The first time I ever questioned the appropriateness of patriotism in worship was when I was doing mission work in Romania.
After I had learned the language and settled into ministry in a village church, I remember asking a pastor friend why we didn’t do a special service in December that celebrated Unification Day (Romania’s national holiday). I also wondered why the Romanian flag wasn’t in the sanctuary.
The pastor looked at me funny and then said: “The only way we’d bring a Romanian flag into our sanctuary is if we brought in flags from all over the world.”
“To show you do missions?” I said, trying to find a reference point from my own culture.
“No, to show we are the church.”
The pastor’s point was well taken. The church transcends the state, a truth that should be proclaimed clearly in a worship setting.
Several years later, I attended a worship service on a Sunday morning, and we were singing patriotic songs. At one point, the congregation pledged allegiance to the American flag. My wife, who was a Romanian citizen at that time, did not participate in the singing or pledging, of course. Neither did a recently converted girl from overseas who was visiting that weekend.
In that moment, the oddness of the scene struck me. We were in a worship service with fellow believers, including one just-baptized, who could not participate. Something made me feel uneasy, but it took me a while to realize why.
Why the Sense of Uneasiness?
In my experience, I find that many younger evangelicals are turned off by “God and country” type services. And many younger evangelical leaders in established churches find themselves in a quandary whenever July 4 rolls around.
On the one hand, pastors want to demonstrate their gratitude toward those who have served their country well – heroes who put themselves in harm’s way for the good of their neighbors. They are patriotic citizens who love their country and don’t want to be seen as contributing to cynicism or apathy.
On the other hand, pastors express reservations about incorporating patriotic songs and anthems into a worship service. They worry that too many people are already confused about the relationship between Christianity and the culture, the church and the country, and that such services exacerbate the problem.
1. Extreme Experiences in the Past
Part of the unease may come from experiencing a sloppy melding of “church” and “nation” in the past. One doesn’t have to look hard to find examples of excess: services where promises given to God’s people are applied to the U.S.A., worship gatherings where paeans to American freedom ring louder than praise for salvation, sermons in which pastors preach the glories of America more than the glories of Christ.
But it’s unfair to categorize all patriotic services by these extremes. Many pastors carefully explain why it is good for Christians, as citizens of two kingdoms, to be grateful for the blessings of God upon our nation. The service doesn’t intend to wed church to state, but elicit gratitude for God’s good gifts. Other churches use patriotic services as a way of reaching out to the community. They may devote one part of the service to patriotic celebration, but then reserve the rest of the service to proclaim the kingdom that will never fade.
2. Decreasing Patriotism Among Millennials
Part of the unease may be rooted in a decrease in patriotism. Research shows that millennials are less likely to consider themselves “patriotic” than older generations. It could be that younger people, in general, tend to be less patriotic, and that this trend was also true of the Boomers when they were younger.
But I fear that the lack of patriotism among younger evangelicals today is not just generational, but a result of disillusionment, cynicism, and distrust. Is our generation so over-entertained and so comfortable that we don’t see anything in our civilization worth fighting (or dying) for?
3. Shifting Cultural Currents
A couple months ago, I wrote down some observations and reflections on younger Southern Baptists – trends people told me are true of younger evangelicals in general, not just those who affiliate with the SBC. One of those observations concerned an approach to political engagement, and speaking within the context of generational shifts, I made this statement:
Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon.
If this statement is true (and I admit it is a generalization), then it may help explain why many millennial church leaders feel a sense of angst regarding patriotic services in the church. As we witness the quickly shifting tides of morality in the United States, evangelicals who feel embattled in the cultural maelstrom are less likely to see the U.S. as the de facto “good guy” in all we do. The culture shift makes patriotic celebrations in church a sensitive issue.
4. Failure to Fully Appreciate Time and Place
Some younger evangelicals see any patriotic expression as a compromise with worldly power. Their approach is to take the flag out of the sanctuary, never sing a patriotic song, and never mention a patriotic holiday.
I think this overreaction has unfortunate and unintended repercussions. It lends itself to a Gnostic idea that downplays our embodied state (as humans) within a state (a nation). We are rooted in time and place, and this is according to God’s good plan.
Taking pride in one’s hometown or the beauties of one’s homeland should not be seen as a betrayal of God’s kingdom but a foretaste of the future, when God’s kingdom will indeed come on earth as in heaven. Too many of us look upon our situatedness with Nathanael’s skepticism: Can anything good come from Nazareth? The testimony of the Gospels is, of course, yes.
Overall, I believe thoughtful consideration of what we communicate through patriotic services is a healthy development. Here are a few additional ideas to consider:
- American believers should give thanks to God for the blessings of our temporary earthly citizenship, as long as we emphasize blessings of belonging to the eternal, multinational family of God.
- When people in our culture are celebrating the benefits of earthly citizenship, American believers should seize the opportunity to communicate solid, biblical teaching on the distinction between earthly and heavenly citizenship.
- As American believers express gratitude for this nation, we should be careful not to diminish the value and worth of other nations.
- Pastors and church leaders should make it clear that American believers have more in common with Arab believers in Iraq and Syria than they do with their unbelieving next-door neighbors.
- There is something beautiful about a congregation that shows respect and gratitude to people who have served their neighbors well. When we recognize veterans or law enforcement officers, we are lifting up ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things for the good of their communities.
What about you? How do you handle Fourth of July services in your church?
How can we communicate our gratitude to God for His blessings to us and shine a spotlight on His grace that reaches people from every tribe, tongue, and nation?