Do Patriotic Songs Belong in Church Worship Services?

us-flagThe 4th of July holiday is quickly approaching.  For many of us, that means picnics, fireworks and looking forward to singing some great patriotic songs in church on Sunday morning.

Does your church do this?  If so, you may also repeat the process on Memorial Day weekend.  Have you ever thought that it was out of place, or even wrong?  I have.

Please do not get me wrong.  I love my country.  I would never desire to live anywhere else in the world and I am thankful for all of those who have served in our military through the years to keep us safe and free.  However, when I go to church, I go to worship my God for who he is, what he has done, what he is doing, or what he is going to do.  Most patriotic songs are not focused on the greatness of God, they are focused on the greatness of the United States.

Do you think I am wrong?  Here are some of the words from 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.”

It is true that the song mentions God (although it is not necessarily the Christian God – any religion could use this same song and feel comfortable), but where is the focus of the song?  It is on the greatness of America.  Proper focus in a church worship service should be on the greatness of God; the one who shed his grace on America.  We can thank God for the United States and for shedding his grace on our great land, but he should be the focus.

Another example is My Country, “Tis of Thee:

“My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing: Land where my father’s died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountain side let freedom ring.  My native country, thee, land of the noble free – thy name I love: I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills; my heart with rapture thrills like that above.”

Again, where is the focus of this song?  It is certainly not on God.  Am I wrong or is the gathering of the saints supposed to be for corporate worship of our God?  Are we replacing worship of God with worship of country?  I know this will not be a popular post with many, but if you disagree with me, please tell me why I am off-track.  I know we live in a great country.  It is a country blessed by God and it is God we should gather to honor on 4th of July weekend and every other Sunday of the year.  We do this by making him (and him alone) the focus of all we do – including the songs we sing.

Before you accuse me of being “anti-” or “un-” American, please understand that I do not have a problem with patriotic songs.  In fact, I think there is a time and place to pay honor to our country and these songs are great for that.  However, I do not believe the time or place is in a church worship service where the focus should be God.

Okay, now you can blast me with your comments.

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24 Responses to Do Patriotic Songs Belong in Church Worship Services?

  1. Kelsey says:

    Thanks for posting this! I couldn’t agree more. Another problem with singing patriotic songs in church is that many of these songs perpetuate the idea that America is a “chosen” nation, or a more “godly” nation than others, which just isn’t true. We would be better served in worship by focusing on the universal Church, which has members from all nations, and saving the patriotic songs for Fourth of July barbecues.

  2. Davo says:

    I wholeheartedly agree, and I think Kelsey’s point is also a good one. In my experience, incorporating patriotic songs into a church service is usually accompanied with an elitism that equates the actions of our country with the will of God. Our country is great, but I’m pretty sure God doesn’t smile on all of our actions.

  3. Ben A says:

    My old church in Milwaukee did “Amerifest.” It’s a whole day of fun, picnics and singing patriotic songs and paying honor to our servicemen and women. I think that it was great.

    However, on Sunday morning, I need time with God in corporate worship. My spirit needs it. I really wouldn’t mind an extended 30 minute service to pay some honor to our servicemen and women. But I really dont’t want to replace worship with anything.

    BTW, why do you hate America so much, Tim? Jeez. 😛

  4. Kevin Barry says:

    Tim,
    Hey we agree on something…lol I have had the same thoughts about the songs on Memorial Day and the 4th of July for some time. Worship is suppose to be God centered not man or country centered even if it is only for a part of the service. God wants all of the praise and worship He should not have to share it with anyone or anything else. How do you feel about the pledge of allegiance? Should be give allegiance to anything other than God?

  5. Tim Farley says:

    Kevin:

    I had this conversation with someone else (kind of). He asked what I thought about having the U.S. flag displayed at the front of the auditorium. I responded that it bothered me. I think it is out of place. I went on to say that I am also bothered by pledging allegiance to the AWANA flag (in churches that run the AWANA program). Our allegainace is not to a program, but to Christ alone! Programs come and go. I have no allegiace to AWANA and would happily change if I thought it would benefit Christ and his Church.

    As for pledging allegiance to the U.S., I can do it and feel it is okay as long as you are asking me to make that pledge only in relation to other countries. If it is to be taken as a pledge to country above all else, then I can not say it because Jesus Christ comes before country on my list of priorities.

