Question for today: Can we worship God and honor our country at the same time?
Over the last 15 years or so, a noticeable dilemma for worship ministry leaders has emerged. Can patriotism and worship co-exist? It’s a fair question to consider now as we are still some time away from July 4th.
I recognize that some of the feelings on this question are generational. My generation easily embraced the presence of patriotism in worship and it never crossed our minds we were doing anything that would somehow dishonor God and was inappropriate for worship. When I was in youth choir at Tate Street Baptist Church, the musical we sang that fueled two different choir tours was, “I Love America” by the legend, John W. Peterson. Even as a 17-year-old, I cried every time we sang, “The Red, White and Blue.” Today, many churches would think a song like that would be out of place in a worship service. Were we wrong and are they right?
It’s not that simple.
The critical issue for anything we do in worship is, “Why?” If you carefully study the principles that Paul lays out for church behavior in the letters to the Corinthians and Romans, the attitude of one’s heart toward the choice is paramount as to whether or not it is sinful. In other words, patriotism could be right in one setting and wrong in another, depending on the heart of the worshipper.
More practically – if the church is seeking to somehow esteem our country as being superior and super-blessed as opposed to every other country, then maybe what we think is patriotism is actually pride, something that doesn’t belong in worship at all.
But, if the church is seeking to 1) express gratitude for God’s blessing in our past by honoring the God-story of our nation’s history, 2) acknowledge our failure and sin by crying out in confession and repentance for our nation, and, 3) call our people to “Salt and Light” living in the present, then perhaps we are acting like the “kingdom of priests” that we are called to be. It doesn’t have to be political at all and certainly shouldn’t be. It can be spiritual and certainly must be.
In the meantime, let’s be patient with each other if we feel differently about this than others do. For the leader who thinks nothing patriotic fits in a worship service, be careful characterizing the church across town doing an “I Love America” rally as doing something wrong. They may not be. And, for the church that is passing out flags as people come into the sanctuary, don’t look disparagingly on the church that feels differently and would never do that.
Within your own fellowship, don’t be frustrated if some of your people want to handle this differently than you. The people who want to say the pledge are not necessarily idolaters that “don’t get it,” and the folks that cringe at a patriotic element in worship don’t hate America. Find some balance that helps your church process this and lead well in articulating the “why” behind your approach to this.
Whatever we do, let’s not let our enemy divide us on this question for the sake of proving our point. There is more than one way to lose here. Pursue each other, not your conviction.
Mike Harland is the Director of LifeWay Worship. When he’s not directing 30+ employees, you’ll find him leading worship at various churches around the country, writing/arranging worship songs and/or, writing his next book (checkout his latest book: Worship Essentials). In his spare time, he loves playing basketball and spending time with his family (and his two new grandbabies). Visit MikeHarland.com to keep up with all that Mike has going on.