When President Kennedy was assassinated almost 40 years ago, Walter Cronkite interrupted "As the World Turns" with the tragic announcement.
Pastor Gene Boutellier climbed the tower of his Fresno church, and began pulling the bell rope. Much later, exhausted from his tolling, he descended and found the sanctuary full of weeping people. Tear-streaked faces turned upward, wondering what he would say.1 The scene was repeated the following Sunday in virtually every church in the nation. People needing hope turned to their pastors. Preachers of the generation called it "The Sunday with God."
When President Kennedy's son died in a plane crash last year, the news media climbed their towers and sounded the alarm. After witnessing a week of non-stop coverage, pastors ascended their pulpits wondering, What should I say? Should I say anything at all?
And if they're like me, they wondered, How do I preach to the endless tide of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, celebrity deaths, and political intrigue? And why does this seem to be happening so often?
Preaching at the speed of satellite
I watched the famed low speed Bronco chase from a Holiday Inn in Tallahassee, Florida. Returning home from a week-long vacation, I had turned on the television to see what my congregation might be talking about. What I found was a major shift in the way news is processed and presented.
With their interminable reportage of O.J. Simpson's murder trial, the networks discovered an insatiable public appetite for the mindless repetition of scanty facts. With the proliferation of satellite news channels, tragedies once distant now unfold without interruption in our living rooms. And senseless acts, once given some context by those reporting them, are increasingly presented raw.
Are there more wars? Or is it that we all have cable access to rumors of wars? Are the earthquakes severe? Or are we harder rocked by sensurround accounts of them? Whichever the case, the world as seen on TV makes less sense than it ever has. And the people who soak in an average of four hours of television per day come to church hoping on some level that the preacher will make sense of it all.
Rather, rather not
As a journalist-turned-pastor, I have regularly used the news to illustrate my sermons, but only once have I preached a whole sermon on a news event. In one memorable week, our city was shaken by the drive-by shootings of several children, one of them in our neighborhood; a suspected drug dealer was found slain execution-style four blocks from our church; and police reported that New Orleans once again led the nation in murders. I had to address the fear that gripped us all.
We must deal with tragedies when they are our own, but even if they are distant, episodes like the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and the killings at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth force the preacher to reconsider the sermon schedule. If my recent conversations with pastors are any indication, few are comfortable doing so.