I was in a faculty meeting at Denver Seminary on April 20, 1999, when we learned that two shooters were on a killing spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The two teenage murderers killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others before they shot themselves.
At the time, it was the worst school shooting in American history. Local pastors grappled with how to minister to their congregations after such senseless carnage. Sadly, they still do, because the mass shootings have not stopped.
In 2007, 32 students and teachers were murdered at Virginia Tech. In 2012, twenty first graders and six employees were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. This is only a partial list of mass school shootings.
Perspective from the Pulpit
God calls Pastors to give a perspective on the world to their flocks in light of biblical teaching. In addition to expositing the Bible faithfully, they need to frame issues and events in order to instruct, encourage, and comfort their congregations, both in sermons and in personal counseling. The Word must be related to the world.
As the prophet Malachi said to the unfaithful leaders of his day: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty, and people seek instruction from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7).
Because congregations seek instruction from pastors and other leaders in the Church, those with teaching authority ought to be like the tribe of Issachar, “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
But how do we understand the times and guide the Church when, only several days apart, we learn that 19 fourth graders and two teachers were gunned down by an 18-year-old man in Texas, or when six black people were executed in a store by an 18-year-old male, white supremacist? What should pastors say—and what should the Church do—given the horrible frequency of mass shootings in recent years?
Pastors need to help their people process the grief, shock, and rage theologically. But they should also help congregants think through matters of public policy and other reforms that address mass shootings. First, we’ll speak to the theology of processing trauma.
Suffering Well With Your Flock
Apart from offering a biblical perspective on these tragedies, pastors need to “weep with those who weep” and help their churches do the same (Romans 12:15). We should all lament these evils and not try to hold back the sadness or even anger.
Many of the Psalms express deep emotions over the evils befalling their authors. “How long, O Lord?” is a common refrain when evil is overwhelming and help seems distant. David cries out, “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:3, NIV).
Jesus himself was “deeply moved” by the death of Lazarus and then wept as well (John 11:33-35). God counts our tears before he wipes them all away (Psalm 56:8; Revelation 21:4). In the aftermath of these kinds of tragedies, churches may want to organize special times of lament and prayer.
The Mind of Christ in Tragedy
God’s people also need the mind of Christ in responding to great tragedies. We trust in the goodness of God through the lens of Scripture, especially when it speaks of the suffering and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. There is no suffering that Christ does not feel, and he felt the worst suffering possible in his suffering and dying on the Cross to atone for our sin.
The Bible is neither romantic nor unrealistic about the depths of suffering and loss in our world. Paul says that the whole world is groaning in travail, along with Christians and the Spirit himself:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).
The promise of “our adoption to sonship” is as certain as the achievements of Jesus Christ—his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. But in the waiting is the groaning, the aching sense that the whole world is troubled by sin and needing radical renewal. We know that God will have the last word at the final judgment and renewal of all things (Matthew 19:28-30; 25:31-46). We groan together, we look ahead with hope, but we also act.
Policy and Action
Pastors should not shy away from helping God’s people work through the social and political factors involved in mass shootings. We are to “seek the welfare of the city,” where God has called us (Jeremiah 29:11), and be salt and light, seeking the common good (Matthew 5:14-16). Of course, we pray for an end to this violence and for those affected by violence already committed. But we also work hard to forge a less violent culture, one in which mass shootings are not common.
Mass shootings come out of a culture of family breakup, violent media, and disaffected young men. The church must address all these issues, but it must consider the law as well.
While self-defense is a biblical value and an American principle, we must advocate for ways to balance Second Amendment rights with keeping guns away from obviously dangerous and deranged people. Further, in our culture of violence, the defense of the vulnerable is paramount. Thus, state schools and other public places (including churches) should be adequately guarded. Calling a school a “gun free zone” does nothing to stop a gunman. It is, rather, an invitation to tragedy. We cannot pretend to live in less violent days.
Some of the above may be controversial, but pastors and other church leaders should engage these issues biblically, logically, and factually. Things have gotten too terrible for them to be silent or uninvolved. We need prayer, sound teaching, and action.