Worship service or patriotic rally? (why I left church angry)

This past Sunday, I left the worship service, steaming mad. It’s an emotion I’ve felt frequently at the church we’re currently attending. (Mother’s Day sermon on the Proverbs 31 woman, for example.) But this service in particular left me furious.  It also left me wondering:

What were they thinking? 

The church wanted to honor American service members and vets for the Fourth of July, so they invited a veteran to speak at the service. I have no issue with that. His sermon was very good; he has a powerful testimony about his time in Iraq and linked it with the Bible.  It was the rest of the service that made me angry.

It started when we walked into the sanctuary and I saw two American flags flanking the cross at the front of the sanctuary. They were lower than the cross, but dominant, and with the vivid red-white-blue color scheme, they overshadowed the dark cross above the baptistry.

I started to feel queasy. I’ve always felt that the church sanctuary was no place for a flag, because the church should be the one place where our earthly country doesn’t matter, that people of every nationality should be welcome, and we should focus on the unity of the universal church and not on the differences between countries (which inevitably divide us).  But there it was, lifted high in the place where we should be lifting high the name of Jesus.

What were they thinking?

The worship minister opened with the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a song that always unsettles me. It’s so militant. But (I thought) we’ll move to a more traditional hymn. No. We continued with another patriotically-inclined song. One, I might understand.  But two?

There was a pause. Then the worship minister and his small choral group turned to the flag and began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The congregation joined in. I stood there, dumbfounded. The pledge, in church–really?

What were they thinking?

When the opening chords of the National Anthem played, I sat down. This was not a church worship service. It was something else entirely, and I could not bear to participate and pretend that I was okay with this patriotic rally disguised as a worship service.

Then the leader had us sit. He announced that they wanted to honor all our service members and veterans with a musical tribute. “When you hear your division’s song, please stand,” he urged them. Then the choral group started singing the Army theme song. And the Navy’s. And the Air Force’s song and the Coast Guard’s song.

At one point, one of the chorus members, an older man, raised his hand to indicate that he was a veteran of that particular division. Did he realize that he looked like a worshiper lifting hands high toward heaven?

What was he thinking?

Then a prayer. “We love you, God,” the leader intoned, “and we want to come before you and continue on praising you . . .”

But you haven’t been, I wanted to shout. You’ve been praising men, not God.

When my husband and I were alone in a few minutes before Sunday school, he asked, rhetorically, “How is singing a bunch of patriotic songs praising God?”

“It isn’t,” I spat out. “Don’t tell me that you’re honoring God when all you’ve done is honor men. Don’t give me that kind of bullshit.”

It felt like someone had shoved my face in manure and told me that I smelled roses. There’s no comparison between the two smells, just like there’s no comparison between a patriotic rally and a God-centered worship service.

At this point, I should probably say that I have no issue with the troops being honored. None. Political convictions aside, I think people who are willing to put their lives on the line should be respected and thanked and honored. But it needs to be in the proper venue.

A church service is not the proper venue.

It’s too easy to confuse patriotism and worship. It’s too easy to assume that all Christians are American (or America-lovers). It’s too easy to mistake that surge of patriotic pride welling up inside for the emotions of worshiping the God of the universe. It’s not.

Even a noble thing like pride of country can become an idol if it is placed before God in our lives. And I’m afraid that’s exactly what happened this past Sunday.

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42 thoughts on “Worship service or patriotic rally? (why I left church angry)

  1. I agree. Thanks for having the courage to post. As someone who hosts international students (around 25 since 1997), I particularly appreciated this: “…because the church should be the one place where our earthly country doesn’t matter, that people of every nationality should be welcome, and we should focus on the unity of the universal church and not on the differences between countries…” – After all the church is about Jesus!!

    It seems to me, that if they wanted such an extreme patriotic service, it should have been at a different day and time. Like some special mid-week event. That would have made it a little better, but only slightly. I still think this does NOT belong in church period.

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    1. Yeah, I wondered why they didn’t do it at a different time (or even a different place, as this church has been known to rent the local baseball stadium for the Christmas Eve service).

