God and Country: Worship Planning for National Holidays

11 comments Written on July 1st, 2011     
Filed under: Better Together, Culture, Leadership

This week in the Better Together worship community, the conversation naturally turned to worship planning for the upcoming 4th of July weekend. I’m just going to summarize some of the discussion and then invite your participation in the discussion…

We come from many different types of churches in many different parts of the country, so we acknowledge that there are differing histories and expectations in our congregations. As pastors and leaders, however, we are called to lead our people in true worship of the Living God. So what’s the problem? One pastor wrote:

“Well. I’m not a big fan of any kind of “God and America” mash-up. But here in the Bible Belt, it’s pretty hard to avoid it on the big patriotic holidays. I am also aware that we need to be culturally sensitive. The whole country celebrates July 4, so we in the church should celebrate it too…”

We agreed that cultural sensitivity is important. A church that didn’t even acknowledge a national holiday would just seem… odd. Wouldn’t it?

On the other hand, we also agreed that the nationalism that so often creeps into Evangelical worship is insidious and dangerous. As one pastor wrote: “I am with you all. The nationalism that pervades many of our churches is dangerously strong. The more we can focus on the Kingdom and less on America, the better. We are, after all, aliens and strangers in this world… [We] will be wishing everyone a “Happy Fourth of July” as they leave. And that’s it.”

Some churches aren’t doing anything special for this worship service. Others are choosing to deliberately discuss the tension between Church and State. Some will simply pray for and express gratitude for our nation, and some will sing songs about freedom while attempting to distinguish between the freedom found in Christ and the privilege of being an American citizen. One church, rather than having any “patriotic” elements in the worship service itself, is choosing to focus on the community by inviting the neighborhood to a big block party with food and children’s activities.

How does YOUR church handle patriotic holidays? What are your thoughts on the subject? May the Holy Spirit guide us as we lead our congregations in worshipping not a flag or a nation, but the Living Christ.

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11 comments “God and Country: Worship Planning for National Holidays”

Last year our leadership wanted America the Beautiful to be played with a time of praying for the country afterwards. This made me very uncomfortable. I tried to raise four points (some of these are mentioned above):

1. It’s unbalanced to celebrate our country in Church when we don’t acknowledge her great faults both historically and contemporary through out the rest of the year.

2. Our allegiance is not to a country but to a Kingdom. God’s ways are not always our country’s ways. When we mix the two in Church it makes it harder for folks to know the difference between being an American and being a Christian. Making it harmful to the discipleship of our community. The American Dream has already crept way to far into the North American Church’s psyche, God help us for that!

3. Mandating that we should be grateful for our freedoms is suspect. Many of our freedoms are illegitimate. Meaning we were not blessed by God with them, we took them and oppressed others to have them. The Native Americans would surely attest to this.

4. The church knows no borders. We have a hard enough time in our congregations loving people and welcoming all folks into our pews, especially those in the margins. Adding a national pride to our liturgy seems like it has a good chance of marginalizing folks of different descent and nationality.

I offered an alternative liturgy of repentance and thanksgiving for the grace that we know. This was not accepted and I was benched. I was asked not to show up at Church, they had someone else lead the Patriotic service.

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Wow, thanks for the comments, Aaron. That’s some powerful stuff, and I think very legitimate, but so hard for people to wrap their minds around… I think your point #3 is particularly challenging. People (myself included) seem to think that this “freedom” we enjoy is a God-given thing.

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Hey Matt – You know, it was a leadership decision that I disagreed with but respected. My pastor had to make a decision and in all honesty he was protecting me from having to do something I didn’t believe. It was a good learning moment for both of us. This year we’ve had great conversations, ones that led both of us to come closer to the middle in our thoughts. We landed on a compromise that doesn’t make either of us feel like we sold out. Even though I come on strong, I do believe there is room in this conversation for both sides to learn.

