The Sound of Two Cultures Clapping

I was in the United Kingdom for a conference last week. The topic was how our individual spirituality interacts with church life. About half the participants were Westerners (Brazilians, American or British-born/raised citizens) and the other half were Asians born in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Our times of singing were great but one thing drove me crazy. 

Clapping in unison.

We couldn't do it. One person would get a clap going and then some other people would try to join in. But the rhythm of each person's clapping was off. It sounded terrible. I looked around and tried to refrain from laughing. It was like our group was clapping retarded. It was so bad that invariably the clapping would die off a minute later because it was so cacophonous and distracting.

It dawned on me after the conference why we had an epic clapping failure. In eastern culture (particularly Chinese), you clap on every beat whereas in the west, you clap on every other (or off) beat. An Easterner starts a clap on every beat and then a Westerner start on every other beat and everyone not clapping is confused by the competing rhythms (especially the rhythm challenged people who want to join the clapping fun - they start alternating between every and every other beat and it's now pure chaos). 

Usually when you have people from different cultures singing together, the dominant culture will determine the clap rhythm. In this case, there wasn't one because it was almost exactly 50/50. 

As a Westerner, I believe clapping every other beat sounds way better than every beat. Every other beat clapping is slower and allows you to get a little dance movement/sway going between claps. When you clap on every beat, it feels like a militaristic chanting regimen. 

But I'm biased. I grew up with Western music which taught me that clapping every other beat is the right way. I'm confident overseas-born Asians feel opposite to the way I do. I wouldn't be surprised if they feel like clapping every other beat is lame and lifeless and that clapping on every beat is energizing and melodic. 
So what's the answer - on every beat or every other? Jesus, of course.

NOT. Jesus doesn't care if it's on beat or every other. But Jesus does care about unity in love. He lived, died, and rose again to unite His people by His love.

There is no one clap rhythm but we are one body in one Spirit because of what Jesus accomplished for us. That means we willingly submit to each other and adopt one rhythm.

As a church leader, we choose a clap rhythm that best fits the people we lead. We may chose to honor weak or lesser parties by our clap rhythm. It's not simply about the dominant culture. In any case, regardless of the beat, we lead in love. 

And the congregation chooses to love each other in unity by submitting to the rhythm of the leader. We can clap in unison.

UPDATE: I couldn't find Chinese Christians singing worship songs with clapping on Youtube but I found a Nepali one - I think the difference is due to use of the drums in Western music, specifically the snare drum so it's easy to pick up the off-beat)


  1. I experienced this while leading a worship workshop at a Chinese church. I was teaching them to clap on the off-beat, when one man from Singapore raised his hand and told me politely that in Singaporean churches, they are trained to clap on beats 1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4. After that, I figured it wasn't worth my while to belabor the point. There's probably very little chance you'll change the way you learned to clap while growing up.

  2. It's possible to change if you change the culture you're immersed in, which means changing the music you listen to. That's not likely for most people but as Christians, it's certainly possible and desirable.


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