Should Patriotic Music Be Used in Church?

Mondays for ministers are often unpredictable.  You really don’t have adequate time to process what God did among your church on Sunday before a whole new set of challenges are waiting for you on Monday.

My Monday mornings usually consist of addressing anything that needed to be addressed from yesterday, sending out thank you’s to those who served, scheduling my calendar for the week, and working on the week’s to-do list.

The Phone Call

About a year ago, I received an early morning call as I was going through my routine.  A man in our church asked if I had a couple of minutes.  I replied, “Sure, how can I help you this morning?”

“Well, Travis, I just wanted to call you about yesterday’s service.  Do you know what we celebrate this week?”

Glancing at my calendar on the computer screen, I replied, “Why, yes sir, I do.  It’s the 4th of July.”

“That’s right.  It’s America’s birthday.  And what did you do to celebrate it in church yesterday?”

I was confused.  I could tell he was perturbed about something, but I was honestly unsure what it could be.

I actually had received numerous comments over the previous 18 hours or so of people thanking me concerning the meaningful way we celebrated the United States.  While many churches choose to sing patriotic songs on the Sunday nearest American holidays, I have never seen a biblical mandate to do so, therefore, I have not.

So, instead of singing a patriotic song, I had an idea that I thought was honestly more honoring to America as well as leading our congregation in an actual biblical expectation.

I discovered that the North American Mission Board (NAMB) provided military chaplain prayer cards for free and I ordered hundreds of them for our church.  That Sunday, our sermons notes each had a different prayer card tucked away inside.  During our service, I led our congregation to pray specifically for their assigned chaplain and their family.  I actually got a card featuring a college friend of mine!

Not only did our congregation encourage me that it was a great way to honor the United States by praying for the missionaries that were encouraging, evangelizing, counseling, and discipling America’s troops, but I also heard from chaplains serving around the world that heard what we did and thanked me!  They wished that other churches would take that kind of interest.  It was pretty amazing that people even heard about it.

Now that you understand the context, let’s go back to the phone call.  When he asked what we did to celebrate the holiday, I reminded him of what we did, but I was abruptly interrupted.

“Aww, that?!  That was nothing!  I mean something to honor our country.  You didn’t even sing to America on her birthday!”

Over the next two minutes, I was personally called “pathetic,” “worthless,” and “incompetent” because, as gatekeeper of our services, I did not lead the congregation to sing a patriotic song, recognize troops, or display an American flag.

Remarkably, I kept my cool.  I literally placed my hand over my mouth a couple of times in order to keep me from saying what I wanted to say in those moments.  Once he was finished with his tirade, I asked if I could explain my reasoning for what I did.

“Well, I don’t want to take your time away, Travis, and you are not going to listen to anything I have to say, so I’m just going to go.”

“Well, that’s really not fair.  I have actually listened to everything you have said.  You have just called me ‘pathetic,’ ‘worthless,’ and ‘incompetent’ because I chose to pray for missionaries who are offering life to troops rather than sing a song that will be sung in countless venues that you and I will be in this week, so I would like to please explain myself…”

“No, I’ve got to go and I don’t want to take up more of your time.”

“Please give me the courtesy of letting me respond.  I listened to you, and concerning what you just said about me, at least have the decency to listen to me.”

I began to explain my logic behind what I did.

I then began to explain my biblical reasoning for what I did.  Once I started explaining in the Bible what we are called to do, he replied, “Well, I have to go now.  Goodbye!”

It was interesting to me that he hung up when we got to the Bible.

It also saddened me when he left the church a few weeks later.  Sure, I was happy that I didn’t have to be called names by him anymore, but I was more disappointed that he never got it.

He left our church for another church and you know what his reasoning was: “this church sings to America.”

I hope he found what he was looking for.  And in the end, I hope it is what he is going to need.

My Reasoning

I want to give you my reasoning why I don’t lead our congregation to sing patriotic songs.  It’s my personal conviction.  I am not saying that any other church is wrong if they do sing patriotic music.  If I had biblical commands indicating that it was morally wrong, I would share them here, but I don’t.  I do think I have some biblical wisdom that has guided at least my thought process on the issue.

I want to share these thoughts with you, the reader, to make you think.  I am not challenging you, attempting to convict you, or trying to change your personal thoughts or your church’s practices.

If anything, I pray that the following thoughts would encourage you to begin evaluating everything you do and your church does through the lens of Scripture instead of personal thoughts and feelings.

So, here is why I personally do not lead congregations to sing patriotic music.

