On blessings, "canned" music, and clapping

Q: Some ministers raise one hand in blessing, some two. Which is the correct way?

A: I doubt very much if there is only one correct way. In the Bible there is much more frequent reference to laying on of hands than lifting of hands. The laying on of hands is sometimes a sign of blessing, as in Jacob blessing his grandsons. Lifting hands has a similar meaning. Both Aaron (Lev. 9:22) and Jesus (Luke 24:50) lift their hands in blessing. In Scripture, the lifting of hands is not a magical gesture, but a symbolic, physical movement that suggests the imparting of God's love and grace.

The pastor's lifting hands in blessing over a congregation can be seen either as a "distant" laying on of hands or as a direct imitation of the blessing by Aaron or Jesus. The use of both hands with the palms down seems most appropriate. This blessing (or "benediction") is most commonly imparted at the conclusion of a worship service and is performed in most Christian traditions.

The "greeting" at the opening of worship (often called the "salutation") is much more diverse. In some traditions the words spoken are those that begin the apostolic letters ("Grace to you . . . "), but other churches omit this greeting or use another formula. The use of hand gestures also differs. Many churches do not use hand gestures at all at this point in the service.

In Reformed churches the raising of one or two hands is common—either as another instance of God blessing people or as a greeting. (The one-handed greeting at times looks more like a "Heil Hitler" gesture.) Others pastors hold their hands open at about shoulder height—a gesture of welcome. Those churches that regularly use the sign of the cross will also use it in greeting: the officiant makes the sign toward the congregation.

(Although this was not part of the question—let me comment anyway. Neither the greeting nor the blessing are prayers, and the congregation's customary closing of eyes is not particularly fitting. Also—as in all uses of "Amen"—it is more appropriate [more biblical] for the congregation than for the pastor to say the "Amen.")

Q: Why do some people object so strongly to recorded music in worship? I am always edified by it.

A: We all know that different people are edified by different worship practices. This is to be expected, and I would not want to quarrel with your edification. The main problem I have with recorded music is that it means someone other than the worshiping congregation leads in worship. I would much rather hear congregational singing without accompaniment (of which we ought to do more), than accompaniment over the sound system with a piped-in organ or band or choral group. I realize that a congregation may have a genuine shortage of capable musicians and that "canned" music may occasionally be needed to support a musical part of the liturgy. But in an age when so much of our lives is "done for us," or is dominated by electronic convenience—we certainly don't want our worship done for us by electronic means.

Q: For the past year our congregation has had a strong disagreement about clapping during worship. Could you please tell us who is right?

A: It's helpful to distinguish between clapping as applause (for example, after a choir anthem) and clapping to accompany singing.

I realize that congregations who applaud after a solo or choir song may interpret the clapping as a way of identifying with the song or as a physical expression of thanks to God. However, in our culture applause is used mostly as a sign of appreciation after a performance done by someone else. It's very difficult to avoid the notion that a choir anthem or some other "special music" is a performance if it's always followed by applause. Since worship ought not to be performance, this kind of clapping does not appear to be fitting. Would you clap for a moving prayer or a powerful sermon?

Clapping can also be used to accompany congregational singing. I know of no reason to avoid such clapping (other than liturgical stuffiness). If you need biblical support, a text such as Psalm 47:1 advocates the notion of clapping as a form of praise. In general, our worship tends to be too cerebral, and more use of the body is certainly biblical and fitting.

 

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ANY QUESTIONS ?

This is the third time we've included Q & A in RW We hope you found it stimulating. We also hope that you'll join the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, Ml 49560), fax (616-246-0834), or e-mail (vantoll@crcnet.mhs.com puserve.com).

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.