      I haven’t hosted internationals, but I did teach ESL for four years and I enjoyed getting to know all the different people. A lot of the students were Christians, and it was so wonderful that we could get together and talk about God and have Jesus as our starting connection point.

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  2. Even though I’m not a churchgoer, I can totally understand your anger. I commend you for writing about it so frankly. You have *every* right to stand by your beliefs and I believe our country is founded on freedom of expression as long as you aren’t hurting anyone – in any case, you must be treated with respect when it comes to how you feel about the flags, etc.! take good care and thanks for your post!

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    1. I’ll admit, I was a little worried how this post would be perceived. Even though we have freedom of speech in this country, the area where I live is very conservative and there’s a lot of people who might not understand why I felt the way I did. Thanks for the good wishes!

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  3. Preach, sister! People in our country conflate patriotism and worship at the drop of a hat. that service you attended would have driven me right out the door, literally.

    P.S. I have a post on patriotism and the church going up tomorrow, but you said it all much better and more forcefully here today.

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    1. I was very tempted to leave, but I wasn’t sure what message that sent to my two daughters. I’m also not sure what message it sent to stay, either. My husband and I did talk to them about our concerns after church.

      I look forward to reading your post!

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      1. It sounds like you must have had a rich conversation with you daughters, Laura.

        By the way, I tweeted and posted on Facebook links to your post, and added a link back here on my piece going up tomorrow.

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    1. Very good point. I wish all Christians kept that in mind more often; I think it would influence how we respond to many issues, especially political ones regarding foreign policy, immigration, etc. But I hope you and your mom resolved the argument! Thanks for reading.

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  4. This is a cult behavior. “We do it all, know it all, follow our lead”. Get out of that church. Report them to the devil.

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    1. We’re searching for a new church. What’s strange is that, otherwise, this church is focused on the Bible and God in a healthy way. I don’t agree with their interpretations on certain matters, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a Southern Baptist church.

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  5. Good words. This kind of church service (and I’ve attended one or two with your same angst) propels the misunderstanding that our Christianity in the USA must be God+: God+Republican, God+pro life, God+patriotism, etc.
    I’ve talked to missionaries who are well supported by churches that have patriotic services – and they have been reduced to tears trying to manage the love they have for the people they serve internationally and the self-worship in their home church.

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    1. Good point, Maureen. I thought about how this service would be received by internationals within the congregation, but I hadn’t thought of the issue from the perspective of a missionary. How difficult it is, trying to navigate the waters of cultural divides! How much of our “worship services” and “Christian beliefs” are really Biblical and how much are culturally-bases? We’re so immersed in our own American culture that we can hardly see it, but I’m sure that many missionaries, having been immersed in different cultures, can see it better. Thanks for commenting.

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  6. I would be irked too! At a church I attended there was some debate over having the American flag lower than the Christian flag as it apparently wasn’t “good flag etiquette”. Eventually they just stopped putting up the American flag altogether. You’re absolutely right; church should be focused on God.

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    1. Yeah, any time I see a flag in a sanctuary, I become worried. The sole exception has been the time our local church held a missions conference and hung flags from many different nations along the sides (not front) of the sanctuary. They were high enough on the walls that they didn’t detract from the focus on the cross at the front of the sanctuary, and it was a good reminder that Jesus is praised and worshipped in many different places, in many different ways.

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  7. I am part of a church choir, and in the past we would a patriotic cantata for Memorial Day…and it always made me uneasy. The words and music did not point people toward Christ–which is the purpose of the church gathering–but instead glorified America, its people, its accomplishments, and its wars. We have made America into an idol that cannot be criticized or questioned. The belief that America is a Christian country makes many within the church believe we have special favor from God and turns what is really a cultural thing into something spiritual. Our national pride makes us seem smug and arrogant to those from other countries and causes us to look down on others who aren’t “real” Americans which impacts our witness to others.

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    1. Wonderful point about national pride. Americans do have a reputation for arrogance, sadly, and I’ve met so many people who feel that the entire world “ought” to speak English and behave “just like us.” It’s not a Christ-honoring attitude at all.

