With the U.S. Independence Day holiday coming up, many churches will be holding patriotic worship services extolling the virtues of the nation. However, other congregations and pastors struggle with what kind of relationship the church should have with the nation. How should we acknowledge our gratitude to a country that allows us to worship freely without fear of persecution or censorship without abandoning our prophetic call to proclaim God’s kingdom on earth? There is no easy answer, and every situation is unique, so let me share about how it came up in my ministerial context one time.
I was the pastor of a church in a town with a very large army base, and the military pervaded the culture of the community. A member of my congregation called me up and said that a gospel singer he knew was going to be in our area and wondered if he could sing at our church on Sunday. I said that would be fine and that he could perform two or three songs as special music. I spoke with the singer later that day and told him what the scriptures and sermon would be about that day, and he said he would choose songs that would compliment the theme of the worship service.
This was the first Sunday in Lent, and no national holidays were anywhere close on the calendar, so what he did surprised me. At the end of his set of southern gospel hymns, he sang Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” which includes the lyric “God bless the USA,” but otherwise makes no mention of God and is certainly not a hymn. Perhaps this makes me somewhat liturgically conservative, but I believe that every element of the worship service should direct our focus to the praise and worship of God, so I felt that this song had no place in the time of worship since it primarily exalts the nation.
I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary with my wife during his performance, and when the singer began that song, I covered my eyes with my hand, muttering, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” A moment later my wife elbowed me in the ribs and made me look up, seeing that the entire congregation was standing, most of them with their hands over their hearts, and at the end of the song they gave the longest and loudest ovation I’d ever heard them do in four years as their pastor. I was too stunned to begin to know what to do. I thanked the singer, pronounced the benediction, and went home to get over my shock.
This was a delicate situation. As I said before, I thought the song had no place in the worship service since it glorified the nation instead of God, but I had to address it very carefully since my church was in a military town and nearly every family had at least one person who was either active duty or retired military. Many of them had risked their lives in service to our country and were extremely sensitive to any criticism, real or perceived, of that service. How could I address this issue in a pastorally sensitive and compassionate way without compromising my prophetic voice?
As it happened, this was during the season of Lent, and this year I was preaching a series of sermons called “Why They Killed Jesus,” in response to comments from several congregation members that they didn’t understand why Jesus made people in his time so angry they wanted to kill him. In this series we made sure to heavily emphasize that “they” in this context were the political and religious elite in first century Judea, not “the Jews” as a whole group of people. When I looked at the text for the following week, I saw that we had decided on Mark 12:13-17, where Jesus responds to a question about paying taxes with “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s”. The tentative title of the message was “Jesus Challenges the Political System” (read the full text of this sermon here). Now I had a very relevant sermon illustration!
I decided to explore the passage by looking at the question in the way I’ve heard Will Willimon and others do: if we are to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, then we have to know what things belong to each of them. Since God is the creator, sustainer, and animator of all things, we can confidently say that everything ultimately belongs to God, and the power Caesar or any other earthly ruler holds is temporary. I then turned to the example of the previous week’s service where the most emotional and enthusiastic act of praise was directed at the nation instead of toward God and challenged the congregation to ask if we might have accidentally given our best to something that is less than God.
I was extremely anxious about preaching this sermon, afraid that people would be offended, but I knew I couldn’t let that fear keep me from posing the crucial gospel question of where our true loyalties lie. After the service, I was surprised at some of the comments I got. Several people expressed that they had felt uncomfortable standing for that song, that they too were unsure that it was appropriate for a worship service, but that they went along with the crowd. Another agreed that it was an uncomfortable question, but they appreciated being challenged in a respectful way.
Holidays such as Independence Day arouse strong emotions of loyalty to the nation, and challenging people to evaluate where their true loyalties lie is never easy. The truth is that there is no way to preach that kind of prophetic message without someone getting offended. But if you know your audience and can speak a prophetic message in such a way that they will hear and be more likely to respond, you will have been both prophetic and pastoral in your ministry to them.
This post originally appeared in Ministry Matters on June 29th, 2011.
Matt Kelley is Pastor of Arlington United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. He has written about preaching, worship, and youth ministry for numerous publications, and blogs at The Truth As Best I Know It.