1.  The Constitution Divides While the Gospel Unites

If you haven’t realized it, our country is kind of divided right now.  The current issues are causing us to be further divided, but blogs like this one and other social media outlets currently allows everyone to have a promotable voice rather than a few news anchors or journalists giving us the information.  It gives everyone a megaphone as simple as a mobile device to proclaim their opinions to the world.

While the Constitution was not constructed in order to divide, we who live under its direction these days are divided on what it says and how it should be applied.

Have you noticed how much further the country is getting away from each other?  It’s not as simple as Democrats vs. Republicans anymore.  Bipartisanship seems like a laughable, idealistic, unattainable dream because of the ever-increasing level of hateful rhetoric on every single side of every single issue.

While I know that the phrase, “birds of a feather flock together,” does apply in churches, I doubt that everyone in your church wholeheartedly agrees on every single political issue.  Years ago, someone could stand up in a church and talk about how blessed and how great America was, but if you do that now, people don’t think that way anymore.  They may think that their portion of those that think like them in America is great, but they wish that those who believed differently would find another citizenship.

To speak of America in a church setting today runs the risk of offending someone who is battling insurance companies over governmental regulations, battling depression due to unemployment, resurfacing the hurt of a loved one lost in duty, exposing frustrations with the national direction, living in a country who bombed their homeland (and yes, I have encountered this and it is quite awkward to discuss national pride in military accomplishments to someone who’s family suffered because of it), and so much more.

While we are divided over the Constitution, the gospel of Jesus Christ unites.  It brings people together, not isolating them on their country of origin.  The gospel unites all the peoples not isolates all the peoples (Eph. 2:12-14).  There is no longer differences that should even be noted within the Church (Gal. 3:28).

Our nationality should not cause pride.  We belong to a Higher Kingdom and a King above all kings (Ps. 95:3).  We should pledge allegiance to him.

2.  We Place Cultural Expectations on Church While Avoiding the Biblical Mandate

It is very easy to expect my local church to accommodate all my wishes and desires.  I can fall into that trap even though I am on staff at a church.

More than solely patriotic holidays, there is a pressure for pastors to recognize all types of holidays.  But is it the church’s job to recognize every holiday?  If you haven’t noticed, we add holidays every year.  There is a day of this, a month of that, a highlight here, a color to wear there, and you name it, it is highlighted in our country.

And that’s not a bad thing.  But should we highlight it in the church?  If the nation will be singing patriotic tunes all week, is the church mandated to do the same?

I’m all about singing about America in the American public squares, but I don’t believe that means we need to do it in the local expressions of the international Church.

There is no biblical mandate of such.  In fact, if we want to get real concerning the biblical mandate, churches should spend more time praying for the president (1 Tim. 2:1-4), submitting to governing authorities (1 Pet. 2:17), and discussing why it is a good thing to pay taxes (Rom. 13:6-7; Matt. 22:17-21), obey speed limits (Rom. 13:1), and to keep silent on certain political issues (1 Pet. 2:13-17).  I hope I didn’t lose you there, but read the verses, I’m not making this stuff up.

I’ve realized that Americans have a tendency to be more cultural than biblical.

We take our traditions and make them sacred, and yet what is biblical we make outlandish.

Just think: what would be more accepted in your church this week: singing “God Bless America” or legitimately praying for the welfare of President Obama (1 Tim. 2:1-4; Rom. 13:3-4)?

Because one of those is biblical and the other is not.

3.  Patriotism Can Turn Into Idolatry

Patriotism is not an evil thing, but it can turn into an evil thing.  And I have seen it be an evil thing.

There is a simple way to discover this: am I more passionate about “The Star Spangled Banner” or “Amazing Grace?”

Now, we are getting real.

I have been in the room when unbridled emotions break out when we honor each branch of the military, break out the flags, and sing certain American classics.  I don’t have a problem with that emotion.  I think America needs to celebrate and honor those who have served.

My problem is when we honor country more than Christ.  Yes, honor the nation.  Don’t misread me: honor soldiers, honor America, and honor the government.

But honor Jesus as well.  He also laid down his life for my freedom (Rom. 5:8; Gal. 5:1).

I remember a community outreach in my town years ago.  The original intention was to celebrate God and country.  This patriotic event with two services was sold out.  The emotion was electric.  The attendance was high.  The response from the intended demographic was insanely positive.

After a few years, they decided to do the same type of program, utilizing the same people, but just celebrating God this time – not country.  The drop in attendance was staggering.

Someone involved in the event asked my opinion why the shift took place.  The publicity was adequate, the production was solid, and the program was well-done.

