The Patriotic Problem

This coming weekend brings the annual “patriotic problem” of whether/how to acknowledge and/or incorporate the celebration of Independence Day into worship services. This year, churches with Saturday services will be gathering on the 4th of July, but even if the holiday falls far from Sunday there is often an expectation that it be included in the order of the day.

This Sunday isn’t the only patriotic Sunday either. In my decade of leading/planning worship in the south, I have also been asked or encouraged to acknowledge Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, and Armed Forces Day. If you celebrate all five with patriotic songs, the recitation of the pledge of allegiance, and/or a special presentation of some kind (like standing to honor each military branch), that is more than a month’s worth of services featuring these elements.

Now would be a good time to say that I am grateful to be an American. I have family that have served and are currently serving in the armed forces. I have pastored at a campus ministry and churches that were full of people who take pride in our country and include service men and women, both in the armed forces and in law enforcement. I also have a fridge already stocked with hot dog and root beer float supplies, and my DVR is set to record the various patriotic music and fireworks celebrations on Saturday night. This post does not arise from a distaste for America. Rather, this post stems from concern over our focus in worship.

When we gather in worship, we are gathering to worship God. We can express gratitude for sacrifice, we can pray for wisdom and discernment for those that lead our country, we can encourage one another to live lives that enrich our communities, but we cannot make anything other than God the focus of our worship (this, of course, also applies to many other issues like Christian “celebrities” or local “golden calves”).

So, as you prepare to lead worship on this patriotic weekend, look closely at the things your church will say, sing, design, project, pray, etc. Do they show respect without “dethroning” God as the only true hope for our world? Even Memorial and Veterans Day can be a bit easier, as we can find lots of ways to appropriately give thanks for the sacrifices of individuals and families, but the 4th of July focuses on the nation itself.

We also need to look at the 30,000 foot level of our worship plan. Every individual element may be solid, but if the overall focus seems to be on the holiday, what messages–conscious or unconscious–will those in attendance take home?

I recognize too that this can be a cultural issue depending on your area or church. Pastoring in some areas of the country may lead to congregations that want more patriotism and others less. You may need to give and take–allowing more patriotic themes than you personally would prefer on the holiday paired with a teaching down the road that calls the congregation to look closely at where they ultimately place their hope and trust.

Also, if you are a United Methodist minister who is moving to a new church, your first Sunday will often be the 4th of July Sunday. It might be best in the first year to defer to the church’s tradition unless it includes something with which you completely disagree (part of UMC ordination is being responsible for what is said and done in your sanctuary).

The UMDiscipleship page on Independence Day has lots of great articles and resources, including some solid liturgical elements that do a great job of balancing gratitude and respect while keeping the focus on God.

What kinds of things do you and your church do on patriotic Sundays? Are there practices that have been meaningful or practices that you simply won’t do? What kind of issues do you have to balance in your particular context, and how have you navigated them?

Header image by Flickr user frankieleon. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from Original.

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