The anchoress had a recent “hissy fit” post up regarding clapping at mass. (I think crankiness is entertaining). You know, the spontaneous outbursts for the choir when their musical skills shine and people just can’t help themselves and they break into applause.

Technically speaking, mass is not a performance or entertainment. I can appreciate those (The Anchoress included) who find the clapping inappropriate. But, I’d also throw in the following suggestion: creating sacred space takes a lot of care and many are involved in that, should be appreciated for it and are often not. That said, it also is important for people to be led into a deeper prayer experience by those involved in worship, rather than be simply entertained by them.

Creating a prayerful worship experience is more than simply having good cantors and musicians, it’s about intentionally leading people beyond what is their usual experience of music into something more transcendent. It needs to be something where nobody would dare clap afterwards because their experience has led them into that kind of liminal space that places them in deeper contemplation.

That takes “direction” to help people get into that frame of mind. Some examples:

Before our student mass, I usually come out and call the congregation into worship. We welcome one another at the start. There’s movement and noise and people generally like doing this. But then there’s a more intentional “stilling” that follows. This is where we take a moment for quiet, an opportunity to actually focus on what is about to happen and we sit in quiet contemplation, just for a brief moment, to think about what our intention might be for the next hour or so.

The students love it. Our permanent community that attends has stopped me afterwards and told me the same. We’ve intentionally made the “feel” of this mass quieter and more contemplative. It takes work.

Now I’ve been to plenty of other liturgies where there is clapping (after various musical numbers mostly). Sometimes as a response to something in the homily, people will also applaud. And it is no less, a transcendent experience for some. Sometimes people can’t help but clap. They don’t know another way to express gratitude, not merely for good music (which is rare in most places, mind you), but for what God has done for them.

Honestly, the issue with clapping in most places has less to do with the music and the minister’s personality and more to do with the overwhelming BOREDOM that exists in most places. When people come to a mass where there is good music, good preaching and a welcoming feel to it–they are excited, perhaps for the first time in a church.

And that, friends, is a good thing. Perhaps clapping actually keeps people in the church in some cases?

So in general, I’ll take the clapping church over the boring church anytime.

Now all of that said, some further notes:

I think we can do a lot to move people into a deeper sense of contemplation, even in the more “rousing” communities. Choirs can be less performative and more centered, but it’s the presiders and the liturgists that need to put things in perspective. People get bored because they don’t know HOW to participate and clapping is a more passive response to liturgy as opposed to a fuller participation. There’s a need to explain lots, assume little (and with the new translations coming, there’s a bigger need to start doing this now). Give stage directions if you have to. Tell people why we should stand together after communion and sing as opposed to kneeling or sitting (as the Bishops have directed us BTW). Give people something to think about before the choir sings that great post communion hymn. Say the prayer over the last few bars of the song quietly as the cantor hits those last notes –make it all an OBVIOUS prayer!

Some other suggestions for contemplation outside of the musical elements where people might want to clap:

Tell people why there is an offertory procession and what their role is in it.

Give people a snippet of what might be helpful to concentrate on before the readings are read. (Sometimes the church plunks us down in the middle of a story in the first reading—do you think anyone knows what’s going on? They don’t. Get over it and help them. “Here’s what’s going on–so pay attention to X and Y.” Then the lector starts. It’s one or two lines–not a mini homily.)

Engage your congregation, they need you and want you and really need assistance to be more fully aware and engaged during mass.

Back to that clapping…. I’ve noticed one or two interesting trends with regards to clapping:

1) Women clap more often than men do. That’s clapping DURING rousing gospel-based songs and after one is finished. (I don’t know why, they just do. I’ve done lots of anecdotal research on this and will blog more about some general liturgical trends regarding men and women tomorrow).

2) Middle aged people clap after hymns much more often than younger people do. (I don’t know why, they just do.)

3) Younger people favor more contemplative liturgy over liturgy that has more of the communal elements involved. They appreciate reverence and quiet more than their older counterparts in general. And they live in a noisier world than their older counterparts did when they were their age.

4) If people were invited into participating in liturgy more they’d be less apt to clap at mass and more engaged in liminal space.

5) If you ask people to stop clapping they will be angry. AND RIGHTFULLY SO. I often say, “good luck getting them to stop clapping.” In this case, asking clapping to cease is less important than providing the obvious prayerful experience that makes them less apt to clap–in fact, it’s about making that time inappropriate to clap by design. If they’re clapping, it’s probably due to a lack of direction on our own part as liturgy presiders and directors. That’s our fault as leaders, not theirs. We’re the ones who are boring them.

In general, I’m not opposed to clapping in every instance. (Would we not clap after an ordination? I think the more conservative folks in the church would be on their feet clapping vigorously) But I do think we can make mass a more engaging and moving experience if we took time and care with engaging people in liturgy.