Ed Stetzer: There is much we don't yet know about the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas
As Christians, we should think about what we can do to bring our faith to bear in this awful situation, he writes
Editor’s Note: Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research group. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
We know a shooting has rocked a church in small-town Texas. Yet, there is so much we don’t know.
The questions after an event like this seem unending, and it will take weeks to answer them.
First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs is a small Southern Baptist church, part of my own denominational family. The pastor there, Frank Pomeroy, and I have mutual friends.
The church broadcasts services on YouTube, a digital reminder of their faithfulness week after week. The massacre took the lives of 26 people and wounded nearly two dozen others, a large portion of the congregants who attend services at the church.
Others will continue to report on what happened in the coming days and weeks. But I suggest that the words of Pastor Pomeroy (who, according to his wife Sherri, lost a teenaged daughter in the shooting) might offer guidance to those of us who are Christians on how we might respond – right now.
First, we should trust the Lord when things in the world don’t make sense.
Pastor Pomeroy explained last week that when we trust Christ, there are going to be things we don’t understand. We are called to trust Him instead of our own understanding. This comes from Proverbs 3:5-6, which reads:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.”
Here we see God’s invitation to rely on His infinite wisdom instead of our muddled and finite understanding. It is an invitation that is most important in these moments of deep pain and confusion — moments when we come face to face with evil and suffering.
After losing a child, I am sure the path mentioned in this verse doesn’t seem so straight to Frank and Sherri right now. As an ordained pastor, with daughters around the same age, I’m not sure how these parents will cope. In this moment, where my understanding cannot fathom their pain, my prayer is that they find mercy in their hope in Christ and love from His church. I think we can take Pastor’s Pomeroy’s words and do the same: Trust God when things don’t make sense.
Second, don’t grow numb to the horror of events like this.
Time and time again we hear calls for action and yet these discussions fade quicker with each passing catastrophe. Sure, politicians speak up for a while — maybe a few days, or a couple of weeks — but soon life goes back to normal.
Realistically, the roller coaster only ends when we take seriously our role in coming to a resolution; complacency will get us nowhere. Our willingness to participate in this cycle of violence, grief and then silence is out of line with our calling in the Gospel of Matthew to be salt and light in this world. There is work to do. That includes discussions about mental illness, gun control, and more.
We can’t grow numb. This can’t be the new normal.
This has to change.
We have to change it.
Third, we have to remember that sometimes people die simply for going to church, here and around the world.
That sounds harsh until you look at the facts. Let reality sink in.
There have been shootings at churches across the US. I’ve put my fingers in the bullet holes at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, where two people were shot and killed in 2007 and more wounded. It’s real, and it’s deadly.
Church shootings happen often enough here that there is even a church shooting database.
And, while it’s happening in the US, it’s happening even more around the world.
Sunday was also the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, a reminder for Christians to gather and ask God’s blessing and protection on believers globally. According to the 2017 World Watch List released by Open Doors, 215 million Christians experience high, very high, or extreme levels of persecution in their home countries. According to their research assessment, 2016 was the “worst year yet.”
Regardless of why the shooter did what he did, he targeted a church during worship, which speaks to at least part of his motive.
He knew he would kill Christians.
Where do we go from here?
We think about security a lot in churches today. Before the shooting in Sutherland Springs, I joked with the security ministry team at Moody Church in Chicago where I was preaching. We probably won’t be so casual next week.
When we as believers made a commitment to follow Christ, that commitment included sacrificing all and following Him even unto death. For many of the victims in Texas, they died doing what they and we believe is the most important thing. They woke up, they committed themselves to going to church, to prayer, to fellowship, to breaking of bread, just as the Bible explains in Acts 2:42.
And, then their lives were cut short.
Pastor Frank ended his message last week inviting people to trust Christ. That seems difficult right now, but one thing we can do is what Frank said: “Maybe it’s time to quit fighting it and say, ‘Lord, here I am. I see heaven in the future. I see your glory before me. That’s where I want to go. How do I get there?’”
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I asked Kevin Cornelius, pastor of the neighboring First Baptist Church in Karnes City, Texas, about the situation as he and others are there, on site, dealing with the pain.
He said, “The church still works. We don’t have a plan, but we have a community. We don’t have answers but we have grace and peace. We don’t understand, but we’re present. Our hearts are breaking, but we have hope and we’re giving it away as quick as we can.”
Indeed, there’s more for us to do as Christians. Much more. We must honor the victims’ sacrifice by trusting the Lord in the midst of the pain, not growing numb to this tragic pattern, and acknowledging Christians’ faith in the face of death – in a small Texas town and around the world.