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      1. I live in the DC Metro area, and Spanish is the language of need. And so many here wish to speak this language of need. And, those who do not speak English wish they could. Places I have been, the Americans understand that this is NOT America, thus the locals can speak the language of their choice.
        Arrogance? The person who walks into the business and demands in flawless English that the manager provides someone who speaks Spanish. (in Falls Church VA)

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  8. As a veteran, and son, grandson, and great-grandson of veterans of the U.S. Military, I whole-heartedly agree with your post–and thank you for it. Most that I served with who loved Jesus would be in agreement as well. Honoring veterans does not require elevating nationalism or equating nationalism wiith true worship. I love my country, still tear up when I see older veterans parade with the flag–but I think flags at the altar are pretentious and shallow, if not outright idolatrous. Our vision of God must be bigger than the borders of our nation–a nation focused worship service is rather noisy in a way that detracts from true worship.

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    1. Rick, thank you for commenting. I was worried that this post might offend those in the military, but your reply is heartening. Thank you for your service, and thank you for understanding!

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  9. It is hard to place one’s Christian faith in a priority-hierarchy with allegiance to one’s country. Having been to other countries the feelings range for enthusiasm to indifference. The USA is unique in its blend of the two. Those who know the history of the country, and patriotic music will grasp this, those who do not or disagree, research it.

    Abraham Lincoln had strong feelings for the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
    The fourth verse of the old Song America has these words:

    –Read the words and comments —

    Our Father God to thee, Author of Liberty to the we sing
    Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light,
    Protect us by thy might, Great God our King.

    Or the well known tune America the Beautiful:
    O beautiful for spacious skies,
    For amber waves of grain,
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above the fruited plain!
    America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
    And crown thy good with brotherhood
    From sea to shining sea!

    O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
    Whose stern impassion’d stress
    A thoroughfare for freedom beat
    Across the wilderness!
    America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
    Confirm thy soul in self-control,
    Thy liberty in law!

    O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
    Who more than self their country loved,
    And mercy more than life!
    America! America! May God thy gold refine
    Till all success be nobleness,
    And ev’ry gain divine!

    O Beautiful for patriot dream
    That sees beyond the years
    Thine alabaster cities gleam,
    Undimmed by human tears!
    America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
    And crown thy good with brotherhood
    From sea to shining sea!

    EVERY verse refers to our God, loving, caring protecting.

    From the Star-Spangled Banner, fourth stanza:
    And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

    Spiritual Warfare is or is not “militant?”
    Paul seems to suggest that it is – using Roman Equipment to illustrate it.

    AS one who has spent time in both worlds, ministry, military and support roles I am somewhat hurt by the tone of the writing. Why, does someone ask? The all or nothing undertone in the writing.

    All or nothing leans in the way of false dichotomy, accept one idea because the opposite presented is strongly against it, almost absurd.

    Worship is NOT just nice music, some music will not be “worship” feelings to this person, but may help another person. Worship is heart attitude, not music, nor music choice. Worship is more than music, BUT – (BUT!!!!!) music choice can be more divisive than doctrine, music is personal, tastes vary, we want what we want at a certain time. I know my favorite style of music is not yours, but personal taste is personal.

    The writer’s personal preferences became clear from the beginning, yet I read all of it.

    Having been to churches on patriotic days in other countries, “neutrality” does not exist like at least one post indicated.

    Sadly the time will come when the government will demand of its military that which is clearly wrong, violating biblical principle(s). That future problem (BIG PROBLEM) needs more prayer than this issue.

    p.s. Please tell me that the Pastor was the FIRST to hear these concerns…..

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    1. Bob, I took the tone of her post to be disappointment that the service she attended clearly focused on honoring America and not Christ. Is that not the service she clearly described attending?

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    2. Pastor Bob,
      I appreciate what you’re saying here. I realize that worship isn’t just nice music, etc. I’ve enjoyed a variety of different types of “worship music” through the years, and all types of musical genres have prompted me to worship God. So this wasn’t just a personal preference issue. I had less trouble accepting the Battle Hymn of the Republic being sung than I did having our National Anthem being sung, as well as saying the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag. And the tribute to our military divisions–whose songs don’t reference Christianity, if I am not mistaken–seemed an inappropriate inclusion to a worship service. These things overshadowed everything in the beginning part of the service (the sermon being the exception.)

