Last Friday morning, a disgruntled Aurora, Ill., manufacturing-company employee, after being told he had been terminated, opened fire with a gun he had brought with him, killing five and wounding six, before being shot and killed by police. Most believers would agree that, at times like this, corporate worship has a vital role to play, but what kind of adjustments should worship leaders make to their worship sets in the immediate wake of a tragedy? There are numerous things you might consider, but here are three things I recommend you not do the first weekend following an instance of unspeakable horror.
1) Don’t ignore the tragedy. Terrible events like this happen so frequently that we risk becoming numb to them if we don’t fashion some kind of response. To whatever degree that is true for individuals, it’s even more important for churches–especially when the tragedy hits close to home. NYC houses of worship, we’re told, were flooded in the aftermath of 9/11. At times of great communal calamity, the God-shaped void Pascal opined can be found in all unbelievers seems to prompt many to see what the Church has to offer vis-à-vis explanation and solace. While we can’t address every single act of evil or every natural disaster in our worship services, we must confront the brutal manifestations of our fallen world when they happen in our backyard. Barth’s exhortation for preachers to prepare with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other serves as great advice for worship leaders, too.
2) Don’t be afraid to go off script. With the advent of worship-planning software (see next week’s blog), worship leaders construct worship-service orders further in advance than ever before. While I generally applaud this preparation, we need to be willing to change directions pretty quickly when a tragedy happens in our community. Almost exactly 11 years ago to the date of last week’s shooting, a gunman opened fire at Northern Illinois University (about a half hour from Aurora). I led worship that weekend, and here’s a brief summary of what we did, taken from a look at the relationship between suffering and worship I wrote for Worship Leader magazine soon thereafter:
On the Sunday morning following the tragic shootings at Northern Illinois University earlier this year, I decided to abandon the typically peppy call to worship that I had planned. This wasn’t a hard decision, by any means. The daughter of one of my praise team members had been in the classroom when the gunman opened fire, and she, like hundreds of other students, had had to crawl to safety in the midst of the chaos. The collective spirit among the assembled that morning was somber, questioning, even fearful—grieving with this family and with the other local families that had lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
Like the displaced Israelites suffering in Babylonian captivity, we were, that morning, understandably tempted to ask, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord” in the “strange land” of our grief and confusion (Psalm 137:4)? Was there any place at all for worship when every single one of us was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care”? My theological training told me the answer was “yes,” but I didn’t have as quick an answer for how to translate that truth, how to make some sense of that which made no sense.
We began our worship with the songbook of all songbooks, for the Psalms not only give us permission to feel sad, but also to question, even to be angry. Certainly our omniscient Father knows how we feel anyway. . . . The Incarnate Jesus—fully God and fully man—experienced similar kinds of feelings. . . . And the Holy Spirit would not be referred to as “the Comforter” . . . if there were never anything for us to be comforted about.
Our pastor still preached the sermon he had prepared, so we didn’t completely abandon all our preparation, but, at the top of the service, we changed gears in a manner that attempted to address the tragedy theologically.
3. Don’t sugarcoat the tough stuff; wrestle with it. The Sunday after the loathsome synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh last fall, the worship leader of a church service I experienced online began the set with “The Lion and the Lamb.” My initial fear, that he was going to ignore the shooting altogether, was alleviated when he transitioned into a prayer for the victims, but, in doing so, he missed a chance to wrestle with hard truth. “Who can stop the Lord Almighty?” the congregation had just sung/asked together, and a worship leader more in tune with fostering congregational spiritual formation might have responded, before transitioning into the next song (or the prayer that followed, in this case), “Well, there are 11 families in Pittsburgh this morning that might suggest one deranged guy with an AR-15 can and did.” That could have led into transitional comments about the difficult-to-grasp but real sovereignty of God, the problem of pain and suffering manifested in times like this, or a whole host of other things, but the juxtaposing of the triumphal “Lion and the Lamb” with the brutality of the Pittsburgh shooting—without putting both in context—was a missed opportunity.
The Lord be with you, worship leaders! Your role, always important, is critical in the aftermath of tragedy.
Coming next week (Lord willing): Holy expectation (or the lack thereof) in contemporary worship.