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Thoughts on Patriotism and Corporate Worship

patriotism
Photo by Tim Mossholder (via Unsplash)

In the United States, the annual celebration of Independence Day on July 4th comes with all the cultural trappings—grilling out, gathering with friends and family, and blowing things up. Independence Day is as central to the American calendar as Easter is to the Christian one.

To honor America, pastors and churches often integrate patriotic elements into their worship services on the Sunday closest to the big day. And, with it, the inevitable controversy ensues about whether such elements in worship express love of country or play footsie with idolatry.

Few things elicit more emotion than love of country. Most Americans are proud of this country they call home, though we may express it differently and at different times. Many of us have friends or relatives who have served in the armed forces, and we are incredibly grateful for their service. I, myself, am very proud to be an American. And I express my patriotism publicly! (Fun fact: we would read the Declaration of Independence to our kids on July 4.)

But for Christians, our citizenship is a bit more complicated. We are dual citizens of the Kingdom of God and the country in which we live. While we may (rightly) love our American citizenship, our Kingdom citizenship always comes first. In fact, we are ambassadors of that Kingdom. An ambassador’s job is to promote the welfare of the land to which they belong and act in the interests and priorities of the country they represent. Christians represent the Kingdom of God while living in this land.

So I don’t think it should surprise anyone that I believe our love of God should surpass our love of country. All Christians would agree with this statement. The difference between us often lies in 1) neglecting to see how often our loyalty to our nation competes with our loyalty to God and 2) not knowing how to express our pride for being an American in a way that is faithful to the Kingdom.

A study of 1,000 Protestant pastors released June 28 from Lifeway Research shows the majority (56%) believe it is important to include patriotic elements in worship services the week of July 4. This is down slightly from a 2016 study (of the same size and demographic) that reported 61 percent. More than a quarter (27%) strongly agree with this. However, about two in five pastors (42%) disagree. Thirty-eight percent of the pastors surveyed expressed concern that their congregation’s love of country surpassed their love of God.

How much patriotic emphasis in worship is too much? How much is too little? Should there be any? Are we mixing two kingdoms? Here are a few of my thoughts.

America and God

2015 Lifeway study of Americans and their thoughts about the nation found that 54% disagreed that “America’s best days are behind us.” In the article on this study, I wrote:

“God Bless America” is more than a song or a prayer for many Americans. It is a belief that God has blessed America beyond what is typical for nations throughout history. I am sure that would spawn many theological conversations, but it’s important to note most Americans think God has a special relationship with their country.

When Christians focus too heavily on patriotism, there is a danger of loving America more than God. There has been a pronounced decline in patriotic sentiment from 2016 to 2022, according to Lifeway studies. In 2016, 53% of pastors said, “Our congregation sometimes seems to love America more than God.” The current study dropped to 38%.

The recent study reflected a decreasing priority of patriotic elements among younger pastors. Two-thirds (65%) of pastors aged 18-44 said worship services do not need patriotic additions. The same group was least likely to agree that displaying an American flag in a Christian worship service was appropriate.

It’s important that Christians create a distinction between love of God and love of country. America does not have a special relationship with God. It is not his chosen people. It does us well to see ourselves more as exiles in a foreign land seeking that flourishing of that land (Jer. 29:7) than viewing our nation as a type of Israel. God marked out one people for himself in the Old Testament: Israel. And, through the death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah—Jesus—God has opened that designation to people of all the nations of the world who desire to be reconciled to him in Jesus. America is not God’s chosen people—we who are citizens of the Kingdom of God are.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is the Dean of Talbot School of Theology at Biola Univeristy and Scholar in Residence & Teaching Pastor at Mariners Church. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Dr. Stetzer is the host of "The Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast," and his national radio show, "Ed Stetzer Live," airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.