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  10. I saw nothing to the contrary, the posting is allowed to be one sided. Is is not honest to state that respecting the country that the church building sits on is “idolatry.” In other countries the church is required to “respect” the host/home country.
    In New York Harbor stands a lady,
    With a torch raised to the sky;
    And all who see her know she stands for
    Liberty for you and me.

    I’m so proud to be called an American,
    To be named with the brave and the free;
    I will honor our flag and our trust in God,
    And the Statue of Liberty.

    On lonely Golgotha stood a cross,
    With my Lord raised to the sky;
    And all who kneel there live forever
    As all the saved can testify.

    I’m so glad to be called a Christian,
    To be named with the ransomed and whole;
    As the statue liberates the citizen,
    So the cross liberates the soul.

    Oh the cross is my Statue of Liberty,
    It was there that my soul was set free;
    Unashamed I’ll proclaim that a rugged cross
    Is my Statue of Liberty!

    © Words & Music by Neil Enloe

    We are allowed to have both in the USA!!

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    1. This service went far beyond “respecting the country that the church building sits on.” It was entirely focused on the country and not on Christ. If the service had not been billed as a worship service, and had been listed as a patriotic rally (or something along those lines), I might have been okay with it. But it wasn’t. It was supposed to be our regular 8 a.m. worship service, and yet a great deal of it was spent focused on America and veterans. It IS idolatry to claim one is worshipping God when one is really bringing attention to man’s endeavors (even worthy ones).

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  11. My first pastor was in his 70’s, I in my early 20’s (add thirty years to get here) had a preference in music, Bible version, that spoke to his generation. It took me until I reached Seminary to understand this thought: “God is glorified when Christians gather in His name, it is not sin to recognize the works of man, if we keep Him first.’

    Some churches refuse to recite the pledge to the flag, or even the Christian flag, I guess you church is not one of them.

    Long live the freedom to disagree.

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    1. Well, it’s not my church, really. We’ve been searching for a church home for over a year-and-a-half, and had landed at this mega-church for a while, but both my husband and I have issues with some of the theology and programs. (Feel like our kids are being entertained, not taught; very impersonal, because of the church size; other theological points, such as the Armenian versus Calvinism disagreements, etc.) So we’ve agreed for me to visit other churches, narrowing down the possibilities, and my husband and kids stay at this church, providing consistency for them instead of being dragged from church to church. (We did that at the beginning of our church search, and they dreaded having to meet all new people each week.)

      Anyway, I do agree that it’s not a sin to recognize the works of man. I want those who have served our country to be honored in appropriate ways. (For example, if the church service had included having the vets stand for applause, in addition to a God-focused worship service, I’d be fine with that.) But this particular service didn’t keep God first.

      But it is wonderful to live in a country where we can openly and respectfully disagree with one another. Thank you for adding your comments to this post, and for keeping the dialogue civil. You’ve given me a different perspective on this topic, and I appreciate the food for thought.

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  12. Okay, I feel safe in entering this open discussion even though I usually don’t. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses I have never attended a religious service with flags behind the stage/pulpit. I have never stood during worship and sang a song honoring an earthy government. These ideas are quite frankly foreign to Jehovah’s Witnesses earthwide.
    Here’s a link if you’d like to know more, but on a personal note it’s a blessing in my life to be able to take my children to worship their heavenly Father without ever having the experience you had and having to explain how that kind of patriotism crosses a line into worship.
    I sincerely hope you found a place that you are comfortable and that your children thrive.
    https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/political-neutrality/

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    1. Thanks for sharing this, wonderwoman. I knew that Jehovah’s Witnesses maintained this stance and I respect that. Interesting link, too.

      We have changed to a different church, which, thankfully, doesn’t have flags in the sanctuary. I was pleased that during this past election, the leadership did not endorse any candidate or talk about the “issues” or anything like that. Instead, they urged us to pray for our country, for our leaders, both present and future, and for peace and calm. They also urged us to keep our focus on Jesus. 🙂

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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