On April 20, 1999, two high school boys put Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on the map. In the worst school shooting in US history up to that time, twelve students and one teacher were killed in cold blood. The shooters committed suicide after doing as much damage as they could. The church I pastored at that time was just over 3 miles away from the school. The shooting took place on a Tuesday, we held two prayer services at our church on Wednesday, and on Friday we held the first funeral at the church for one of the victims, 16 year old John Tomlin. Two days later, on Sunday, we had two Sunday morning services as usual. But it was anything but preaching as usual for me.
Ever since I heard about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, of course, I have been praying for the families of the victims and the survivors. There is a very long and grievous road ahead of them. I've also been praying for the pastors in Las Vegas. They are undoubtedly busy ministering to grieving families, and also, planning both funerals and church services. They are facing a big challenge. While grieving themselves, they will stand before their congregations as spokesmen for God expected to comfort and strengthen a grieving community. This is not a time for platitudes. It's not a time for giving false hope. It's a time for them to fall on their faces before God and ask Him to speak to them so that they might speak to His people.
I'm up late tonight praying for these pastors. I've been there. Their two main resources are the Word of God and prayer. In addition, they are fortified by the Holy Spirit as they prepare to engage with their flocks as good shepherds. In my case, the Lord laid on my heart the text in Genesis 50:20. In the story of Joseph's fall and rise to power, he makes one of the most powerful statements in the Bible - "you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." Joseph identifies that his brothers had a plan, but apparently, so did God. I titled my sermon - "Two Sets of Plans." (A link to it is available on the home page of my blog.) That was what God laid on my heart. I will continue to pray that God will do the same for the pastors in the wounded Las Vegas community.
In addition, I have 8 suggestions for my fellow pastors, based on my experience 18 years ago:
- Recognize that grieving people need your presence more than your answers or explanations. It's very tempting to think you have to explain or provide answers about where God was in all of this. Don't bother. Admit that you don't know. What people need more than anything else is to know you are there for them. They need hugs, tender words, and prayers. Just be there. There will be time for longer discussions. The ministry of presence is huge in these early days.
- Don't allow yourself to be sidetracked into political issues like gun control. The media and political leaders are all over this and will be for months. Don't get bogged down in the battles for increased gun control. You are certainly entitled to an opinion, but this isn't your role. Keep focused on shepherding.
- You don't know why the shooter did it, so don't try to explain why. In the Columbine shooting, the speculation about the two teenaged shooters was rampant in the early hours and days after the massacre. Motive, motive, motive...everyone wants to know the motive! I get it. I do too. But again, that's not your role. Don't try to analyze something you know nothing about. Crime analysts are working around the clock to sort this out.
- Remind people that we don't overcome evil with evil, but with good. Anger is a normal part of the grieving process. There is a collective rage about the extent of the massacre of innocent people. We want payback. The shooter's family and friends are not targets for our rage. Evil was unleashed from the Mandalay Bay Hotel room that night, but it will not be overcome by more evil. Evil is overcome by good. (Romans 12:17)
- Make some reference to all the good you've seen in the aftermath of this horrific evil. (First responders, police, firemen, EMTs, other concert-goers, doctors, nurses, grief counselors, government leaders including the President, and churches and pastors.)
- Don't forget that Satan is the author of this evil and don't hesitate to mention it. Don't give him too much air time, but don't shy away from pointing out that Satan is the author of events like this. He had a "set of plans." God permits Satan to operate in our fallen world, but don't leave people confused about who the author of evil is. Satan is a liar, murderer, thief, and the dark designer of mayhem like what took place at the concert that night in Las Vegas.
- Don't treat Sunday services like "business as usual." To fail to address what happened in your community and to not focus on it during your church services would be a big mistake. It's what everyone has on their minds. They will be coming to church on Sunday - probably more than normally attend your church - to hear from God. I once heard Haddon Robinson say that the best preaching is "situational." This horrific situation requires a change in your plans for Sunday. Devote the whole morning to offering a biblical response to the tragedy in your community.
- Point people to the comfort and hope that is found in Jesus and the Gospel. This should be obvious but I was criticized for doing it so I want to encourage you not to shy away from it. This Sunday may be a time for many to turn to the hope and salvation found only in Christ. Don't be afraid to offer an invitation for people to put their trust in Jesus. Don't play on emotions. You don't have to. Emotions are already raw. Gently and tenderly proclaim that in a world so full of evil and fear, there is only one solution - turn to Jesus!
I don't know if any Las Vegas pastors will see this list, but I offer it in faith. I believe God will use it as He sees fit. Rest assured that pastors around the country are praying for you. I am just one of many. May God use you to speak the truth in love during these difficult days. One more thing - be sure to take time to care for yourself and your family as well.