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Fourth of July in church: Finding the balance

U.S. and Tennessee state flags fly outside the Haywood County Courthouse in Brownsville, Tenn. Courtesy of Mike Debose (UMNS).
U.S. and Tennessee state flags fly outside the Haywood County Courthouse in Brownsville, Tenn. Courtesy of Mike Debose (UMNS).

Every year millions of American Christians celebrate the birth of their country on the Fourth of July (Independence Day). Regardless of the day of the week the Fourth falls on, the weekend nearest to Independence Day is usually a time for friends and families to celebrate with cookouts, parades, fireworks and other festivities.

Churches sometimes struggle to “find the right balance” when it comes to honoring this important, but still secular holiday. How can churches recognize and honor American independence, while also ensuring their Sunday morning is still focused on worshipping God and growing closer to Christ? What types of patriotic displays or acknowledgments are acceptable and what may cross the line?


Remember the purpose of church

Churches exist first and foremost to bring people together in worship of God. Our God is a god of all people and nations, not merely Americans. When we are gathered together in worship it is not as Americans, but as children of God and members of a church universal transcending nations, cultures, creeds, languages and races. Anything that exalts America or Americans over other people has no place in the House of God.

The purpose of congregational worship does not change on or around Independence Day. Our hearts and minds should be centered above all else in honoring God and being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Keep this purpose in mind as you plan your Sunday worship. Anything that you feel will distract parishioners from that purpose should be avoided.

Most likely the closest Sunday to the Fourth will also be the first Sunday of the month, which is when most United Methodist churches traditionally celebrate Holy Communion. A growing number of churches now do communion every Sunday. Regardless of your congregation’s communion practices, offer the sacrament as you normally would if it were any other time of the year.


Patriotic displays and symbols

Jesus tells us that God's house is to be "a house of prayer for all nations" (Mark 11:16 NRV). In this spirit, congregations are advised not to decorate their sanctuaries for the Fourth. If you church already has an established tradition of putting up patriotic decorations for the week, then the pastor should revisit this with their worship planning team. Above all the altar should not be adored with the American flag or any other national symbols or icons. This space should be reserved only for Christian symbols.

Rather than set up patriotic displays inside the sanctuary for people to see, a good alternative would be to invite congregants to dress patriotically (while still being respectful) on Sunday. Congregants can wear US flag pins, lapels or ties. Uncle Sam outfits or other patriotic costumes are not appropriate for worship. Pastors, choir members, acolytes and other worship assistants should dress in the same robes or attire they would wear any other Sunday. Your church may invite veterans or active military within the congregation to wear their uniforms and use this is as opportunity to have the congregation acknowledge and thank them for their service.


Acknowledging the Fourth during worship

While the purpose of worship around the Fourth is the same as any other Sunday, there is no need to treat the holiday like the elephant in the room. Acknowledge the Fourth in your bulletin, your announcements and other times in worship.

One way to incorporate Independence Day into worship is by the singing of patriotic hymns. The United Methodist Hymnal contains a number of well-known American songs commonly sung at patriotic events such as “America the Beautiful”, “America (My Country Tis of Thee)” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. Because Independence Day also honors the sacrifices of past generations, you might also consider using hymns that make us mindful of Christians who came before us, such as “Faith of Our Fathers” and “God of the Ages”.

You may also use prayer time to lift up the sacrifices of veterans and active military, give thanks for blessings of freedom or offer up prayer for the nation’s leaders. Discipleship Ministries has a suggested prayer and other scriptural readings appropriate for the Fourth of July available.


Keep the sermon centered on God’s word

Pastors may be tempted to ignore the lectionary on this particular Sunday as they’re writing their sermon, instead making the sermon all about Independence Day or America. All preaching should ultimately be built on the scripture. Let the lectionary readings for the week inform the message above all else.

If a pastor does see natural ways to connect the scripture to Independence Day themes, then they should comfortable incorporating them into their sermon, but the entire message needs to be centered on the scripture, not the founding of America. Pastors should not feel any obligation to bend their message to suit the occasion.


Use time outside of worship

Rather than having the Fourth of July “take over” your congregation’s worship time on Sunday, plan for Independence Day-themed activities during other times in the week. Host a picnic or a barbeque the day before. Participate in a community Independence Day parade. If your town or neighborhood hosts an annual firework display or concert, you can arrange a group outing or meetup among your congregation.

You might also engage in special outreach to veterans or military families such as mailing out care packages, having children write letters/cards or arrange a visit to a VA hospital. For tips on how to support veterans and military families during special holidays click here.



The Fourth of July is a time for Americans to be thankful for their rights and freedoms, honor the sacrifices of past and present generations and strive to live more fully in accordance with the principles of liberty and equality. None of these practices is in conflict with our faith. On contrary, as Christians we give thanks to God for our salvation and freedom in Christ, honor the witness and commitment of those saints who came before us, and strive always be a loving and welcoming church to all people. Rather than a distraction from proper worship, let the Fourth of July be an occasion to point Christians to the perfect and everlasting freedom they will find in God.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

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