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Our church fully embraces the Patriotic holidays! We have a large American flag in our parking lot, and the American and Christian flags beside the table displaying a Bible and candles in our sanctuary. This was a MASSIVE culture shock for me when I came to this church three years ago. In fact, I took the flags out of the sanctuary my first summer, with the approval of my Senior Pastor, but our church was really wounded by our actions without discussion. So we had the discussion. I really didn’t want the flag in the sanctuary because the flag is a symbol that points to our government, not our God, while every other symbol in the sanctuary points to Christ. I heard many arguments from our parishioners, the one that most deeply impacted me was from a high school student, who felt that the flag needed to be in the sanctuary 1. for prayer, and 2. to remind us that this nation is under God. One of our pastors is very patriotic he is preaching this Sunday in part to remind our folks that this country has had in it’s leadership many devoted followers of Jesus, which is reflected in their writings. Here is a quote we’ll be reading this Sunday, from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address from 1985:

“History is a journey. And as we continue our journey, we think of those who traveled before us…. A general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely president paces the darkened halls and ponders his struggle o preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes forever…
It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That’s our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still. For all our problems, our differences, we are together as of old, as we raise our voices to the God who is the Author of this most tender music. And may he continue to hold us close as we fill the world with our sound-sound of unity, affection, and love-one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world.”

I profoundly agree with Aaron with your numbered statements-all of them. But particularly number one. No Sunday service should ever be focused on anything but the Lordship of Jesus Christ as our King and our allegiance to his kingdom. But, as we are responsible for bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth (as it is in heaven) I think it is appropriate to thank God for the freedoms we experience in this country on these holidays, and call on god to help us manifest his freedoms in this place more and more.

So long as the culture I serve continues to see America as a mission field acknowledging America’s faults as well as the blessings of living in this country, and Christ remains at the center of this worship and we call on His power and measure our freedoms in light of the Gospel, I think it’s appropriate to pray over, sing about, and praise God for our liberty in America.

Man… did I drink the punch or what!?

Let’s discuss.



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my thoughts –

i have difficulty with nationalism (flags, national anthems, etc) in the place where we gather to worship. in part because of my theological agreement of what’s been stated already – we are citizens of a kingdom that is beyond earthly nationality. but also because it can be extremely polarizing to those who happen to be (dare i say it?) liberal – gasp! 😉 i think most evangelical churches are seen as extreme, right-wing conservatives that think the government should be a tool of the church and her beliefs. what about the person who disagrees politically? even if your church isn’t a conservative church, the perception is out there, and, in my opinion, it’s a possible stumbling block that doesn’t need to be there.

these verses come to mind. Jesus is looking for worshippers who do so in spirit and truth, and the word of God is able to discern the thoughts and intents of our heart. i think it’s important to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us about why we do what we do and be honest with ourselves about it.

it is how many of us were raised. the church and america are wed in some people’s minds. like the disciples expecting Jesus to set up an earthly kingdom, the american church often seems frustrated about how we don’t have some spiritual utopia and strives to see one “voted in”.

i have no problem with celebrating our nation, but i don’t see why it must happen in the corporate gathering of the church. i believe this is one of those things paul was talking about when he said – be transformed by the renewing of your mind. then you’ll be able to test and approve what God’s will is. i heard david nystrom speak recently about this verse and our american culture. about how we must allow the Holy Spirit to show us how we’ve been affected by our culture and then allow a biblical worldview to inform us. as we choose it, we will find change and be able to live into the will of God.

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This morning, one of our pianists played a patriotic prelude BEFORE the worship service actually began.

We did communion today (as we always do on the first Sunday of the month), and we always do a time of reflection and repentance before the elements are brought forth. So today, we sang the modern hymn “Puritan Prayer” by Stuart Townend, in which the lyrics are very similar to an old-time Puritan hymn, and it is deeply focused on confession. Before we began to sing it, I reminded the congregation that a part of our nation’s Christian past is that we did national days of prayer, fasting, and repentance, and that one way for us to truly love our country is to model godly regret for our own shortcomings.

