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

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 West is new to most of us. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

29 Comments

  1. […] Thoughts on How to Be the Church in An Age of Terror and Tragedy […]

  2. […] Carey Nieuwhof – Thoughts on How to be the Church in an Age of Terror and Tragedy […]

  3. Myra Wells on October 3, 2017 at 8:22 am

    My small group prayed for me last night – my request was that I was feeling so overwhelmed with all the hatred going on in this world. Your message was in my inbox this morning. Answered prayer. Thank you Lord for these words from you through Carey. I will try very hard to let love of Jesus overcome any feelings of upset, dislike (I can’t hate), anxiety. Jesus is the only way.

    Blessings

    Myra

  4. Bev Malcs on October 3, 2017 at 12:23 am

    Be The Church – I love that call…
    Fear has and still is part of the fabric of the human life…just when we think our hearts couldn’t break anymore, they do. Yes we continue to pray even when we are not sure what to pray for in desperation.
    Jesus said his followers would be known by their love.
    As you have so well written….the Gospel spreads from person to person, life to life, community to community, nation to nation, we are transformed.
    We need to be modelling the way, we need to be the change we want to see in the world around us. Like the boy with the star fish, he could have stood their helpless, but he didn’t, he lifted up one star fish at a time and through it back into the ocean and said…”I made a difference to the one…”
    This is what we model and practice at the grass roots of homelessness, were the concept of ‘love’ became something else for them.
    I love the speech of Martin Luther King Jnr (inspired by God)…”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.”
    Thank you Carey for sharing this with us today…

  5. Louise on October 2, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    So should we change our laws to allow murder? To allow rape? To make it okay to marry underage girls or to stop freedom of speech? I completely agree that we can’t legislate away hate, but we can certainly change our laws to protect the values that Jesus stands for. I appreciate the positive tone of your blog but I feel that it’s missing the radical nature of the savior we follow to make this world a better place and to protect the weak and vulnerable.

    • Chris Thompson on October 3, 2017 at 9:18 am

      I think your missing the point here. He’s saying hate can hardly be contained by laws. As in the things that terror attacks that inspired this article.
      Those are all real and important problems that might be helped by laws. However we don’t need laws to tell us, the church, to protect the weak and vulnerable. Laws would definitely help in things like rape and underage marriage, but if you need a law from a worldly government to tell you to help those people, what are you doing to help them.
      Also what do you mean by the radical nature of the savior? What I’ve know about Jesus is that he radically loves people, he didn’t change worldly laws or lobby for better people in power. He simply loved and loved fully, so if we’re trying to follow the “radical nature of the savior” we should love with all of our power, and love everyone, including our enemies.

    • Gloria on October 3, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      A changed law willnot change the heart. This comment must be totally processed to be understood what Cary is saying here. of course we do not change laws to allow murder? That is crazy. What was radical about Jesus was his LOVE. Love is RADICAL. In our hate filled, divided culture and opinionated world, LOVE is the RADICAL. Jesus was RADICAL because of it. Jesus was RADICAL because he was AUTHENTIC. he didn’t “fake” Christianity-He LIVED it-and we must do the same-This is what our God Commanded. Now that’s REAL and RADICAL.

  6. Gary on October 2, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    Good word Carey.
    Love overcomes evil.

  7. Sudea Romo on October 2, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    God bless you! What spirit led words of encouragement that you bold offered. Thank you for your love for Christ and his church. Your faith is mutually encouraging. *Thank you, Carey!!

  8. Michael Henderson on October 2, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Thanks, Carey. Well thought and well said.

  9. Jan lazar on October 2, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    We impulsively label this shooting as evil born from hate and while we are not aware of the shooters motivation, he could be seriously snd dangerously mentally ill. I realize the difference between legal mental illness our psychological mental illness and that in itself is confusing.
    Perhaps we do have to take more action to treat such individuals if in fact this is the case. I would offer that for anyone to commit mass murder, one is likely insane.

  10. […] Carey Nieuwhof: Thoughts on how to be the Church in an age of terror and tragedy […]

  11. Emily Melcher on October 2, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Hi Carey,
    I appreciate your message overall, but am concerned by your comment that “… living in this emerging reality in the West is new to most of us.” In fact, it’s not new to people of color and indigenous people who have lived with terror for centuries here in the West.

  12. […] his letter followed by an excerpt from his post that includes “a few things that have been circulating through my heart and mind as tragedy […]

  13. Cheryl Beckwith on October 2, 2017 at 10:48 am

    Awesome post Carey!
    It is really difficult to know how to respond to all the terrible things that are happening in our world. However your post explains so eloquently what a Christian response should be. “Extend love in the face of hate”. We all need to be reminded of this. Thanks

  14. Kabugo Hope on October 2, 2017 at 10:44 am

    That Very Good Indeed

  15. BIshop David Burton on October 2, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Thank you for helping us Pastors to readjust our attitudes to reflect our King. Help to Jesus to live, love, act and speak like Jesus.

  16. Gloria on October 2, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Thank you for calling us to love and reminding us that the day to day ‘little’ things matter to the big picture even though it often seems at the time that it is not making a difference. Love triumphs. May God express it through us.

  17. Mike Sullivan on October 2, 2017 at 10:16 am

    This is a great response, thank you so much.

  18. Ross Topliff on October 2, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Thank you Carey for your excellent words and the wonderful reminder that our response must show love despite the great hate that is swirling around us. We need to remember that God is still on the throne and will ultimately conquer. However we must do out parts and show love to this world that is hurting so very much.

  19. ben on October 2, 2017 at 9:52 am

    I have such a flood of emotions. This post really reminded me which emotion to focus on.

  20. Scott Blount on October 2, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Thank you, Carey, for so eloquently expressing how I feel today.

  21. Aaron Butler on June 23, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    In my view this is the best post you’ve written. (Been a subscriber for a long time)
    I could feel your heart from the words. It left an impression.
    Well done Carey

  22. Stand Firm on June 15, 2016 at 8:23 am

    […] Good Morning! We are all grieved by the terrorist attack in Orlando. Let’s continue to pray for the families and for God to work through this tragedy. I encourage you to read this article by Carey Nieuwhof entitled, “Thoughts on How to Be the Church in an Age of Terror.” […]

  23. Eric Cummer on June 15, 2016 at 3:04 am

    Wonderful commentary. I will try again again to apply it to my life. It’s never easy.

  24. Richard Williams on June 14, 2016 at 10:03 am

    You are wrong on at least one thing in this blog. There is a point to talking about gun control and state violence! As much as Christians have talked about “the right to bear arms” and supported military efforts, they are partially responsible for what happened. What point is there to talking about what Christians should do if we are not willing to talk about that?

  25. Aubrey Kirkpatrick on June 13, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Thank you Carey an excellent response we can take action with. I really needed this today…Love never fails!

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