  6. Jeff Lahr says:

    Well, I hope God is not offended when I sing those patriotic songs loudly and with a sense of gratitude in my heart.

  7. Tim Farley says:

    Jeff:

    Actually, I wonder if God is indeed offended when we make something other than him the object of our adoration during a worship service.

    Maybe the solution is that we need some new songs that praise God for giving us such a great country to replace the ones that are focused on praising the gift.

  8. Jakob says:

    Isn’t that the great sin of humanity though?
    Focusing on the creation (and the gifts) rather than the God behind them? This same argument could be made towards all the “worship wars” debates or anything that has taken place within Christiandom that takes away from true worship of Him (as you said, programs, holidays, etc)

    So back to what I was going to say-
    A wholehearted AMEN to what you wrote.

  9. Ranita says:

    Interesting toe stepping… don’t you know that the weather is a safe topic–religion and politics are the *no no* topics. This was both!

    I don’t happen to pledge to the Awana flag, though I do for the American flag… and I still will for the sake of the little eyes around me, as well as for my heart. And….I will sing those songs (if we have them) for the joy it gives those veterans around me to see me honor what they were willing to sacrifice so much for.

    I agree that a worship service is for God’s glory. But, I think He might understand and not be so harsh on those patriotic occasions. If He is, I plead His mercy and grace on that one. 😉

  10. Mark says:

    This is not the first of your blogs that I have read, but it is the first that I have responded to. In fact, I have had much of the same emotion and response to your statements in prior months, and I have taken some relief over not responding, as I do not want to be mis-understood, I wish you no ill, and certainly desire for you the spiritual growth and wisdom necessary for the position you have chosen. I appreciate that you appear to word your blogs in a manner that you must imagine is open to criticism, although I note that often those that do respond in agreement are acquaintances, or repeat posters. Thus, I have often anticipated that you will hit a wall of sorts when wisdom and reality culminate within your experiences. I have therefore refrained earlier, as I was not convinced it was my place to introduce you to that “wall”. It seems with your latest efforts though, you have decided to turn and speed toward the wall.
    Paul encourages us to “run the race to win”, but often your resolutions tend to indicate that you already won, on the day you graduated from seminary. That’s just how it sounds to us regular folk, and like it or not, that must be your first priority, is to gain an entrance into the lives of those you wish to impact. Do you not have anything to learn from the guy who has to step outside between Sunday school and church for a cigarette? (He is defiling the temple of God) What about somebody covered with tattoos? They obviously want people to pay attention to themselves, and not God. Do you see value in alienating any (or possibly all), who have an incomplete understanding of what it is to live a life dedicated to the God of the Bible?
    Many churches were overflowing immediately following the 9/11 attacks. What would that opportunity mean to you, if a similar thing took place today? Do you honestly think that every person attending church then was there to recieve the wisdom contained in the pastor’s thoughts? Is God finished with your development? Or is there something you can learn from someone who has a diversely different background than you? In 1 Samuel 18, the whole countryside was excited about one man’s achievements in battle. They made countless songs, that no doubt had a very selective mention of a Biblical God. Only 1 person took offense that day, and it was the beginning of the end for Saul. Where do you line up with the fact that God loved feasts and celebrations, and dancing in the streets? Religious celebrations, ordered by God, for all to participate, and stop their labor and share everything with everybody. Where would you be every 7th year, if you lived in that time? Would you be huddled in the temple, surrounding yourself only with those who worshiped, thought, and acted exactly like you? Is there any way for God’s favor in battle to be appropriately demonstrated inside a church, according to your opinion? Do you really hear yourself?
    There are seven “filters” that identify the presence of the Spirit of God at work in one’s life; Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness. What better place than in a church to point all toward the one living way? Do we show Love by refusing to honor sacrifice for country inside a church? Agape love is without judgement. Do we deny a person whose child or spouse died in battle the Joy of honoring that devotion in an organized setting with fellow Christians? Is the Peace that is achieved through the commitment to democracy, and standing against ethnic mass murder not worthy to be mentioned in our churches? Is there no value to sharing in a song or ceremony that honors the hard lessons of Patience learned through the cruelties of the Civil war, and the poor treatment of certain nationalities after the Japanese invasion? Wouldn’t a patriotic song offer an opportunity for healing by drawing the attention away from mistakes, and sharing a common sentiment? We as a nation have the opportunity to express Kindness and Goodness to our neighbors, because of the freedom we enjoy as a nation. Someone’s sacrifice paid an immeasurable price so that we are not fighting over food, or water, or running for our lives as many do in other countries. Are all of the battles mentioned in the Bible for our historic benefit? Or does it actually warm His heart to be reminded of His Justice, Favor, and Blessings exhibited in victory for a nation’s welfare? Do you think God is confused by a verse in a song when it is spelled with a small g? Perhaps He awaits our proper response in this. We especially as Christians should be leading with a healing message drawing Americans together. The latest trend toward divisions inside this nation is a very troubling sign. Is it not a commendable goal as a public institution to promote unity, strength and God’s blessing on us corporately as a nation? Without Faith it is impossible to please God. What of the faithfulness of a soldier in battle? Is that how we err, -to simply mention this inside a church? Or is it a problem when we attach that sacrifice to a tangible accomplishment of benefitting a nation, and through a song that it becomes a problem?
    I believe you will find that you need to change your whole approach about this blogging idea. It’s not particularly befitting for a minister of the Gospel to “pose issues” and invite discussion. Unbelievers expect some answers, and a level of confidence. The only thing to be gained by your past blogging is you will isolate and alienate those who disagree, and there is limited value in portraying yourself as someone who still needs enlightenment. I’m sure your goal is not to end up with seven people in your church who think exactly as you do. Perhaps better to limit your expressions to the form of testimony of the work of the Holy Spirit, in an effort to bring God glory. And if you don’t have anything to say, open it up to something that you’ve witnessed God do in someone else’s life.
    Seriously, in the upper room after Jesus ascended, do you think God only honored the gathering with His presence because a dozen fishermen rattled off their worship services with such consummate clarity, devoid of patriotic reference that He approved? Jesus spent a lot of time with regular people. You might want to give it a try as well.

  11. Tim Farley says:

    Mark:

    Thanks for the lecture, but you have failed to understand the point: It is okay to celebrate country and the sacrifices that have been made in a worship service as long as God is at the center of our celebration. Every proper feast and celebration in Scripture has God at its center – either for who he is or what he has done.

    Also, I never said that solely celebrating country was wrong. I only said it was wrong to replace our Sunday morning worship service, which is properly focused on Jesus Christ, with a focus on country. There are other times available to celebrate our country. We do not need to do it in a worship service (unless we maintain the focus on God).

    Thanks for reading.

  12. Mark says:

    I do understand the point you were making, Tim. That’s why I expanded my approach to additional questioning. My point is you are aiming way too low. It appears to the occasional reader that your main goal is to chop up Christianity into bite-sized theology rants that you are confident about, and celebrate your “right-ness”.
    I live on a busy street. If I stood at the end of my driveway with a sandwich sign on for a Saturday that said; “God is coming again, -all sinners are condemned to Hell!” And afterwards judged my “success” by the 7 or 8 people who stopped to shake my hand, I am not cognisant of those who emphatically disagreed and passed me off as a lunatic, nor am I learning anything of the hurts and struggles that have kept droves from setting foot in a church.
    Tomorrow’s church will be less regimented, with new and creative approaches. Information travels too quickly nowadays. People are not searching for restrictive “safe zones”. The mass of population has been neck-deep in unspeakable evils by the time they reach 21, all while the tiny minority like you and me grow up in a sheltered atmosphere of Awana and bi-weekly Bible studies. What are we going to reach them with? Discussing issues? If you want to make an impact, get out there and get dirty. Meet some people where they’re at. Be a part of stories of transformation. Then talk about that.
    And yes,church is a place for unpolished subjects and raw confrontations that leave us uncomfortable with a world that is packed with perishing people. After all, God sees all of it, -every day, -every hour. And He’s waiting for our response, . . .not our discussion.

  13. Tim Farley says:

    Mark:

    You speak much of a subject you know little or nothing about (me). You have stated: “If you want to make an impact, get out there and get dirty. Meet some people where they’re at. Be a part of stories of transformation. Then talk about that.
    And yes,church is a place for unpolished subjects and raw confrontations that leave us uncomfortable with a world that is packed with perishing people. After all, God sees all of it, -every day, -every hour. And He’s waiting for our response, . . .not our discussion.”

    And you also stated earlier: “Jesus spent a lot of time with regular people. You might want to give it a try as well.”

    You know nothing of my personal life now or what it was for 32 years before I went to seminary. Do you know anything of the transformation that took place in my life? Maybe all you care about is yourself and your own experience. You are quick to judge and slow to listen. I am pretty sure this describes the fool in Proverbs. Before you condemn others for what you perceive to be wrong with them, you may want to find out if they fit your profile. You may be surprised to find out that I am not at all what you imagine.

    You have your own personal “wall” as well. You seem to believe it is superior to mine (and everyone else’s).

    If you choose to continue to participate on this blog, then limit your discussion to the issues rather than launching personal attacks. And yes, discussing the “issues” is important. We cannot come to a response if we are not engaged in the discussion.

  14. Ranita says:

    Please note, this is not my husband, Mark

  15. William Napp says:

    Pastor Tim,
    I felt that I should reply concerning the songs used in a church worship service, that so many people think that they should not be used. I can understand why you or others would feel this way, if those were the only “verses” used…. But, read the entire song, don’t pull a verse out of its setting.
    I happened to know the background to why or how it became a song, or poem, and it really means something to me… Katherine Bates was teaching a class at a summer school in Colorado Springs, Colorado and the group went to climb Pike’s Peak.. that was back in 1893 without the roads and trails we have today, it was a real tough climb.
    when the group reached the top, she wrote that she gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and the plains…. She soon wrote the words to “America The Beautiful” To me, WORSHIP is a RESPONSE, a Response to the WORD OF GOD, TO THE WORKS OF GOD, TO THE WILL OF GOD, TO THE WAYS OF GOD… It was her Response to God’s Work, that this song came about..
    “AMERICA, AMERICA, GOD SHED HIS “GRACE” ON THEE.
    I can see where you are coming from on the song, “MY COUNTRY TI”S OF THEE”
    But I have no problem with it, again when I read the entire song, “Our father’s God to Thee, AUTHOR OF LIBERTY, To THEE WE SING, long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light, PROTECT US BY THY MIGHT, “GREAT GOD OUR KING”
    What a Great way to WORSHIP “OUR GOD” WHAT A LEAD IN TO “HOW GREAT THOU ART”

  16. Tim Farley says:

    William Napp:

    Thanks for your comments. It is surprising to me that this post has become “active” again. I originally posted it last year near July 4th. I guess Memorial Day weekend has people thinking about this sort of thing, which is why it has resurfaced.

    Anyway, I agree that worship is a response to God and I have no problem praising him for our great country. In fact, we SHOULD praise him for our country and every other good gift that comes from his hand. However, we must always keep God at the center of our response. If our worship service was simply about praising our country, I would have a problem. If it has a proper focus on God, I believe it is fine.

    Like you said, a song like My Country ‘Tis of Thee would lead right into How Great Thou Art and keep the focus on God – the center of our worship. I believe we had a proper balance this past week as we honored our vets and sang America the Beautiful while keeping the celebration on God’s provision and keeping the rest of the service focused on him.

    My fear, and past experience, is that some churches devote an entire service to patriotic songs and discussion that would be no different than what they would do at the local VFW or American Legion. Church worship services are always to be God-centered – even as we celebrate different holidays, milestones, etc.

  17. Don Shirley says:

    Tim,
    As a pastor and former minister of music, I have to say that seeing patriotism and God as two completely separate entities is like seeing finances and God, family and God, or or even computers and God as subjects that must be dealt with totally independent of each other. Patriotism apart from God is like Christmas without Christ–unholy and damnable; but recognizing our God in the forming of our nation and depending on Him to preserve us as a nation is a necessary truth that must be preached. There are patriotic songs that all but abandon God, but many (such as the last verse of the Star Spangled Banner or My Country ‘Tis of Thee) draw us to trust in God and not ourselves. Of course we must be wise in what is the focus of any service (focusing on mother’s instead of God on Mother’s Day, for example), but when God is the center and focus of what we do, the thematic content becomes relevant to our worship. July 4th is an awesome opportunity to challenge our people to trust in God and not government, in Providence and not politicians. People often listen better when the theme of what they are hearing connects with them. In the above comments, I see an all or nothing attitude toward patriotism in church. Like anything else, it can be used or abused. Our focus this Sunday will be on God, but the theme will be that we must humble ourselves before Him if the blessings we have enjoyed as a nation are to continue. Thanks for listening.

  18. Tim Farley says:

    Hi Don. Thank you for your comments. You wrote: “Patriotism apart from God is like Christmas without Christ–unholy and damnable; but recognizing our God in the forming of our nation and depending on Him to preserve us as a nation is a necessary truth that must be preached. There are patriotic songs that all but abandon God, but many (such as the last verse of the Star Spangled Banner or My Country ‘Tis of Thee) draw us to trust in God and not ourselves. Of course we must be wise in what is the focus of any service (focusing on mother’s instead of God on Mother’s Day, for example), but when God is the center and focus of what we do, the thematic content becomes relevant to our worship.”

    I totally agree with you and I thought I had made it clear that I think that celebrating our country, with God as the center of the celebration, is proper. It is only when we place something else as the focus of our worship that we are off track. Unfortunately, I fear that this is too often the case (at least in my experience).

    Thanks again.

  19. Scott says:

    I know this is an old blog and I apologize for resurrecting this so late, but I do want to say you have very valid concerns about patriotic emphases displacing the true purpose of worship. But people like you and me will not win any popularity contests by trying to reign the church in on matters like this. The concept of “God and country” being so tightly intertwined has ensconced itself into the mindset of the modern day church and to dare suggest that the calling of the church does not include worshiping our nation sounds almost blasphemous to people in our culture. Again, your point is valid that exalting the U.S makes it sound as though we place our nation above all other nations in the world. That in itself would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a foreign visitor to worship with us, since their allegiance is certainly not to America. However, the worship of God and the respect for His holy word provides common grounds for worship in Christian churches around the world.
    It is indeed refreshing to find someone who thinks analytically rather than simply drinks the kool-aid because everyone else does.

  20. Tim Farley says:

    Scott,

    Thanks for your comment. As you can see, I have not been popular for my thoughts on this. At least, not popular in a good way. With Memorial Day and Fourth of July just around the corner, this post is sure to get a good amount of traffic again, so your words of encouragement are appreciated.

  21. Steve says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and this forum for discussing the topic. I’m one of the lead singers in the praise band for our church’s contemporary worship. Our music director just informed me I’ll be singing America the Beautiful on Sunday. I’m really uncomfortable with it, but the culture of our church seems to dictate a patriotic song be included. I’m considering a discussion of two compromises:
    – Battle Hymn of the Republic reads as worship that implies patriotism/militarism in non-specific terms (not vice versa like America the Beautiful).
    and/or
    – perform the patriotic song first, then transition to worship.

  22. Steve says:

    by the way, here’s another nice essay on the topic:
    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/the-wrong-song-for-the-people-of-god

  23. Tim Farley says:

    Steve: Thanks for your comments and for the link. That is an excellent article that makes some great points. I especially like the last paragraph:

    Among many evangelicals, however, there is only the thinnest of memories left of what it means to be the people of God in the midst of America. It is much easier to equate being an American with being the people of God, and that is a significant loss.

    By the way, my approach at this point has been to come to a compromise of sorts as well. We will have one “patriotic” song – My Country ‘Tis of Thee – but our other songs will focus on praising our gracious God, as will everything we say about our country during the service. We will speak of the greatness of God and his blessing upon us as we give thanks to him.

  24. Gene Skaggs says:

    Tim,
    I find myself struggling with these topics every year. In our case, I place the patriotic elements at the beginning of our service and use them to direct our thoughts to the Creator’s love and providence to His people, not this country. I am very aware as a Worship Leader of the sovereignty of God and that when it comes to the teams of the world, “God don’t choose sides.” Our worship emphasis is always on the grace he showers on His children, the Christian, and the humble spirit that His greatness creates in us all. Will I use the same direction next year? I don’t know. But I appreciate the conversation you have generated and the introspection that it generates.

    Blessings!

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