My sermon this morning was on the End Times, and I made a brief comment that the American Revolution–as good and necessary as it was–is nothing compared to the “real” revolution that God will bring when He brings about the New Heaven and New Earth.

Then, during the benediction, I wished everyone a safe and blessed holiday tomorrow.

Those were the only patriotic references in our service, and I thought it went over well. It acknowledged the holiday, but its focus was solely on God.

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Bonhoeffer was totally mystified by the American concept of religious freedom. He visited Union Seminary in 1939 and commented that Americans miss the point–only God can give freedom. The State cannot grant freedom to Christians without it being a freedom of this world. Our freedom is in Christ, over which the government has no jurisdiction. A Church that looks to the government for freedom will end up serving the wrong master.

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I resonate with all the above in terms of caution and balance. One way that I sought to teach balance in my congregation was to at least switch the flags around so that the Christian flag was put in the place of highest honor. I agreed with the idea that an American flag in the sanctuary would at least remind us to pray for this nation, with its Christian roots, and especially that we should support and participate in a repentant return to Godly practices and leadership, with apologies and regrets for abuses of power. I reject nationalism. But I am willing to acknowledge that the nation in which I happened to be born has been an environment of great blessing and wealth, and ought to be a greater force for missions and ministry around the world.

I was truly puzzled and disappointed by the number of people in the congregation who simply refused to think biblically and insisted that the flag’s position in the church is dictated by the “laws of the land” that every other church does it the same and I was implying they were all wrong. They didn’t even appreciate the historical fact that flags in any church were very uncommon until one of our presidents, Woodrow Wilson, requested it during WWI, and his reasoning was so that people would be reminded to pray for a quick end and a good outcome of the war.

Rather than deal with this controversy and resolve the conflict, the congregation voted to remove the flags from the sanctuary. I later resigned from that post, for other reasons. But on an even later visit, not on a Sunday, since I still live in the area, I saw that the flags are now back where the people like them. This tells me it is a really tough issue to deal with, especially where there are respected veterans of war.

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The flags remain in our sanctuary, because to a certain segment of our congregation, they are rooted in their viscera to some sense of feeling under threat and triumphing (I think you’d have to live through the ’50s to get it). I see no reason to fight that fight with people in their 80s. BUT I really won’t acknowledge patriotic holidays because I’ve been schooled by Hauerwas & Willimon that this is the alternate civilization, the resident aliens, gathered on a Sunday morning to be edified to be sent back out as ambassadors in a world that doesn’t get it. I am fortunate that the congregation doesn’t give me much pushback on this, although I have heard that some would really like to sing patriotic hymns, etc. I have very little faith in quotes from Reagan or founding fathers, etc. I’d rather stick with the scriptures and stay away from the American myth, and there is no way I would quote someone who had even a molecule of partisanship about him/her, which certainly Reagan does. Even the founders have been co-opted! I ignore it. But those who served “fellowship” went all out with the red, white and blue – which was fine.

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saw this article. great perspective if you’d like to take a look.

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I have struggled with this one, in terms of what I believe (which would be closer to Aaron’s thoughts) and much of my congregation and how much of a battle I want to make it.
What I have chosen to do is honor the community, for lack of a better term, by acknowledging the holiday but trying to separate it from the worship service. So, for this weekend, I welcomed people and said something along the lines of “While we are gathered as those whose citizenship is in heaven, we also acknowledge our citizenship in this country and as its citizens pray for that country.” We then sang “God Bless America” (one line of which I alluded to in prayer afterward – about mending every flaw). After the song, we had announcements and then a call to worship. I would guess most people did not notice/understand the separation I tried to make, but it gave me a little comfort.

We do have flags, sitting in the entryway, usually only from Memorial day to Veterans Day, as they get put away during Advent and stay there until Memorial Day when I am asked.

Was talking with several other pastors in town (non-Covenant) this morning and several of them mentioned using the Pledge of Allegiance. I about choked. I registered my hesitation but the conversation moved on, for which I was thankful.

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