Next Tuesday we celebrate July 4th, Independence Day as it’s known for us in the States. And the day raises questions about national loyalty. How do we who are strangers, exiles, aliens, and pilgrims on earth think about patriotism? That was our topic back in episode 378. This year we are looking at the implications of it on local churches. And last time, on Wednesday, we talked about the place of patriotism in the local church and we heard from a pastor, a listener of the podcast, Scott, who is uneasy about what he sees in the church he inherited. In this situation, Pastor John, when a pastor has inherited a strongly patriotic church, where the patriotism is expressed in Sunday gatherings, how should a pastor — who agrees with what you said last time — lead his church. What do they do next in leading well?
In that previous podcast (episode 1060) on this question, I said that I have been in several patriotic services that seemed to me to be out of sync, out of proportion to the biblical realities related to the kingdom of Christ and our radical allegiance to him. And I suggested several biblical principles that would inform how a church thinks about such services and constructs them.
But I am very aware that it is one thing to know principles, and it is another thing to be part of a church that has a long tradition of services with extended focus on each of the military branches and corresponding songs and corresponding flags and marches and decorations in red, white, and blue.
I share Scott’s discomfort — Scott is the one who posed this question — I share his discomfort with those services for reasons that, I think, are pretty obvious from the principles. But what do you do if you have inherited such a church if you are a pastor or an elder or just a member of the church? So, here is my suggestions to the pastors who are in these churches and feel like things have, perhaps, over time, just gotten out of hand.
Preach the Word
Patiently, week in and week out, preach Bible-saturated, God-centered, Christ-exalting, man-humbling sermons that by implication so elevate the lordship of Christ over every detail of life with such majesty that, little by little, the church begins to absorb the mindset that our highest affections and our only absolute allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ, willingly, eagerly, joyfully, no regrets, no restraint.
So, don’t make the lordship of Christ over all of life an issue only on a controversial weekend. Do it all the time. If you do this all the time, within a few years, I think, you won’t be the only one who is feeling uncomfortable with those services.
Bring in Other Leaders
Discuss your concerns with your trusted leaders of the church, your fellow elders, if you have elders, or whoever. Until you get some of them on board with you, any change is probably going to be futile and may be destructive. Pray with them. Open the word with them. Share your heart with them. Be patient with them. Show them the positive outcomes, not just any losses they might perceive.
“Highlight missionaries either alive or dead throughout history who have paid the supreme price for others.”
Along with your elders, approach some of your most biblically shaped veterans — I am talking about military veterans in the church — and share with them your love for them, your appreciation and your value of their sacrifices and risks, and let them see how you relate the kingdom of Christ to all of that.
See if you can portray a vision for them and capture their imagination of what it might look like in a more Christ-exalting way. If you could get one or two of those folks advocating with you, you might be a long way towards winning the others as well.
Be a man of courage and humility and fearlessness in dealing with this issue. The last thing you want to communicate is that Christianity is somehow a wimpy religion that is afraid of risk, afraid of danger, afraid of sacrifice and death, and that is why it doesn’t want to talk about the military.
No, no, no. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite. One very practical demonstration of this might be that on one or two Sundays a year you would choose to highlight missionaries either alive or dead in the history of the church who have paid the supreme price, not to advance the American way, but to advance an even greater good; namely, the eternal salvation that comes in the kingdom of Christ. They, too, are worthy of our most focused gratitude.
Show there Is Gain
In whatever changes you pursue, show that there is gain and not just loss. When I came to Bethlehem in 1980, the American flag and the so-called Christian flag were in the sanctuary at the front on either side of the platform. Now, I never said a word about it for ten years, I don’t think.
“In whatever changes you pursue at church, show that there is gain and not just loss.”
Maybe I did, and don’t remember. But as far as I can remember, they just sat there and I didn’t say a word about that, though I felt: Hmm. What does that mean? In the sanctuary, in the worshiping place, at the front, featured, foregrounded.
Then we built a new sanctuary in 1990 and moved in in 1991, and the issue was: Will the flags be moved in there? At that point I led the charge, and the elders agreed: let’s put the flags in the commons on either side of the steps where people go in and out from the world into worship, from the worship into the world.
I argued that the rationale was simple. As you come and go from the house of the Lord, you pass from a place outside where we live, in large measure, under the authorities of this nation to a place inside where we celebrate and put all the focus on our heavenly citizenship and our submission to the supreme lordship of Christ. Therefore, if we are going to have these flags, this is a really reasonable place to have them, and we have never had a controversy about it for over 20 years. Nobody ever thinks about it, probably. But I think it is a good compromise.
Help People Understand
Perhaps you will scale back aspects of the service and weave into the services expressions of repentance and the lordship of Christ that have been missing. In the sermon you can provide repeated nuancing for the way Christians have to deal with any human allegiance. Help the people understand.
The last thing that I would say is, expect conflict on this. We probably lost a couple of people over that moving of the flags. They put the worst face on it, not the best. But after you have ministered for long enough, you win the trust of enough biblical people, and you love them.
The folks that are unhappy, go after them. Tell them you care about them. You don’t want to disrespect them. And in the long run, the winnowing effect, I believe, in the church will probably be good for a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated atmosphere that you are trying to create.