Thoughts on How to Be the Church in An Age of Terror and Tragedy

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Like me, you hope and pray that tragedies like the ones we witness far too frequently these days would just stop and go away…forever.

Our hearts break far too often these days because of the senseless rage of a lone gunman or because of the seemingly endless assault of terror.

You wish you could wake up in a world in which children could go to school, friends could go to movies, athletes could run marathons, music lovers could go to concerts and people could go to nightclubs and churches without the fear of violence.

Sadly, that doesn’t appear to be ready to happen anytime soon. Hurricanes and earthquakes—devastating as they are—are one thing. But the evil that we inflict on one another, that’s a whole other sickness.

In an era of randomized terror and angry, isolated men, it’s extremely difficult to protect ourselves from acts of violence in shopping malls, schools, churches or movie theatres…it is infecting and affecting our ordinary, everyday life.

Which is exactly what it’s designed to do. And hence, it’s terror.

In many ways, terror and evil have been part of the fabric of human life forever. My father was born into a world in which Nazi soldiers regularly marched feet away from his living room window while his older brothers hid in the hayloft. Terror is no stranger to previous generations or present generations in many parts of the world. Even the Old Testament tells the story of terrorizing armies and nations.

But living in this emerging reality in the world is new to many of us in the West. And we are left, emotions swinging and raging, wondering how to respond.  Wishing it would go away. Even when in all likelihood, it won’t. Day after day we wake up to new sadness, new despair.

Just when we think our hearts couldn’t break anymore, they do.

And so we pray, even when we are not sure what to pray or how to pray and often when our prayers consist more of tears, fear, and desperation than they do of words.

In between the bouts of sadness and fear, anger and outrage surge, but something inside of us knows that those will never cure a problem so deep.

How do we respond as Christians? Or as church leaders, pastors, neighbors, parents and citizens?

Clearly, there is no single response that can adequately address the complexity or dark depth of what’s happening. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Nor is there any election result that can fix this once and for all.

But there are some reflections which I hope and pray can be helpful for Christians and church leaders. What you do is important. And how you respond, in the small and the large things, matters so much.

Here are a few things that have been circulating through my heart and mind as tragedy after tragedy keeps happening.

Just when we think our hearts couldn't break anymore, they do. Click To Tweet

1. What the church is doing is more important, not less important

Doubtless the church is in an era of deep change.

Given the rise of terror and violence in the West, the days of playing church or simply going to church are drawing to a close.

This is the time to be the church, because what Christians have to offer is a radically different ethic and alternative to hatred and violence. The Gospel is a needed ethic in our culture, and it’s being lost in the noise.

You can debate parts of the scripture all you want, but one thing that is undeniable is that Jesus said his followers would be known by their love.

This, more than anything, is what Christians need to be known for.

Families need this love. Victims need this love. Perpetrators need this love. Children need this love.

The Gospel moves us to love when all that is left is hate.

The Gospel moves us to love when all that is left is hate. Click To Tweet

So what you’re doing this Sunday, not just in response to what happened but in advance of what might happen next, is so important.

Our culture needs the love found in Jesus more than ever. What you’re doing next weekend matters more than you realize.

As the Gospel spreads from person to person, life to life, community to community, nation to nation, we are transformed.

Preach the love of Christ-like you were changing the world. Because you are.

Preach the love of Christ like you were changing the world. Because you are. Click To Tweet

2. Confession and humility are more important than ever

Confession and humility are increasingly rare in the West. And in the church. And yet they are two characteristics of Christianity that run to the core of our faith.

The opposite of confession is blame…and that’s an instinctive reaction most of us have. Lack of humility pushes people (and nations) into stand-offs that deepen the divide and escalate the ruin.

The truth is, other religions aren’t the only religions that have spoken hate. Christians have spoken hate as well. We need to repent.

We are perfectly capable of hating and killing each other without intervention from foreign groups that hate the West. And sometimes, we do.

We need to pray, and repent, and carry deep inside of us the knowledge that we too are broken. We too need a Saviour, grace and forgiveness.

That posture can’t change everything, but it will change more than you think. It can deeply alter the dynamic and dialogue at a micro-level. When the micro-dialogue and the micro-dynamics changes, it is only a matter of time until the macro changes.

The opposite of confession is blame. Click To Tweet

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3. Faith is a dividing line that ultimately can become a uniting line

The reality, of course, is that if you’re a Christian, there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only an ‘us’ and ‘us.’

The early church realized that when Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women and every ethnic nation imaginable came together under Christ. It was tremendously radical then. It will be just as radical now.

We live in an age where faith is increasingly seen as divisive and extreme. More and more people feel that way about Christianity as well, as David Kinnaman and I discuss in Episode 82 of my leadership podcast (you can listen here).

