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Should You Use the Pulpit to Respond to Tragic Events?

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). As I look back through the years, I can think of similar moments, national and local—hurricanes when we lived in coastal Mississippi, the sudden tragic death of two teenagers in a car accident, the sudden Saturday evening death of a much beloved previous senior pastor, the San Francisco earthquake that took place the week we moved to California’s Bay Area (one person said, “Man, you really shook this place up as soon as you got here!”), the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Murrah Building bombing, a tsunami on a Pacific Ocean island, the Newtown Shootings. … These are just a few of the “in-and-out-of-season” moments that impact our local and national lives. And make no mistake, they impact our preaching. At least, they should!

How do we respond to these moments when circumstances throw a curve ball at our best-laid preaching plans?

A fellow professor tells of attending a worship service in a nearby church on the Sunday after 9/11. He says the preacher continued with his preplanned preaching schedule as though nothing had happened. “If it was not for the pastoral prayer that day,” he says, “we never would have known those people lived in the same world as the rest of us.” He calls it “ministerial malpractice.” I agree. If ever people needed to hear a word of comfort and encouragement from the Lord, it was immediately after the day that changed life for all of us and made many Americans realize this life hangs on only by a frayed thread.

Perhaps those packed Sunday services after such events (remember those Sundays after 9/11 when you saw people in church whom you hadn’t seen before?) were not enough to demonstrate to that brother or sister that something had touched America’s national soul.

There are three realities with which every preaching pastor needs to live. The first is that the abnormal is actually far more normal than we might realize. The immediacy of the media in our time not only brings events into our lives faster than ever before, but brings them much closer to home than they might once have seemed, no matter how far away they happen. Every minister does well to remember we do not preach in a vacuum, but to flesh and blood people who are moved by such events as those listed above.

The second is that every preacher must discern what constitutes an abnormal event that calls for homiletical agility. This takes wisdom. We do not want to appear as though we are waiting for something dramatic or catastrophic to happen so we will have a topic, but we want our people to know that although we are not of this world, we still are in it. God promises this wisdom as we ask for it. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

The third reality is that we can bring stability and comfort in response to tragedies by reminding our people that our sovereign Father is never caught off guard. Nothing that happens anywhere in His world ever catches Him by surprise. Whether local or international, every sudden change is another opportunity to preach what Paul calls “the whole counsel of God” (see Acts 20:27).

Indeed, it seems to me that laying a foundation before tragedy strikes should be a constant part of our preaching. We should not wait until tragedy strikes before we address the possibility of tragedy in our preaching. Like a good physician, it is our job to make sure our patients are prepared for the worst tragedies. We can do this not only by faithfully exegeting Scripture, but by using illustrations that speak of God’s presence in past traumatic events.

May God use us all to make a name for Him in all our preaching.