Several years ago, I was involved with a mission project with high school and college students that was camped out in a church facility. We used the classrooms for sleeping areas, they had a kitchen and dining room, gym, and a nice sanctuary in which we held worship services. The team that came to help lead worship consisted of several college students. The church’s sound system was adequate for the worship, but the video system was not. So, in preparation for worship that had a lot of visual elements involved, they set up a large screen and projector on the platform. It required a lot of space, so they asked permission to move things on the platform, like the choir chairs and the pulpit.
In the process of arranging things for worship, the team rolled up the flags on the poles, and placed them inside of a closet. That illustrates a generational, cultural division. They did not see that an American flag on the platform was a necessary element of the worship of God, and these students, who have been taught that worship is an act that is totally and completely aimed at God, not at the worshippers, respectfully put the flag in a place where it could not be knocked over or damaged.
One of the older church members noticed that the flag was not on the platform, and was respectfully informed that it had been put in the closet for safekeeping. The church member, however, could not understand how worship could even take place without the American flag on the platform. I give the students credit for recognizing that this was not a hill on which to die. Explaining that they meant no disrespect, and in fact they wanted to protect the flag, they offered to bring it out and place it at the back of the sanctuary instead. The church member wouldn’t hear of it. She couldn’t understand how worship could occur without an American flag prominently displayed. She told the students that she was going straight to the pastor to get the problem resolved. We determined that, rather than cause him a problem, we would replace the flag as far on the outer edge of the platform as would be acceptable, and hopefully out of danger.
But I don’t think those students ever understood why worship couldn’t take place without the presence of an American flag.
“If worship is all about God, and is directed toward him, what role does the American flag play in that?” one of them asked.
It doesn’t. And that’s consistent with scripture, folks.
“God and Country” is a cultural concept. God above country is the Biblical concept. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with patriotism. Waving the flag, singing patriotic songs, celebrating national holidays that recognize those who have served their country, all have their place, and are of the utmost importance. As a nation, we lack a lot of the respect and honor that is due because of the great benefit of freedom that we enjoy because we are Americans, and we need to pick up a flag, wave it, and let the Star Spangled Banner bring tears to our eyes. We need to do that in celebration every time there is an opportunity. The flag flies from my front porch every day, except when there’s rain or snow. I love my country, and I show it.
But worship as the body of Christ should be completely focused on God. Anything that distracts, or diverts attention from God is not worship. The scripture is pretty clear that worship, which is the adoration and praise of God by grateful, redeemed sinners, puts worshippers in place as those “on stage” and makes God the audience. It isn’t even about what you get out of it. If you leave a worship service feeling that you “didn’t get anything out of it,” it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is whether God got anything from you. The whole consumer culture in which we live, which turns on the commercial value of everything, including the trappings, look and feel of worship, has completely changed that.
There’s nothing wrong with singing “God Bless America” as part of a worship service on a day set aside to recognize the sacrifice o those who serve the country, or died in its service. Look at the words. It’s a vertical worship song, and a prayer which speaks to God. When we sing it, we are praying to God, asking him to bless our land. That’s a good thing. But not all patriotic songs are aimed at worshipping God. Their focus is country, not savior, nation, not divine being. Mentioning God in a song is not the same as praising him in worship. If worship is defined by scripture as having God as its object, then having a flag, or a country share the platform detracts from that focus. If we’re singing a song that is praising the country, then our singing isn’t praising God, and its not worship.
Among those for whom “God and Country” is part of their church culture, I think there’s a fine line between patriotic expression, and making patriotism an act of worshipping the country and the flag. Most people who think that patriotic expression in church is just fine don’t really see the difference. But I must say, honestly, that many of them do not have the depth of understanding of the act of worship that most younger Christians have. They can’t distinguish between hymns that merely mention, or sing about God, and those which are written for the purpose of singing to God, and attempting to get into a discussion of that won’t yield positive results. Its the same kind of thinking that organizes a worship service with announcements which come after the call to worship and opening prayer, because there’s not an understanding of worship as spiritual meditation. It’s just a liturgy, a ritual, a program in a bulletin.
When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s,” he meant it. Worship is all God’s, all the time.