Not long ago a friend went to a worship service that had been well advertized in the newspaper. It was billed as a “patriotic celebration.” Indeed, it was one. Not only were “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “The Star Spangled Banner” sung, but as representatives of various branches of the armed forces were presented, one by one, the theme song for each was played and an announcer
offered a few words of praise for the service done by that particular branch. At the conclusion of this ceremony several soldiers repelled from the ceiling of this very large church building. At a climatic point in the service an enormous American flag, which reached from one side of the chancel to the other, was majestically raised. There were even fireworks. Yes, scripture was referenced, prayers were offered and a sermon was delivered. The title of the sermon was, “Who Sold Our Nation?” I could not help but to imagine that Jesus was left asking, “Who stole my church?”
Though most congregations might not be inclined to have a service of worship that equals the flamboyance of the service I just described, a large percentage of churches in the United States incorporate nationalistic elements into worship during key national holidays and sometimes on other occasions. In many churches the American flag is a permanent fixture. While this practice is widespread, its legitimacy is far from obvious. What we do in worship speaks of who God is and who we are as we live before God and others. Christian worship forms us to be the sort of people who are capable of following no other god but the God of Israel who was disclosed most fully in Jesus Christ. When acts celebrating America are treated as aspects of worshipping and serving God, Christian identity, the nature of the church and the character of God are misrepresented. All this negatively impacts discipleship and undermines Christian unity in a divided world thereby hindering the church in its ministry of reconciliation.
When worship serves our purposes, when our foremost concern is that our worship is “meaningful for us,” God is inevitably refashioned into our image and the truth of God is turned into a lie. In such worship the Lord is not glorified. Instead we bow before another god, even though the name of Jesus may be frequently repeated. The true God is consigned to a secondary place, a supporting role to bolster whatever it is that we wish to honor. When worship serves another purpose that the singular praise of God or when an ulterior motive has intruded, this unfailingly leads to the celebration of self and our creations.
As the great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Worship is a way of seeing the world in light of God”. We cannot come into the presence of God in worship, without seeing ourselves as we had not previously been able to do. Like the prophet Isaiah before us, we perceive ourselves with a new clarity as we come before God in adoration (Isa 6: 1-8). We see ourselves as creatures, sinners, called, forgiven, incorporated into a new people, the church, the body of Christ. We learn in worship that we are not only – or primarily – individuals who have been “saved.” Rather we are members of a community that has been created by Christ who demolished the barriers between peoples in order to create “one new humanity” (Eph 2: 14-18), who no longer see the world “from a human point of view” but see all things in light of “a new creation” (2 Cor 5: 16-17).
Worship is both expressive and transformative. Through it we express a thankful, praise-giving faith to a God who has acted in particular ways to reveal a particular divine character. At the same time as we participate in worship – hearing, singing, giving, eating the bread and drinking from the cup of communion – transformation takes place. In worship we are faced again and again with who we are, to whom we belong and to what end our lives should be directed. We enjoy a new identity that takes precedence over every identity bestowed upon us by any power or people in the world. The scriptures speak of this as a “new nature which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of the creator” (Col 3: 10). Because of this new nature and identity, “there cannot be Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). This nature and identity that we have in Christ means we are members of his body, the church. Thus we are united with other members of the body of Christ, not just locally but internationally.
Historically, if there has been little serious conflict in the United States between Christian devotion and American allegiance it is not due to some Christian nature of America that some people imagine exists. Instead this is an indication of the extent that the church has been conformed to American ideals, interests and identity. No clear distinction between being American and being Christian is even a possibility because the two have become one in the hearts of many. The God they worship is the American God and the nation they love is in some fashion God’s nation. Consequently, many Christians find it incomprehensible that incorporating the rituals of America into the worship of the church could be anything other than a positive, edifying practice.
The church in America will not be a Christ-centered community of peace so long as it is determined to assert its identity as American. It is imperative that all traces of nationalism be removed from the church’s worship. Otherwise, in times of crisis the church will continue to embrace the role of handmaiden of war. God cannot be praised in the same breath that America is honored without God being dishonored and replaced by another god, an idolatrous Americanized deity. The church cannot be itself so long as it is defined by its location, complexion or culture. Only when the church in America – and every other nation – practices its praise in a way that glorifies the God revealed in Jesus Christ alone will it be capable of working for the healing of the nations and not be an agent for the continuing wounding of the nations.