When did churches begin celebrating Independence Day during worship services? The answer to that question is surprisingly difficult to determine.
For the first century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, few Americans celebrated the Fourth of July. Public celebrations of our separation from Great Britain increased after the War of 1812, but only became common when Congress declared July 4 a national holiday in 1870.
While churches would often hold events if Independence Day occurred during the week, few seem to have incorporated them into Sunday services. An exception seems to be the Episcopal Church, which designated it an annual celebration in 1789.
Which Churches Celebrate
Since World War II, it’s the low-church traditions—especially Baptists and Pentecostals—that have made the Fourth of July a quasi-religious holiday. A survey by LifeWay Research taken last year found that Pentecostals are most likely among Protestant pastors to agree on the importance of patriotic elements (82 percent agree), while Baptists (67 percent) are more likely to agree than Lutherans (51 percent), Methodists (50 percent), and Presbyterian/Reformed (47 percent).
Surprisingly, more than half of pastors surveyed (53 percent) also agreed their congregation sometimes seems to love America more than God. Pastors in the South (59 percent) are more likely to agree with this point than pastors in the Midwest (51 percent) and West (42 percent).
If pastors think America is becoming an idol for their people, why would they include the trappings of this false God in their worship services? Before you host a patriotic service this Sunday, you might want to consider these five questions.
1. Will this service make fellow believers feel uncomfortable or unwelcome?
A key element of many patriotic services is a focus on the military. As a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, I appreciate the desire to salute the military and the expressions of gratitude for the men and women who served to keep America a free nation. But as a Christian, I wonder if such displays are appropriate during a time when we gather to celebrate our freedom from death and sin.
Church elders should not dismiss the concerns members have about displays of patriotism in church. Listen to their concerns. You might be surprised to find that that is an area on which even pacifists and veterans can agree. And if you think such hesitation is a sign that they are unpatriotic or politically liberal, then you might need to question whether you are confusing parochial political allegiances with the universal faith of Christianity.
2. Would we welcome patriotic elements from other countries?
I hesitate to say there is a single correct answer to this question. But thinking about it might clarify what your church believes about its role as an “embassy” of the kingdom of God.
Around the globe, the local church represents King Jesus within a host nation, such as the United States. If our particular embassy would welcome patriotic displays from this host nation on July 4, would we welcome such displays from other nations?
For instance, if a church had a number of Korean American members, would they be welcomed and encouraged to celebrate National Liberation Day of Korea in your church? (If your reaction is “We don’t live in Korea,” then you might be confused about how your church connects to the universal church.)
3. If people unfamiliar with Christianity attended this service, what would they think we worship?
Not all “God and country” services are the same. Some are subdued affairs that include a patriotic hymn and prayer for the troops while others are spectacles of flag-waving, fireworks, and screens filled with scenes of national and military monuments. If people unfamiliar with either America or Christianity came to your service, what would they assume you worship? Would they think your people worshiped a regional deity that protected the United States of America or would they recognize you serve the God who created the universe?
4. Do I fear my members more than God?
This question is reserved primarily for pastors whose conscience tells them that a patriotic service is unwise, but are concerned about how it might anger their parishioners. There’s no easy answer for what you should do. But if you think your congregation “sometimes loves America more than God,” you have an obligation to clarify your concerns.
Ask those pushing for Independence Day-themed services to convince you why such displays of patriotic fervor are necessary in a Sunday service. You could also ask some of the questions posed in this article. If they fail to convince you by their reasoning, let your conscience be your guide. Be bold and decisive in following where God leads you.
5. How do these patriotic elements point people to Jesus?
This is the most important question a pastor should consider when thinking about patriotic services. Everything about your worship service—from the opening prayer to the closing hymn—should lead people to adore, appreciate, revere, worship, and love Jesus. If we aren’t doing that, then we aren’t worshiping God in the way we should.
If you, as one called to lead your church, can honestly say that your people will leave the service thinking more about Jesus than about America, then press on with a clear conscience. But if you’re unsure, then maybe you should set aside the pomp and circumstance and show where your ultimate allegiance lies.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m highly skeptical that patriotic services benefit the body of Christ. Even if you disagree with me, though, I believe you can benefit from asking yourself these five questions. Thinking carefully about your answers can even help you be prepared to respond to the patriots, like me, who are skeptical of patriotic services.