Right or Wrong? Unpopular stands

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We live in an applause-oriented culture. But applause seems beneath the character of a minister and undermines ministerial integrity. How can a minister take unpopular stands on important issues and still express care for the congregation?

Your question invokes major components of church life—worship, ministerial integrity and pastoral care. Each of these foundations of faith warrants serious evaluation independently. Since the question combines these elements, it is important to consider the assumptions of addressing all these in the same context.

The first assumption is that applause in worship undercuts ministerial integrity. Many of us grew up in worship cultures where clapping was rare. An “amen” corner was acceptable, but applause seldom was the response to a stirring word or an inspirational song. For some reason, “amen” seemed somewhat less boisterous than applause, although we all know of times when this was not the case.

What’s the source?

In many churches today, applause may occur after a song, after a baptism, after a strong sermonic word or after any other element of worship. Before applause is deemed antithetical to ministerial integrity, we need to determine the source of our disdain or our appreciation for applause. Is it personal tradition? (“I did not grow up that way.”) Is it individual preference? (“I’m not comfortable expressing emotion that way.”)

Is it jealousy? (“Why do they clap for the musician and not for the preacher?”) Is it concern of performance versus worship? (“To whom is the act of worship offered?”) Is it biblical teaching? (“Does Scripture call for structured order in worship—1 Corinthians 14:33—or spontaneous expressions of joy—Psalm 47:1?”) Or, as the question proposes, is applause truly a challenge to one’s integrity as a minister?

After sincere struggle with these questions, then we can consider the second assumption: The minister ought to address the issue with the congregation. All church conflict should be entrusted with a view to pastoral care. The minister’s goal is not to win the debate. The aim is not even to squelch applause or to encourage it. Rather, the minister should hope to enable congregants to grow spiritually through the discussion of the issue.

Start a conversation

Sermons from the pulpit on the purpose and function of worship are certainly appropriate. Thoughtful studies on the biblical teachings about worship are very helpful, especially if they provide opportunity for interaction between minister and congregation. It is most critical, however, that the minister engages in pastoral conversation with individuals and groups on the issue. A starting point for discussion would be the series of questions above. What have we gained if the minister’s view of applause becomes church law, while the pastoral love of the church is sacrificed?

This matter is just one of many unpopular stands the minister may be called to take. The issue, the setting and the background may be different than applause in worship. Yet consider these assumptions and questions as a model for addressing the issue that is relevant to the situation.

Amen … (or applause).

Allen Reasons, senior minister

Fifth Avenue Baptist Church

Huntington, W.Va.

If you have a comment about this column or wish to ask a question for a future column, contact Bill Tillman, consulting ethicist for “Right or Wrong?” at btillman150@gmail.com.

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