If you’re part of a monolithic congregation primarily comprised of young people, this is probably not an issue (or not as big of an issue). If you’re part of a multi-generational congregation which includes folks from the World War II generation, then, chances are, this issue is alive and well. Because I witness it in my own fairly large church, I believe it’s a fair generalization to say that, by and large, the older generation cares deeply about the wedding of patriotism and worship. On Sundays around Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, and the Fourth of July, they want to sing “My Country Tis of Thee,” “God of our Fathers,” and even the Battle Hymn. They want the stars and stripes prominent every Sunday, but especially on these days. Generations beneath this one, by and large, do not share the same vigorous passion.
At our church, we have a long tradition of asking our service men and women to wear their uniforms, and we often pray for our troops explicitly on such Sundays. We often put together stirring brass ensembles and sprinkle our services with patriotic “elements” like these, especially in our first (more traditional) service. If I’m honest, this has always itched me, and as I’ve examined that itch, I’ve tried to be aware of idolatries of my own heart which would bias me. Such sinful tendencies in my own heart which might affect my bias include: (a) worship of youth culture; (b) denial of God’s sovereignty over history and previous generations; (c) lack of understanding of and true appreciation for human life, sacrificed for the preservation of my freedom; (d) disobedience of a God who calls me to support my country through prayer (1 Tim 2:1-2), civil action (Jeremiah 29:7), and taxes (Matt 17:24-27; 22:15-22).
I understand that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ will disagree with me, especially on point d (exegetically and pragmatically), but in the event that my heart deceives me (Jeremiah 17:9) and that I am prone to try to find support for actions and behaviors which favor that heart’s inclinations, I want to be honest about my potential rebellion and aware of what crouches at my door to lead me astray.
Now that those cards are on the table, I feel freed up to acknowledge two recent posts, one from a pastor and author I respect (Kevin DeYoung), and another from a prominent thinker on worship in evangelicalism who has recently gone on to be with the Lord (Chip Stam). Here are their points, but please read their posts.
Kevin DeYoung, “Thinking Theologically About Memorial Day”:
- Being a Christian does not remove ethnic and national boundaries.
- Patriotism, like other earthly “prides,” can be a virtue or vice.
- Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.
- God’s people are not tied to any one nation.
- All this leads to one final point: While patriotism can be good, the church is not a good place for patriotism.
Read DeYoung’s whole post here.
Chip Stam, “Letter from a Minister about Patriotism in Corporate Worship”:
- It is too easy to confuse what it means to follow Christ and what it means to be a loyal US Citizen.
- We have many internationals in our congregations, many of whom are experiencing American culture for the first time, and some of whom are considering the Christian faith for the first time.
- When a mood of patriotic celebration is present, it seems to be about two clicks away from partisan politics.
Read Stam’s whole post here.
I’m inclined to agree with them. At the same time, I’m processing these “ideals” with the reality of my local congregation, filled with many, many folks who will have a very different (well-meaning) take and perspective. This is the point at which systematic and biblical theology meet pastoral and practical theology. Folks in my shoes basically have three options before us.
- Do nothing. Because of the amount of dissention and disunity it would cause in the body, it might not be prudent to engage this issue pastorally at this time.
- Do everything. Immediately do away with all offending elements in worship in one, swift, prophetic swoop.
- Initiate a trajectory, over time and as God allows. Open up a dialogue, and move from there as the Holy Spirit provides openness. Provide contexts (personal and corporate) for open and honest dialogue. Attempt, on your end, to educate honestly and to expose your own sinful tendencies and idolatries (like those mentioned above) openly. Remind all parties to first search and understand the revealed will of God in His Word, and acknowledge that discussions like these are incredibly emotionally charged because of personal investment and the sacrifice of human life. Belittle no one, and realize that deep wounds abound here. Even so, tackle pride and idolatry head-on, in appropriate times and in appropriate ways. And soak the entire enterprise in prayer.
It’s obvious that I’m an advocate for #3, but I certainly welcome comments and challenges. I’d love to hear, especially from other worship leaders, worship planners, and pastors about their own conclusions and processes surrounding this issue.