When Tragic News Breaks
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.
Tim Keller pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. "Some of my folks here have said they wish I'd talk more about current events," he says candidly. "I'm not sure I'm wise enough to pull it off."
Keller has two concerns: one is that the news will overshadow his message. "When you talk about something that is making headlines, the illustration becomes the point." Keller says his listeners, including non-Christians, "want to hear eternal truths, not an interpretation of news events."
He wonders too about the unreliability of early reports. He usually waits a year or more before referring to a news event. "It often takes months to get perspective," Keller says.
Keller points to the sermons of the old masters as examples. The only sermons of Jonathan Edwards and others that seem irrelevant now are those preached about national events, Keller says. "It is remarkable how poorly reasoned those sermons are. That is what originally made me hesitate about preaching on current events."
"Who says a sermon has to last for 500 years?" counters Joseph Jeter, Jr., professor at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and author of the book Crisis Preaching. "All of us would like to preach a 500-year sermon, but it would have to be a very general sermon."
In his research, Jeter found many preachers who refused to speak to news events. "Some said they don't know what to say; others don't want to sensationalize. But if your people bring to church a concern they're confused and disturbed about, and nothing is said, that is like looking for bread and getting a stone."
Choosing to address a news event requires discernment: of the likely lasting impact of the event, of the emotional needs of the congregation at the moment, and of the Spirit's leadership in sermon preparation.
Lessons from the epicenter
A tornado ripped through Goshen (Alabama) United Methodist Church during the Easter drama on Palm Sunday 1994. The building just exploded, says Pastor Kelly Clem, burying worshipers crowded in the sanctuary under three feet of rubble. When the debris was cleared, 20 were dead, including Clem's four-year-old daughter Hannah. The media descended on the tiny community outside Birmingham.
"They asked us 'Why?'" Clem says. "Isn't the sanctuary supposed to be safe? Isn't this going to shatter your faith?" And the larger, and harder question: "Why would God let this happen to a church?" "During the crisis is not the time to ask the why question," Clem says. "The real question is 'What am I going to do with the life I have today, with the family members I have today, with the church I have today?'"
Clem's words to her congregation on Easter morning a week later spoke to the need of the moment: How can we be the comforting church when we're all suffering? Help with the why question came later.
The pastor's temptation in a crisis-prompted sermon is to offer answers. Although the people may say they want answers, what they really need is help dealing with overwhelming emotion.
A little more than six months after the shooting deaths of 15 students at Columbine High School, nearby West Bowles Community Church continues to wrestle with the catastrophe while at the same time watching a great revival in Littleton and in their church.
"Some wanted to make sense of (the deaths)," says Pastor George Kirsten. "I don't think we can. Others would say, 'Where can I turn? Is there any hope? Is there any comfort?' That's the issue we addressed loud and clear."
Kirsten's church became a clearinghouse for wise counsel. Many Columbine students came to West Bowles two days after the shootings to talk through their trauma. They didn't seek out the counselors sent by the school system, according to Kirsten, but went instead to other teens, youth from the church who were willing to listen and to cry with them.
Both Kirsten and Clem approached the preaching task as fellow strugglers. They expressed what their people were feeling and what they themselves were feeling. "Sometimes that's all we can do—cry with our people," Jeter surmises.
Craig Barnes calls this "emergency room talk." Barnes is pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. He recommends the E.R. approach to emotionally wrenching crisis. "You don't do a lot of constructive theology in emergency rooms. You just remind them that we live in the hands of God, and that's a wonderful place to be. The constructive preaching comes in the second wave."
Breaking news can wait
"Crisis rips the veneer off," Barnes says. "It can be very helpful." Yet in 20 years of pastoral ministry, Barnes counts only a handful of occasions when national news became sermon fodder. Most he treated briefly—the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa in the same week produced two paragraphs to close a message on the cost of following Christ.
Pastoring in the nation's capital, Barnes has felt pressure to speak to the news. He has resisted. For many months he refused to address the investigation that led to the impeachment of the president. "I told my congregation I was taking the high road, but when everything finally came out, I had to speak."
