Excitement and anticipation turned to terror and chaos July 20 in Aurora, Colo., when a gunman entered a packed movie theater and opened fire. He killed 12, wounded 58 and traumatized countless others by the time police arrested him.
What are the implications for congregations of this latest outbreak of violence?
First, it invites sober realism.
No matter how many crises make headline news, there’s a temptation to think that it could never happen to us.
If your church has never had to deal with the devastation caused by a gunman, sexual predator, dishonest treasurer, natural disaster, accident or some other situational crisis, it can be difficult to imagine that you ever will.
And that is exactly what many crisis-tested congregations admit thinking before their close encounters with calamity.
Faith doesn’t inoculate us against misfortune. Jesus was blunt about it: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33a; emphasis added).
As long as sin and evil exist, and as long as nature remains untamed, trouble can drop in for a visit any time. Living in denial about this is foolhardy.
Second, it raises the question: Are we prepared?
Aurora illustrates that a crisis can strike our congregation when we least expect it. But unless we take action in response to this realization, we’re no better off than before.
In fact, our situation may be worse in that awareness without action creates a toxic stew of anxiety.
In 2009, key leaders at The Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock, Ark., were prompted toward proactive planning by national news coverage about church shootings.
They knew they weren’t ready should an armed intruder show up on their campus during one of their weekend services.
To their credit, they didn’t just plan against violence; they decided to use the planning process to develop prevention and response plans for a full range of their congregation’s greatest risks.
Wise congregations echo the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.”
We can’t control the future completely or even predict it with absolute certainty. We can ready ourselves to respond to it and even influence it through proactive planning and action.
What are your church’s greatest risks? What is your current readiness to deal with potential crises in these areas of risk? What further steps do you need to take to lower these risks and prepare for things that might happen anyway?
Third, it challenges us to manage risk without giving into fear.
In the face of life’s dangers, there’s a temptation to develop a fortress mentality, to build barriers against risk that close off the world around us. This, of course, runs contrary to the promises and purposes of God.
Remember that when Jesus reminded us of the tribulation that comes with living in the world, he went on to say, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33b)
Healthy congregations tend to their risks and the crises that befall them while maintaining an unswerving commitment to their God-given vision and values.
Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, demonstrated this kind of healthy response in the aftermath of its tragic encounter with violence on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1999.
A gunman shot 14 people. Seven died.
Pastor Al Meredith captured the spirit of the church when he announced to the press, “We will not give an inch to the darkness!”
In the weeks that followed, Meredith preached a series of messages focused on congregational purpose. Against every impulse to give into fear or anger, the people of Wedgwood were encouraged to remember who they were – the people of God – and what they were to do – know Christ and make him known.
While taking responsible steps to deal with future risks, the church refused to develop a defensive posture.
Members knew that if they locked themselves in and others out, they would miss opportunities that come with being God’s instruments of light and love.
Interestingly enough, though warned to expect ministry decline, Wedgwood experienced 50 percent growth in the five years following the tragedy.
The Aurora movie theater tragedy offers us a fresh reminder about the risks we face, the importance of readiness, and the value of faith-filled response.
Wise are the congregations that act on these lessons to prevent, prepare for and respond to crises of their own. They can do so in a way that strengthens them to reach their full potential in Christ.