to teach our children, we definitely want them to know that church is a place where they are welcomed and celebrated—a place where they belong because they are valued and loved.  We want them to experience and understand the affirmation of God manifest in Jesus Christ.  To withhold applause from children, applause they expect, teeters dangerously on the brink of rejection.

This does not mean clapping is necessary at every turn of worship for every movement of a child, but it does highlight the practical implications of an absolute rejection of clapping.  What do you think?  Should we clap for children?  Why or why not?

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