News anchor Peter Jennings called while Barnes was preparing his sermon. "He was taking a survey on how churches were handling it. He wanted to know whether I was calling for the head of the president or the head of the special prosecutor. Those were my only two options.
"I explained that the gospel is a little bit larger than that. My intent in this kind of sermon is to transcend the options. I want to say something that is clear and useful as people work their way through the issue. The crisis sermon should draw them to Jesus as Savior, as opposed to leaving them with the 'right' answer.
"We live for those moments when we can stand on the stump and say, 'I have a word from the Lord.' If it's truly the word of the Lord, then it's not just for the president or the prosecutor. It's for all of us."
The preacher's temptation is to exegete the crisis, rather than the Scripture. Barnes avoids this by starting with his congregation's emotions and moving quickly to the text.
"All preaching has to maintain both sides of that sacred conversation," Barnes says. "You have to tell the Lord how it is down here. The people need to hear that. They need to see you as Moses, as the person who is speaking on their behalf before the Lord, in order also to hear the word of the Lord from you."
For the most part, Barnes sticks to his preaching plan. He has found that his text, selected as much as a year in advance, has spoken to the need on the few occasions when he has preached on a crisis.
Like Keller, Barnes waits to refer to events such as Columbine and Wedgwood. "There are some pretty heroic stories that emerge in the second wave of media coverage. I think there is more valuable information there for the preacher."
While crises that directly affect the local church must be addressed immediately, others, more often national or world events, can wait until more information is available and the lasting impact of the event has been determined. A real crisis will still merit attention in a few weeks or months. Until then, inclusion in the pastoral prayer will suffice to acknowledge awareness of the congregation's feelings.
Other crises—and many of the incidents generating non-stop news coverage fall in this category—are simply distractions.
Grieving for people you don't know
"I'm surprised by how much that hurts me," my wife said, some months after the death of John Kennedy, Jr.
"That it hurt at all? Or that is still hurts?" I asked.
"Both, I guess. I see their pictures at the magazine stand, and I ache, deeply. Some celebrity deaths you expect to affect you. Diana, certainly." (My wife had stayed up overnight so she would not miss the royals' wedding on television.) "But I didn't expect to feel this one."
I understood her feelings. In our star-eyed culture, we keep electronic vigils by many bedsides, and the deaths of people we've never met become very real to us. Our listeners need help mourning losses both real and imagined. But do tragic, widely reported deaths merit attention from the pulpit?
Some instances should be referenced, but most are distractions from the real issues, according to Argile Smith, preaching professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. "What separates them from truly catastrophic events is that they are everyday events that happen to famous people." People are born, live, and die, and except for their fame, most would not make the news. Neither should they make the pulpit.
Still, Smith admits, the emotions of his listeners must be considered. "I had prepared to preach on death and resurrection one Sunday. The night before that sermon, Princess Diana was killed. Because that was what everybody was talking about, I scrubbed my introduction and started with her death. The message wasn't about Diana, but it spoke to some things people were thinking about."
Smith is watchful when invoking the names of the famous. "Be careful not to make value judgments on dead people or speculate on their salvation," he warns. "The preacher can help his congregation with their emotions without expressing opinions about the deceased." In other words, don't say anything you wouldn't say at the celebrity's funeral.
In time, Smith says, the preacher develops an internal mechanism for deciding which events are worth talking about.
That's the way it really is
The danger of preaching to the crisis too frequently is that the temporal rather than the eternal begins to drive the preaching schedule. The preacher becomes reactionary, Chicken Little in the pulpit. On the other hand, ignoring crisis, whether real or perceived, may be seen by our listeners as failure to speak to their needs.
By preaching appropriately when the news intrudes, we can show our listeners that God still cares and that he can still be trusted even in catastrophe's aftermath.
Our goal, always, is to help people view the issues of life and death in the light of Christ. "If this world is going to make sense," Smith says, "it will only be when we see it through the eyes of Jesus."
Eric Reed was associate editor of Leadership Journal.
1. Boutellier told his story to Joseph Jeter, Jr., in Crisis Preaching (Abingdon, 1998).