The way we honor veterans goes beyond carving out time to recognize them in a service once a year. It involves the whole church all year.
By Josh Holler
November 11 is Veterans Day. We’ve set this national holiday aside to commemorate all who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, not to be confused with Memorial Day, which honors all who have died during their service.
You will undoubtedly witness a host of restaurants offering discounts on meals for veterans. People encourage one another to seek out veterans and thank them for their service. And social media will be peppered with countless posts sharing a similar sentiment. But pastors and church leaders must ask: How should we honor veterans in the church?
First, we must be as zealous to answer the question of where as much as the question of how. Central to the life of the church is the weekly gathering of the saints to worship God. In this sacred scene, we must rightly order our loves and what we honor so we exalt Christ and Christ alone. This means in the songs we sing and the sermons we preach, Christ needs to be the center—not veterans, not our beloved flag, nor even our country. Singing “God Bless America” or the national anthem may be well-meaning and even feel right. But it fails to meet the intended aim of the Sunday morning worship time.“In the songs we sing and the sermons we preach, Christ needs to be the center—not veterans, not our beloved flag, nor even our country.” — @JoshHoller Click To Tweet
It may be tempting to think we honor veterans by carving out a time to recognize them in the service once a year. What I suggest goes beyond a singular Sunday and encompasses the whole church for the whole year.
1. Create space for veterans to share their stories
Every human heart has a longing to know and be known. Veterans, like everyone else, have stories to tell. They are likely filled with triumphs and failures, the complexities of their time in service, and unique experiences that strike us as foreign and fascinating. These stories often remain untold because of the practice of shaking a veteran’s hand and saying, “Thank you for your service.” That oft-stated and well-meaning phrase can feel like the forced greeting time on Sunday morning where one merely says good morning and moves on without ever making a real connection. Veterans have been thanked for their service countless times yet remain unknown strangers with untold stories. Slow down. Ask questions that draw out their stories that often remain hidden and unexplored behind the uniform.
Ask questions like:
- What branch did you serve with?
- How long were you in the military?
- Where were you stationed?
These get the ball rolling, but there need to be follow-up questions that go a little deeper.
- Would you mind sharing with me your story about your service?
- Why did you join?
- What aspect of your service has impacted you the most?
These kinds of questions have deeper inroads that go a long way in establishing a meaningful relationship and may be best implemented in our small groups or over a meal.“Veterans have been thanked for their service countless times yet remain unknown strangers with untold stories.” — @JoshHoller Click To Tweet
2. Extend a welcoming invitation for a meal
Invite that veteran over for a home-cooked meal that takes time and intentionality. This simple and ordinary hospitality is often supplanted by our fast-paced lives and calendars brimming with busyness. Slow down and carve out space to exercise the atrophied muscle of hospitality. It may be simple, but it’s not simplistic. It may not be a grand and public demonstration of thankfulness for veterans. But in its quieter and more intimate space, it is authentic. Many veterans are fatigued by the commercialization of Veterans Day when a plethora of big chain restaurants offer cheap discounts on low-quality meals. Trade the cheap meal in for the more promising home-cooked one where you create the setting to ask those questions.
3. Honor all branches and service
We live in a strange time where there has been a kind of fetishizing of violence and combat service. This is evidenced by the hushed whispers around listening to podcasts by a former Special Forces Operator. We have done the same in movies and sometimes in our sloppy questions like, “Did you ever deploy?” “Did you see any action?” Or the biggest blunder: “Did you kill anyone?” We have inadvertently disregarded the majority of the armed services, which operate in roles outside of direct combat.
The service of the veterans who worked as airwing mechanics is just as worthy of honor as those who deployed six times to Afghanistan in the infantry. We like to create tiers of superiority and overlook the goodness of faithfulness attached to the service of many. Those in highly specific combat roles could never do what they did without the support of the rest of their branch in every facet of administration, logistics, supply, intelligence, and so on. Honor veterans by looking beyond combat and recognizing the unsung virtues of loyalty, courage, faithfulness, and commitment.
4. Integrate veterans into all aspects of church life
Churches often create a veteran’s ministry or outreach once a church begins to gather a number of veterans or active-duty personnel. The church in America loves affinity outreach and gathering like people who have like experiences.
I submit that this trend of affinity-driven ministry goes against the grain of the needs of the veteran and the church. You don’t need to worry about veterans finding others who served; they have a way of seeking each other out. And you won’t get to know, care, love for, and enjoy that person if you relegate them to a group of others like them. The church needs each other, in all its diversity, experiences, generations, and backgrounds. We should dare to mix veterans among the rest where their unique experiences will be like seasoning that draws out the best of the church. This goes beyond a single Sunday morning “Veterans Moment” and challenges us to think about how we live together the rest of the year.
5. Connect Veterans Day to the gospel
Veterans Day and military life are replete with gospel bridges. Build them and boldly walk across them. On November 11, 1918, at the 11th hour, World War I ended with the signing of the Armistice. The First World War, “the war to end all wars,” echoes the desire for peace that is written on the hearts of humans and points to a day when, as Isaiah 2:4 says, “They will beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives. Nation will not take up the sword against nation, and they will never again train for war” (CSB).“Veterans Day and military life are replete with gospel bridges. Build them and boldly walk across them.” — @JoshHoller Click To Tweet
Only through the shed blood of Christ will one have reconciliation with the holy God we have sinned against. And only through the Son will one be raised up on the last day in the new creation where service in the military is no longer required because death has been vanquished and war is but a memory. Veterans Day is a signpost that points us back to God. When you honor the faithful service of a veteran, you have the opportunity to also honor God, who demonstrated the ultimate act of faithfulness.
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell Sullivan.