Yet Christianity, which man sees as divisive, is ultimately unifying because it ultimately unites radically different people groups under the love of God that is in Jesus Christ.

If you're a Christian, there's no 'us' and 'them.'  There is only an 'us' and 'us.' Click To Tweet

4. The only ethic that will ever work is the ethic of love

A generation ago, Martin Luther King Jr. faced a situation that had some parallels. The civil rights movement was hardly yet a movement as the young black preacher began his ministry. The controversy over busing had just begun in Alabama.

One night when King was preaching, someone threw a bomb inside the house where he wife and infant daughter were inside. His family was unharmed, but his front window had been blown out and there was a huge hole in his porch.

As he rushed home, a crowd of several hundred blacks had gathered as had the mayor and the police.

As Charles Duhigg tells the story (in his book, The Power of Habit), someone shoved a cop, a bottle flew through the air and a police officer waved his baton. All the ingredients for a full riot were there. The tension had been building for weeks. Well, actually, for centuries.

King stood up on his porch and told the crowd “Don’t do anything panicky….He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.”

Then, as he got everyone’s attention, King spoke these words:

“We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in word that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’…We must meet hate with love.”

As Duhigg notes, this was a turning point for the civil rights movement. People put down their fists and their weapons. When hate became instead, an embrace, it became a very difficult force to stop.

The only ethic that will ultimately work against hate is love. And no one should be more loving than those forgiven in Christ.

It would be wise to study King and the civil rights movement again in detail to see not just results, but strategy. The strategy of love appears to lose at first, but ultimately wins.

The only ethic that will ultimately work against hate is love. Click To Tweet

5. Christians lay down their lives in the face of evil

Should Christians take life? There is little point on this blog to getting into long debate about gun control or state violence.

I would assume that only a few of us who read this are actual legislators and that none of us who read this have ever sat in the Oval Office or at 24 Sussex Drive to receive a briefing as the leader of a nation. We cannot understand the complexities of leadership or government from the seats in which we sit. Or at least I can’t.

But I do have to figure out my personal response. So do you. So does anyone who identifies themselves as Christians.

Here’s what I know.

That when Jesus himself was hated enough to be unjustly tortured and killed, he willingly gave his life. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even enter a defense at his trial.

In fact, he did something more profound than defending himself, he forgave his torturers.

Actually, it went deeper than that. The very act his captors used to kill Jesus is the act Jesus would later use to extend to them forgiveness and salvation.

Meeting Jesus, this crucified Saviour, would later lead Saul to move from killing Christians out of hatred to planting churches across the known world.

Ultimately, Paul gave his life for the sake of the Gospel.

The ultimate Christian response to hatred is not to take someone’s life for hating you, it’s to lay down your life for their sake.

You can kill the body. But you cannot kill love. You cannot kill forgiveness. You cannot kill grace.

It is to those things we must cling in these days.

You can kill the body. But you cannot kill love. You cannot kill forgiveness. You cannot kill grace. Click To Tweet

6. External regulations cannot trump internal values

Can you legislate away terror? Not really.

I’m all in favor of better laws, smarter laws, and doing all we can to make sure evil does not win.

But laws alone cannot defeat evil. Laws, in fact, can barely contain it.

Ultimately the problems we are facing are not issues of law, they are issues of the heart.

Changed laws do not change hearts.

What changes hearts? The Gospel. Love. Christ.

When a heart is transformed, its value system is transformed. Forgiveness dissolves anger. Love dissolves hate.

As a result, a person’s value system changes. This is where the hope is. This is where the key to the future lies.

Why? Because internally-owned values trump externally-imposed rules every time.

In a community where love has won, laws are barely needed. In a community where hate lives, laws do almost no good.

Paul knew this.

Changed laws do not change hearts. Click To Tweet

So how does that love gain a foothold in a culture threatened with hate?

The way people will discover that love is when they meet a Christian who behaves like an actual Christian.

And that means that this begins with you and with me.

You may have never met a terrorist. You may not have even know many Muslims.

But the truth is there are people you don’t like, and probably a few that you hate. Start there.

Forgive someone you actually know.

And then when it comes to adding your voice to the public dialogue on social media or in private conversations, don’t fuel hate to people groups and other religions…instead, extend love.

The most radical thing you can do today is to extend love in the face of hate.

It will require all you have. In fact, you will not be able to do it. You may actually need a Saviour to help.

Which is exactly the point.

The most radical thing you can do today is to extend love in the face of hate. Click To Tweet

So go be the church…

So go be the church…the real church. The authentic church. The church Jesus had in mind.

Repent. Confess. Humble yourself. Forgive. Love. Hope. Trust.

Turn to Christ for the strength you don’t have. He has it.

Church…we may actually have the things that can change the world.

What you’re doing this week matters more than ever.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.