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I have a friend who owns a banquet hall. A huge sign outside bears its name: “Applause.” The sign is off-kilter on purpose, suggesting an applause that is tumultuous and earthshaking. I recall speaking there years ago and receiving none. Applause, I mean. Each time I look at that sign, I’m reminded of a church where I preached years ago. Or almost preached.

I was told there would be special music: a soloist, a Miss So and So from another church. She would sing twice—once after the congregational prayer and once following the offering. Ending the prayer, I sat down.

Miss So and So, amply proportioned, rose like a leviathan from the deep and came forward. She said that before she sang, she wished to give her testimony. I grew a little restless when it seemed to lack a terminal point. But having reached a sort of one, she turned the knob on an apparatus, which turned out to be a whole orchestra she’d lugged along and installed before the service.

With microphone in hand, she proceeded to wander up and down the center aisle in sync with the music. I was reminded of an old movie starring Deanna Durbin, titled A Hundred Men (orchestra) and a Girl. When Miss So and So finally ended, I decided to lop off 10 minutes from my sermon—stolen from me in plain sight of everybody. What surprised me was the extended applause that followed. And that took another minute away from me!

I had a premonition regarding her second appearance, which proved accurate. Again an orchestra. Again a parade in the aisle, and all of it preceded by another endless testimony. And again the applause. It was now more than an hour since the singing of the opening hymn. No sermon yet. It was the only time I preached a three-minute sermon, for which I should have received tumultuous, earth-shaking applause. But instead? Nothing.

Applause has its place, but I’m not sure it fits in a service of worship. A congregation applauding a choir gives the feeling of a concert in which the congregation is the audience. But God is the audience.

A worship service should consist of only two parts: Acta Aparte Dei (acts on the part of God to the congregation, such as Scripture reading, invocation, benediction, sermon) and Acta Aparte Populi (acts on the part of the people to God, such as singing, prayer, offering). In such a schema, there is no room for applause.

But today, preaching as I do here and there, it seems like anything goes in a church service. (Remember the picnic next Sunday and bring your own silverware, etc., etc.) Ad nauseam.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Some of Saint Augustine’s sermons, written in his own hand, are still in existence. His marginal jottings on sermons preached reveal a demonstrative congregation because, here and there, he wrote the word “Applause.” Occasionally he wrote the word “Lacrimal.” That’s when he had reduced his hearers to tears.

When the President of the United States gives his State of the Union Address, he is interrupted by applause—the frequency or infrequency of which suggests high or little approval. The members of the opposing party usually sit on their hands.

What if I preached a sermon and was interrupted by applause 30 times?

That might indicate a spiritually vibrant congregation and throw my thinking (Acta Aparte, etc.) to the winds.

One thing I know. When I read Isaiah 55:12—“All the trees of the field shall clap their hands”—I am engulfed with nature’s praise and applause to the Creator.

It reverberates wherever I go.

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