It’s on the calendar every year. And most churches expect some kind of acknowledgement in the worship service prior to the 4th. Some churches expect a blowout celebration complete with an American flag large enough for a car dealership to envy, patriotic songs, and either a rousing patriotic sermon or an angry “prophetic” sermon railing against political progressives and liberals. Churches have traditions about such things. Some churches are known for their annual passion play at Easter or singing Christmas tree during Advent. Some churches are known for their annual “God bless America” rally. What are we pastors supposed to do with the 4th of July?
We need to pray this through and figure it out for ourselves. But I can tell you what I do. I don’t like patriotic services. And I’ve taken some flack for it across the decades. I haven’t made everybody happy. Still don’t, but one of the blessings of tenure is that over time, my approach has become “normal” for our congregation.
Some Context and a Confession
I am a Baby Boomer and came of age during Viet Nam, the fight for Civil Rights, and Watergate. Maybe I’ve grown a bit too cynical about our nation and our politics. Maybe I always have been. Not becoming, I know, but not much has happened since my youth to alleviate my cynicism. I’m not blind to that.
But my views on how the church engages politics and celebrates the 4th of July is born out of my theology rather than my cynicism. The church is to be a home for the gospel and a house of prayer for the nations, not an institution to promote Americanism. This is why our church doesn’t place an American flag in the sanctuary. We’re not against the flag. We love the flag, and we love America. But we put the flag in the foyer—a space designed for mingling rather than worship. Though this seems subtle, symbols matter. We love our nation and are grateful to be a church in America, but we don’t want to identify as an “American” church. We take our cues from the Scripture not the constitution. We get our marching orders from God not the President. Our forefathers and mothers in the church are not George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; they are, among others, Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, and Mary (and I don’t mean the singing group). In a country full of immigrants, we want to demonstrate hospitality to people from every land. We want our people to understand the universality of the gospel and grow a love for the nations. While we encourage our people to be good citizens in the U.S.A, our best energies are given to helping us cultivate our citizenship in heaven. I love America. I pray for America. But Jesus did not commission us to make patriots or Democrats or Republicans. Jesus commissioned us to make disciples … of all nations.
So what do we do on the Sunday before the 4th of July? We won’t wave a flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance, but we will have a brief segment where we sing, “America”—a hymn. And during our greeting time, we’ll sing “God Bless America”—a prayer. In bringing these hymns and prayers to worship, I’m trying to give a little concession to our folks who would like a more patriotic service. We will also spend time in prayer for our nation and our leaders. And I will preach a sermon from Amos 4 I’m calling “O Say, Can You Repent.” We don’t ignore the national dimensions of the holiday, but we try to bring the gospel to bear and elevate Jesus. As people leave our worship this Sunday, I don’t want them to say, “America is great”; I want them to say, “God is great!” And I don’t want them to say, “I’m going to be a better American”; I want them to say, “I want Jesus to make me a better Christian.”
As to preaching on the 4th of July Sunday, sometimes I preach a theme connected to the holiday; sometimes I don’t (especially if we’re in a summer sermon series). In the next post, I’m including a sermon I’ve preached a couple of times in the last twenty years, updated to fit the current historical context. Hopefully, it will illustrate what I’m getting at in the previous paragraph.
What do you think?
I doubt we all agree on these matters. Pastor, how do you approach a national holiday like the 4th of July in worship and preaching? Weigh in.