How Should Your Church Respond to Tragedy?

By Geoff Surratt
NYC - Battery Park: Jerusalem Grove and Battery Labyrinth for Contemplation

NYC – Battery Park: Jerusalem Grove and Battery Labyrinth for Contemplation. Photo by Wally Gobetz.

Early Friday morning, while I slept at my house 12 miles away, James Holmes entered Theater 9 at the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado and began firing a variety of weapons into the crowd. By the time he was done he had killed at least 12 innocent victims and shattered the lives of dozens more. He drew his inspiration for this horrible carnage from the Batman comics and movies, and his weapons of choice were two handguns, a shotgun and a semi-automatic assault rifle. With the echo of Columbine still in our subconscious, Denver was again rocked by the senseless massacre of young, innocent victims. How should churches respond to this tragedy?

Should we rise up, with the World Council of Churches and others, and demand a limit on guns for private citizens? How can it be okay for a 24 year old student to buy an assault rifle and 6000 rounds of ammunition? There is no scenario where that ends well. Surely the local church should be the voice of reason and put an end to the madness.

Or should we focus on the glorification of violence in movies and video games? Any Batman fan immediately saw direct parallels between the horrific crime in Aurora and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in the Dark Knight. How long will we continue to applaud and award psychopathic violence on the screen and be shocked and appalled when that violence is reflected in real life? Surely the local church should take up this cause.

Maybe the church should take a vocal stance for (or against?) the death penalty. As soon as the young man who committed this atrocity was identified Twitter lit up with demands that he be executed. The Bible clearly teaches an eye for an eye and this case exemplifies the necessity of capital punishment in a civilized society. Or the church should lead the call for consequences bathed in grace. The actions of a civilized society should not be dictated by the actions of the deviant, therefore capital punishment should be abolished.

What is the biblical response?

As in all things the church must look to the life of Jesus for guidance. How did Jesus respond to the tragedies of his day? We get a glimpse into first century headline news in Luke 13:

About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. “Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?” Jesus asked. “Is that why they suffered? Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God. And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.” (Luke 13:1-5 NLT)

Here are some principles we can learn from Jesus in responding to tragedy:

Jesus responded quickly
Jesus didn’t hesitate to be involved in current events. He knew that people were thinking about these tragedies, so he put aside his agenda and prepared script to respond to what people were thinking and feeling.

Jesus stayed focused
We can learn a lot from what Jesus didn’t do. He did not rail against the cruelty of Pilate and the Roman government. He did not rally the people to demand safer working conditions or better tower building regulations. He stayed focused on his mission. Jesus laid out his mission statement very clearly in Luke 4:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18 NLT)

Jesus didn’t let circumstances deter him from the central purpose of his ministry. While the temptation to confront rampant pedophilia among the ruling elite, the corrupt system of Roman taxation, or the hedonistic lifestyle of leaders like Herod had to be overwhelming; Jesus knew that, no matter how worthwhile each of these causes might be, they would deviate precious time, energy and resources from spreading the Gospel message.

Jesus stayed personal
Everything for Jesus came back to individual responsibility. How will we as individuals respond to this tragedy? What does it mean in our lives? Rather than railing about the evils of society, as egregious as they were, Jesus’ focus was the need of the individual.

So, based on Jesus’ ministry model, when faced with sudden tragedy the church’s response should be quick, focused and personal. We must stay true to our mission to proclaim the good news of healing, release and freedom both to those impacted directly as well as those who feel the pain from afar. While we may have strong feelings about automatic weapons, gratuitous violence and appropriate punishment it is imperative that in our role as pastors we stay focused on the mission of healing and restoration to a right relationship with God. Unless, of course, we feel Jesus missed a great opportunity to change society…

Geoff Surratt

Geoff lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife Sherry. (CEO of MOPS International) Geoff and Sherry have two awesome kids (Mike and Brittainy), a wonderful daughter-in-law (Hilary) and the most beautiful granddaughters on earth (Maggie Claire and Mollie Rose) Geoff has served on staff at Seacoast Church and Saddleback Church. He now serves as Pastor of Church Planting at Southeast Christian in Parker, Colorado as well coaching churches and leaders around the country. He blogs at Inner Revolution.