This week’s column by a good friend, Jim Dahlman, who teaches journalism at Milligan College in Tennessee and writes weekly for his local paper, raises a good issue. In it he quotes Vic Young, pastor of “The Biker Church” which will be hosting the FGBC later this month when Celebration Conference convenes in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Face to Faith
July 4 on Sunday a quandary for churches
Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, July 3, 2004
Every six years or so, church leaders in the United States must make a decision: What to do about July 4 when it falls on a Sunday.
The most patriotic national holiday on the American calendar, Independence Day carries more than its share of emotional and cultural weight, and much of that weight has religion stamped on it. The Declaration of Independence, after all, mentioned God by name in the first paragraph.
On the other hand, not many people believe that the kingdom of God begins and ends at American borders or that the Constitution is the 67th book of the Bible.
Religion might be woven into the national fabric, but American history is full of frayed relationships over its proper role. So what’s a church to do with Independence Day?
Some, such as Calvary Chapel on South Roan Street, downplay the day – not because they are unpatriotic but because they turn their attention elsewhere.
“We do verse-by-verse expository teaching,” explains the church’s pastor, the Rev. Rob Kayser. “That takes away from the focus on special holidays.”
The church doesn’t emphasize these observances because “God’s word is most important,” Kayser says. “Everything else is secondary.”
It’s much the same at churches that follow a historic liturgy, such as Our Saviour Lutheran Church or St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. They steer away from molding worship services around national celebrations.
“We may include a prayer or mention something in the homily, but we usually pray for things regarding the nation anyway,” says the Rev. Christian Mathis, a priest at St. Mary’s. The holiday is acknowledged but it isn’t allowed to interrupt.
Other churches, however, are building their Sunday schedules around patriotic celebrations.
Sunday’s theme at Fountain of Life Bible Church, popularly known as “the biker church,” is “One Nation Under God,” says the Rev. Vic Young. Besides an American flag, the service in Freedom Hall Civic Center – where the church meets the first and fourth Sunday of each month – will display American-made motorcycles and a montage of American scenes, perhaps some from the World Trade Center.
“We’ll be celebrating the Judeo-Christian founding of this nation,” he says.
Young considers holidays such as July 4 a “good opportunity to tie the theme to what people are thinking about,” and so he pays attention to popular red-letter days such as Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day – the ones he calls “the biggies.”
On the other hand, the church doesn’t follow a traditional church calendar. Part of the reason, Young says, is the congregation’s background in the Grace Brethren tradition, once persecuted in Europe. Brethren immigrants to America left the liturgical calendar behind.
“Here in the United States, we are a people whose heritage is of a rebellious nature: fighters, adventurers, with an independent attitude,” he says. “We do not like authority. We know that to have form and order, you have to have boundaries. (But) we are proud of our patriotism.”
A pastor in another large Johnson City congregation sees the relationship between church and state holiday differently.
“July 4 is a good day,” says this minister, who asked to remain anonymous because of church policy. “But the Bible speaks to citizenship, as opposed to patriotism. It advocates good citizenship that adds to human dignity. So even an oppressive system would be better than it would be, absent of the teachings of Christianity.”
Except for a brief word of thanks in a pastoral prayer, his church isn’t planning anything extraordinary on Sunday.
“Part of being a good citizen is celebrating a government that provides freedom,” he says. “But it’s not a God-and-country Sunday or anything like that.”