There are few things that have shaped my life more than the Youth Theology Institute at the Candler School of Theology. It’s now called Youth Theology Initiative but you get the point.
This past July 4th was on a Sunday and it got me thinking about the last time I remembered going to church on a July 4th Sunday. It was when I was at YTI.
Our first Sunday at YTI was July 4, 1995 and it was the summer before I started my senior year of high school. At that point in my life, I had grown quite a bit theologically and politically. I was still a Republican but becoming more inspired by Martin Luther King than Newt Gingrich. It is fair to say that I was weirdly inspired by both back then.
Anyways, i’m not sure if my memory is serving me totally correctly, but I was enrolled in a class called “Biblical Encounters with Otherness” and we worshipped at different churches each Sunday. On July 4, 1995, we worshipped at televangelist Charles Stanley’s First Baptist Church Atlanta.
It should be noted that the two other churches I attended during my YTI stint was Jimmy Carter’s Maranatha Baptist Church and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church–Martin Luther King’s former church in Montgomery, Alabama.
It was a weird scene that July 4th. Like I said, I was a bleeding heart Republican who truly felt it was possible to be a “compassionate conservative.” We walked into that church on that Sunday and it was like patriotism had exploded inside the church. The good people of First Baptist Atlanta must have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on American flags and replicas of the Statue of Liberty.
Afterwards our group met with Charles Stanley briefly. His assistant wanted to know if anyone wanted their bible autographed by Dr. Stanley. I was stunned.
Hell no did I want my bible autographed by that guy. Or anyone really.
I had never really thought that much about patriotism and the church. It was just inferred in Brownsburg, Indiana during the 1980s and 1990s I guess. Anyways, I now thank my experience at First Baptist Atlanta for helping me understand the dangers of combining church and patriotism. At the best, your congregation gets stuck with a large bill for fake Statue of Liberties. At the worst, you might be missing the point of Jesus’ ministry in the first place.