What Congregations Can Learn from a Movie Theater Tragedy

Written by admin on July 30th, 2012

Excitement and anticipation turned to terror and chaos in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012 when a deranged gunman entered a packed, darkened movie theater and opened fire on those in attendance. 12 were killed, 58 were wounded, and countless others were left traumatized by the time police arrived and arrested the gunman.

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, It could never happen to us. If your church has never had to deal with the devastations of a deranged gunman, or for that matter, a sexual predator, a dishonest money handler, a natural disaster, an accident, or some other situational crisis, it can be difficult to imagine that you ever will…which is exactly what many crisis-tested congregations admit thinking before their close encounters with calamity.

The fact is that faith doesn’t inoculate us against misfortune. Jesus was blunt about it: “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn. 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? Events like those at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado sober us up to the realization 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, Arkansas were prompted toward proactive planning by national news coverage about church shootings. They knew that 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; but 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 Ft. Worth, Texas demonstrated this kind of healthy response in the aftermath of its tragic encounter with violence on Wednesday, September 15, 1999. 14 were shot and 7 died when a gunman unloaded his weapons on a gathering of youth in the sanctuary. 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% growth in the five years following the tragedy.

The Aurora, Colorado movie theater incident 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.

 

In his recently-released book, Leading Congregations through Crisis (Chalice Press, 2012; http://ChalicePress.com), Dr. Greg Hunt builds on 30-plus years of pastoral experience and the wisdom of other crisis-tested leaders in and beyond the church to present a best-practices guide for preventing, preparing for, and responding to congregational crises. Greg and his wife, Priscilla, coach organizations, couples, and individuals through their nonprofit Directions, Inc. Contact information: huntgreg54@gmail.com; (318) 518-8336; www.GregoryLHunt.com.

 

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