How Should We Celebrate Civil Holidays?

This question came from Greg:

I would love to get your thoughts on how you address (or don’t address) civil holidays as you prepare worship services. I’m really thinking of July 4th more than anything else. That tends to be the one that stirs the pot most easily.

In brief, since God’s kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), we don’t feel any obligation to draw attention to, highlight, or celebrate civil holidays as part of our Sunday gatherings. There are a number of reasons. Our country doesn’t set the agenda and priorities for the meetings of the church – God’s Word does. Also, one country’s celebration may confront another country’s values. For instance, not too many Christian Brits celebrate Independence Day. Finally, we gather on Sundays to remember the covenant God has made with us, celebrate the redemption He has provided through His Son, and to encourage one another to live lives worthy of the Gospel. The values celebrated by a particular public holiday may not always line up with those goals.

However, that doesn’t mean we need to completely ignore civil holidays. I asked our resident theologian and my good friend Jeff Purswell for his thoughts, and he wrote:

“If [civil holidays] loom large in the mind of my congregation, I don’t want to draw more attention to it by ignoring it—rather, such occasions become opportunities to help people think Biblically about them and to place them in their proper theological context (e.g., on July 4th:  “We’re most grateful for the freedom we have as a nation this day.  We’re completely undeserving, and most in the world don’t experience this common grace. However, it should remind us of a greater freedom we have . . .”).”

For example, we use Mother’s Day as an opportunity to extol the value of motherhood in God’s plan, and will often honor them in some way. Last year we had a mother/daughter choir sing two songs. We emphasize that Hallmark cards doesn’t determine what we choose to honor, but we don’t want to miss an opportunity to draw attention to the significant role mothers play in raising the next generation. Near Memorial Day we might take a moment to thank those who have served our country in the service, or pray for those families who have lost loved ones in a war. In previous years our church held a Labor Day picnic as an evangelistic event for the community. However, in no case did we allow the public holiday to define or govern our decisions about how we led the Sunday meeting. In other words, we didn’t sing God Bless America, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, or any other patriotic song. Of course, we can always pray for our government, but that’s not limited to a particular holiday our country might be observing, and doesn’t assume God is required to bless us because we’re a “Christian” nation. (1 Tim. 2:1-2)

Finally, Jeff made the excellent point that we shouldn’t take the opposite extreme of unnecessarily criticizing the holiday or those who observe it.

“[Civil holidays] can be real expressions of common grace that enable us to rest, celebrate, and even to do so with a common frame of reference with non-believers. Therefore, I don’t want to be a dour, angry, graceless, ungrateful spiritual snob (e.g., “The 4th of July means NOTHING!!!!  This country is under God’s judgment!!!  The secular humanists have stolen this nation from the Christian vision of our founding fathers!!!!”).”

Good counsel. God tells us in Colossians 4:5-6:

Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Let’s make the most of every opportunity to exalt the superior glory, wisdom, grace, and truth of our Savior and His glorious Gospel that provides our only hope of lasting freedom and joy.

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3 Responses to How Should We Celebrate Civil Holidays?

  1. Jamie Brown June 2, 2006 at 2:07 PM #

    Thanks for this, Bob. The hymn that I have done on the weekend closest to the 4th of July is “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” People seem to associate that hymn with the 4th of July, but its text is great and God-centered, and safe to use. The Mark Altrogge version on “Worship God” is great too.

  2. Brendt June 4, 2006 at 8:53 AM #

    Reminds me of the old riddle: “Do they have the 4th of July in other countries? Of course they do — their calendars don’t go from the 3rd to the 5th”. ;-)

  3. David McKay June 4, 2006 at 9:54 AM #

    I like the comments here about celebrating your nation in a church service.

    For some people, being American seems to be part of being a Christian.

    You have your priorities right, it would seem.

  4. Christy Tennant June 9, 2006 at 10:17 AM #

    Thank you for this. I accepted an invitation to minister at a church on July 2, not realizing that my portion would follow a “Patriotic Celebration” that morning. When I heard that, my heart sank, because I am a very “nations-minded” believer, with a heart for cross-cultural work. But just this morning I realized that this is a chance to humbly point to a higher truth – Luke 12:48 – “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” We in America have been given so much, and that means that we should be expected to GIVE much – for the sake of spreading a passion for Christ to all nations! I’ve found that an American passport is an incredible tool for discipling the nations. Now that’s something to celebrate! Thanks for addressing this.

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