The problem in my estimation?  The idol had been removed from the program.  That was not the case for everyone, but for many of those who supported the previous program, I believed they didn’t get behind the next program because they were bowing down to the idol of nationalism.

People were lining up to celebrate the God of America, but when the America part was taken out, so were the supporters.  That is simply dangerous.

I have been brought to tears of grief when I have seen people in a church rise to their feet, extend hands in the air, and emotionally sing to their country, and yet the same group keep their arms crossed, nestled in their chairs, and sincerely checked out when singing to Jesus.

I believe America becomes an idol when we pridefully assume that we are God’s country.

There are many people who talk like Israel was God’s chosen nation in the Old Testament, and the United States is now the chosen nation of the post-New Testament world.  That is simply untrue biblically.

The United States is not the means by which the world will be reached – it will be the Church of Jesus Christ who knows no borders.

I am thankful for the freedom that this country provides (even though it is changing now).  I thank God for those who have sacrificed to make this nation what it is (the good, the bad, and the ugly conditions).

But I belong to a greater Kingdom and my ultimate citizenship is not the red, white, and the blue (Phil. 3:20).  As a Christian, I must align myself more with the stripes of Jesus (Isa. 53:5) than the stripes on a flag.

4.  We Are Called to Live On Earth As It Is In Heaven

Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).  It’s a way of life.  We should set our minds on things above and not on things of the earth (Col. 3:2).

If that’s the case, then I need to, as a pastor, evaluate all things that happen in our church and ask: is this how it will be done in heaven?

Will they sing patriotic music in heaven?  I don’t believe that those songs will make the cut.

Will we have separate dividers so we can keep our nationalities intact?  Actually, quite the opposite.  All the nations will be brought together (Rev. 7:9).

The gospel will be preached in all nations (Matt. 28:19).  The people of God should be a light not to one nation but to all (Isa. 49:6).  The Church will reach the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  God’s desire is that all nations rejoice over him (Ps. 67:4).

Which brings me to this question:

If a particular song has not the slightest chance of being sung in heaven, then why would I lead others to sing it here on earth?

In fact, that’s how I view patriotic music (as well as secular music played in church settings).

Any song that the Church uses on earth should be able to be used when the Church gathers in heaven.  The Church is supposed to be an extension of heaven.  It should be a time to celebrate and long for our eternal dwelling (2 Cor. 5:1) and not an attempt to recreate any soundtrack of our temporal dwelling (1 John 2:15).

Out of all the things we focus on all week-long, could we just not keep Sunday mornings focused on God and God alone?

Conclusion

I honestly pray that none of the above words have offended anyone reading this post.  I don’t think you need to change anything you do as a result of this post.  If you have stayed with me this long, I pray that you have heard my heart and the biblical reasoning for the way in which I lead.

Personally, I look forward to celebrating this weekend the freedoms and the benefits that I have as an American.  I am truly grateful to the men and women in my family and from all over this country that have sacrificed for our freedom.

I am reminded that I am an American Christian.  I am not a Christian American.

My identity is who I am in Christ.  Being American is one of the adjectives that describes who I am, and I am grateful for that costly adjective.  But being a follower of Christ will last even if this nation does not.  If I am deported, I still belong to him.  When this earth is no more, I still belong to him.

In a greater, more eternal sense, I am thankful for the One who sacrificed for me to give me freedom not only in this life, but in the life to come.

Travis Agnew is a Christian, husband, father, pastor, author, blogger, and religion instructor.

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3 Comments

  1. Shawn Evans

    Romans 13:7 tells us to give honor to whom honor is due. I believe honoring our servicemen and even our country ultimately gives honor to God. I also believe as our country becomes less and less patriotic and less aware of our Christian origins, that it is important for us as Church leaders to testify and teach our people God and country. A few songs here and there can both worship God and honor our country. It can also further the relationship between God and country. IMO

    • I never said it was a bad thing to honor our servicemen or country. While historical accounts are varied concerning the origin of this country (was it founded by Christians or Deists or political revolutionaries, etc.), I think the fact that we are free for religion allows us to use that hour a week to focus solely on Jesus.

  2. Christian101

    I agree that patriotic songs shouldn’t be sung in church. It may lead to idolatry. We honor Christ as Christians under Christ’s kingdom. America is not a Christian country bcs not even the president is Christian and the government and culture is not based on Christian values. True, the US have helped people but they have also hurt people. The US is not perfectly righteous like God and shouldn’t be put on a pedistool above other countries bcs that would hurt ministry by creating boundaries. The US is temporary, a worldly kingdom like any other country. Forever is God’s kingdom power and glory amen. All glory and honor goes to God not humanity.

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