Is It OK to Acknowledge Patriotic Holidays in Church?
Memorial Day is coming up in the US, and it's one of those holidays that a lot of churches celebrate without even thinking about—just because they always have. If that's your church, we want to encourage you to evaluate how—but also why—you acknowledge it.
A decade or so back, I was serving at an outreach-on-the-beach-style youth event, and like most of these types of events, the tech had been outsourced to outside contractors. They had a hard-working, competent crew of what seemed to be all believers, excited to put together an event that was sharing the Gospel with about 1,000 high school kids.
Their team lead, probably the owner, was the type of guy you’ve probably seen in that role before—a ruddy, weathered gentleman in his 50s or so, with a personality as loud as his voice and opinions as strong as his handshake.
Load-in and setup went amicably and professionally, but that was tested when one of the youth staff politely asked him to take down the American flag he’d set up at the front-of-house booth. He cited the multicultural diversity of the group and the potentially distracting and/or confusing message being sent, with it being the first thing the kids would see as the kids made their way to their seats from the entrance at the back of the room.
You would have thought they had asked him to burn a Bible. He literally threatened to pack up and leave. I only found out about the incident because I had heard the yelling and felt the awkward atmosphere afterward.
NOT AN UNCOMMON SENTIMENT
If you grew up in the American South, this attitude probably isn’t surprising to you. But, if you live outside the US or in a region where “cultural Christianity” isn’t the norm, this intertwining of patriotic or national identity and Christian identity may be a foreign concept to you (no pun intended). Some have even taken it to the far end of this spectrum, claiming a biblical foundation for America’s unique status as a Christian nation, chosen by God.
There are several historical, societal, and political factors that have led to this reality. Check out this article that explores the complex historical relationship between patriotism and church life.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
On the other hand, there are churches, and even entire denominations, that equate any sort of nationalism with idolatry, in effect, labeling even the acknowledgment of a patriotic holiday a sin. That might sound a little extreme, but consider this:
In a study conducted by LifeWay Research, 53% of pastors indicated that “our congregation sometimes seems to love America more than God.”
SHOULD WE DO IT ALL?
That same article indicates that 9 out of 10 churches will change their worship services in some way to acknowledge patriotic holidays.
Are churches really incorporating a golden calf in their services?
Maybe … maybe not.
Are patriotic elements in your services non-negotiable? Does the thought of changing or excluding some of those elements have you fearing the mobilization of an angry mob of congregants? Do you have an American flag displayed next to, and with prominence equal (or near equal) to a cross?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I would encourage you to spend some time digging into the “why.”
On the other hand, I think it’s entirely appropriate to express our gratitude to God for the era and land in which we live, and to the people who have sacrificed to protect the freedoms our land grants.
I don’t believe it’s a sin to identify as an “American” any more than it’s a sin to identify as a graduate of your alma mater or a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. (OK … maybe that’s a bad example.) But, the reality is that we are strangers and aliens in this world. This world is not our home.
We are followers of Christ who happen to be on mission for a few years in a country that has allowed us freedoms to do that. If the worst happens someday and that erodes, where will we find our identity if so much of it rests on our patriotism?
THIS MEMORIAL DAY
If you're looking for a way to give appropriate weight to Memorial Day in your church service in your pre-service slideshows with a title graphic, or take it one step further and incorporate a mini movie to express gratitude for the sacrifices they have made, here are a few that we think are really great options: