With the Obergefell decision weighing heavy on our minds, I have been wondering how churches in America will worship this Sunday. Will they go on as usual singing patriotic hymns? Or will they, in light of recent days, reconsider their song selection?
For those involved in music ministry and church leadership, this is not a new question. And honestly, the Obergefell decision should not be the deciding factor. However, that ruling has solidified concerns Christians have with America, and thus raises the question again—Should a church incorporate patriotic hymns in a service of worship?
Thinking on that subject, I believe a church has 1 of 3 options—no incorporation (option #1), selective incorporation (option #2), and unqualified incorporation (option #3). I think the first two options are valid with #1 outweighing #2, while option #3 is troubling and in need of revamping—something that could be done as soon as tomorrow. Let’s consider together.
Option #1 — Churches who intentionally resist incorporating patriotic hymns in service.
For what it’s worth, this is the posture I would endorse. Because the gospel affords a heavenly citizenship to each believer (Phil 3:20), the church should be a place of heavenly politics. While not ignorant or indifferent to earthly affairs, we should strive to create communities that embrace all nations and point them to the one Lord who stands above all princes, presidents, and principalities. Because our allegiance to the Lord is singular—“You shall have no other gods before me!” (Exod 20:3)—it must be put on a different level than the allegiance we ought to have for our country.
By restricting patriotic hymns from service, we make the most clear and compelling witness: “Jesus is Lord!” We will not mingle God and country: “We will render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. And today, as we gather we intentionally restrict our gaze to the Lord or Lords and the King of Kings.” In my estimation, resisting the incorporation of patriotic hymns is the best way to make this statement and to reach the nations in our midst by not putting a nationalistic stumbling block in their way. (For more on this point, see the late Chip Stam’s concise argument for not incorporating patriotic hymns in service).
Option #2 — Churches who selectively employ and appropriately explain patriotic hymns in service.
Another legitimate approach to singing patriotic hymns in service is the selective use and clear explanation of hymns in service. Because there are some great, God-centered lyrics in hymns like the Battle Hymn of the Republic (see below), I think their inclusion could be very appropriate. (This is the approach I willingly employed in a church more accustomed to option #3).
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.
God’s truth is marching on.
Still, there are other patriotic songs whose lyrics are less sanguine to Spirit-filled, Christ-centered praise—see the plethora of triumphalistic patriotic songs here. The challenge for any pastor or music leader is to select the right songs and to direct the congregation’s attention to the Lord of the nation and the nations.
Practically and liturgically, there is no better time in the life of a congregation to expound the Lordship of Christ over our nation, while at the same time giving appropriate thanks for the relative freedoms and blessings we enjoy in our own country. Paul made no bones about being a Roman citizen, ungodly as that nation-state was (Acts 16:37), and he teaches us that God determines our national heritage (Acts 17:26) and demands that we give honor to those who govern us (Rom 13:1–7; cf. 1 Pet 2:13).
Therefore, in the life of the church, national holiday weekends provide a regular reminder of how Christians are to be in but not of the world. Incorporating a song of praise to God with national themes may perfectly accompany prayer, commentary, or teaching on God and country. That said, the day belongs to the Lord and need not always serve the interest of national attention. Pastors and churches would be wise on these holiday weekends to acknowledge the national holiday (because it’s on most people’s minds), but not to become a servant of the holiday or the nation.
Option #3 — Churches who unreservedly incorporate patriotic hymns in service.
Finally, their are many churches who have found no trouble saying the pledge of allegiance in service or singing patriotic songs with a proud and triumphalistic spirit. To these churches, let me urge you to take inventory.
- Why do you gather at church this Sunday, instead of a city parade? (Because the parade is on Saturday is not a good answer).
- What is the purpose of gathering on Sunday mornings?
- Should anything other than the Lord receive our attention in a service of worship?
- Why would we risk confusing or uniting Christ and country, or worse replacing Christ with country—even if only for one Sunday?
In truth, I can think of many things that should receive attention on Sunday mornings that are very earthly-minded, but that’s not the point. My point is to stir up churches, pastors, and music leaders to think about the songs they are singing. Too many congregations have unreservedly sung patriotic songs because that’s what they did last year and every year since they can remember.
While there are biblical reasons for giving honor to military and political leaders (cf. Rom 13:7), which may translate to public gatherings of Christians, my concern is the thoughtless repetition of traditions and the unqualified celebration of our country. Scripture has much to say about how we worship, and just because there are patriotic hymns in our hymnals does not mean that we must use them for services of worship.
So what is the solution, especially one day before Sunday? My suggestion is this: Why not ‘fast’ from patriotic hymns? Instead of singing the songs of celebration this Sunday—even if planned—why not devote an extended time of prayer, lamentation, and confession for personal and national sin. Why not replace the choir special,”America the Beautiful” with a reading from Nehemiah 9 or Daniel 9? These passages display national leaders lamenting, confessing national sin, and pleading for mercy? What would be more appropriate in our abortion-rich and righteousness-poor country?
In churches accustomed to singing patriotic hymns, the change does not change expectations for tomorrow, but it does change the mood. It gets honest with the state of affairs in our country. It protects Christians from making an idol out of American nostalgia. It presses us to confess our own sins and plead for God to have mercy. And it purifies the focus of our worship.
The Final Stanza
With cultural Christianity dying in our country, isn’t it time that we stop giving it CPR in our worship services? Jesus is Lord and as such, he calls us to think carefully about how we worship him. As Ecclesiastes says, “for everything there is a season,” (3:1). There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (v. 4). Certainly, if ever there was a time to weep and sing songs of lament, it is now.
Why would we, in such a season, strike up the band to play a triumphant chorus, when a song of mourning is due? As we give thanks to God for the freedoms that we have in our nation today, may we think carefully about how we worship tomorrow. And may we with Daniel and Nehemiah learn to mourn and intercede for our troubled nation, even forgetting how to play our songs for a time (Psalm 137), while unrighteousness is celebrated and legislated in our land.
Lord, have mercy on our beloved nation,
Give help to those who lead your flock.
We long for joy and celebration,
But for now we confess sin and take stock.
Let our songs of praise turn to lament,
Give us pause to consider your ways,
We pray for our nation to repent,
Grant your church revival in our days.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds