Patriotic Music in a Worship Service

David Manner has an excellent post on the use of patriotic songs in worship services.  You can read the entire post by clicking here.  Here is one quote I believe is important, and on which I want to reflect a little and share my personal feelings on this controversial topic.  Manner writes:

If the purpose of Christian worship is the celebration of God’s story are we crossing the line in patriotic worship services in the American church?  Who or what is the focus of our worship when in the context of a worship service we sing, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing?”  Are those congregations who choose not to sing and play patriotic songs such as this (even when July 4 falls on a Sunday) viewed as unpatriotic?  Are those congregations who choose to devote their entire worship service to patriotic songs and actions ever considered idolatrous?

He brings up an excellent point.  In the hymnal my church uses (The Celebration Hymnal), the following songs are listed under the “Patriotic” section: America the Beautiful; Heal Our Land; King of the Nations; The Star Spangled Banner; If My People Will Pray; Battle Hymn of the Republic; If My People’s Hearts are Humbled; O Canada!; My Country ’tis Of Thee; Eternal Father, Strong to Save; and God of Our Fathers.  For the record, this topic is one I struggle with greatly as a worship leader and planner, but the more time I spend reflecting on and praying about this topic the more convinced I become of how it needs to be approached.

I remember the first time it struck me that this was an issue.  I was living in West Palm Beach, and the church I attended was doing a patriotic set one Sunday (it was Memorial Day or 4th of July, can’t remember which one).  We were singing, America the Beautiful and I found myself deeply offended at the words within the context of the service.  The song was not a song of worship of God but of our country.  Yes, there is the token, “God shed is grace on thee” thrown in at the end, but the focus of the song was not a petition to God for our country, but an exaltation of how great our country is. That’s when I became offended by it.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the song, and I love singing the song.  Yet I don’t view the song as “religious” any more than I would view a song such as Bye, Bye Love or The Lion Sleeps Tonight as “religious” (both songs I taught all my guitar classes when I taught guitar).   Nothing in the songs that is wrong in, and I love to sing them, but I’m not sure they’re appropriate for a worship service.  As an educator (and one with a background in music education) I believe it is very important for people to learn and sing patriotic songs – in particular, the national anthem – but do they belong in a worship service that is supposed to worship God?

So here’s how I have decided to deal with this issue (at least for the time being!): if the song’s focus is America then I will not plan it for a worship service, and I will not plan worship services that are taken over with a patriotic theme.  I will, however, use “Patriotic” songs if their focus is on God.

Easier said than done.. Here’s an example…  Last year for Veteran’s Day I planned two “Patriotic” numbers: Eternal Father, Strong to Save and God of Our Fathers.  Both are songs that are strongly patriotic, yet their focus is a petition to God and not a focus on our country.  The first is a prayer for those who serve our country, with one verse focusing on those serving in the navy, army, and air force, and then a final verse that encompasses all of them.  The second song, again, is a prayer for the people for our nation.  It’s focus is not our country (as America the Beautiful is) but on God.  Read this verse: “Thy love divine hath led us in the past, In this free land by Thee our lot is cast; Be thou our Ruler, Guardian, Guide and Stay, Thy Word our law, Thy paths our chosen way.”  And the fourth verse closes the song by praying, “Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way.  Lead us from night to neverending day; Fill all our lives with love and grace divine; And glory, laud and praise be ever Thine!”

These two songs, though “patriotic” in nature are sung to God and are about God’s grace and mercy; they do not lift up our country as an idol (as Mr. Manner warns in his post).

The question also needs to be answered in light of the culture of the individual church in which it is being asked.  The local church is a family (or should be a family), so we also need to understand the question in terms of the family dynamics.  For example, does your family (ie, church) regularly celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays throughout the year?  If the answer is yes (and they are celebrated in a God-honoring way), then it will be easier to insert patriotic selections into services.  If, however, your church does not do those things then inserting patriotic songs into a service will seem almost out-of-place not because they are patriotic, but because they are out of character.  I think it is perfectly acceptable to honor our veterans and thank them publicly in church for their service to our country – but we should also be honoring mothers on Mothers’ Day, fathers on Fathers’ Day, our pastors during pastoral appreciation month, etc.

This question about Patriotic music can not be answered in isolation from the rest of the church year.  It is never appropriate to sing a song that worships anything other than God in our service, but is it wrong to sing “Happy Birthday” to the piano player on her birthday or to the pastor on his?  If that is okay, then it should be perfectly appropriate to sing “Happy Birthday” to America on her birthday.  But just as we would pray for God’s guidance and blessing for the pastor, so we should also pray for it for America.  The issue is so much bigger than Patriotic music – it’s about music in general and understanding the text of the songs we sing.

It also is worth mentioning that if something is important enough to do once it should be important enough to repeat.  One thing I have tried to schedule throughout the year are regular Concerts of Prayer during our evening service times (generally 3-4 a year).  Each one has a different focus, but the focus is often related to “patriotic” issues.  For example, we have generally done at least one a year (and not around a patriotic holiday) that focuses on prayers for our leaders – from our local council members up to our national representatives and the President); we do another one at the beginning of the school year where we pray for our teachers and our school system (both private and public).  We have also done one focused on our church leadership and the missionaries we support.  The key here is taking something and making it routine enough so that it is familiar.  We don’t pray for our country just on the 4th of July, but we pray for our country all year round.

What I would really like for someone to do is put together a patriotic cantata that truly focuses on God and not America.  I’ve had people every year request we do a patriotic cantata on the 4th of July and I have shied away from them because I believe they focus too much on worship America instead of praying for America and worshiping God.    Perhaps one day I’ll find one that does this (and if you have any suggestions please post them below so I can look at them!)

I go back to that old saying, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  For us, the main thing is Jesus – if the song takes our gaze to anything but him and his work on the cross then it is not appropriate for a worship service.  If we keep that attitude in mind when we plan, though, it will be hard to go wrong.   The difficult part is explaining to some members of the congregation why a certain song may or may not be appropriate for a particular service.


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