While the suddenness and pain of a crisis often interrupts family, school, and work schedules, it usually does not disrupt worship itself. Worship goes on, but pastors and worship planners need to acknowledge the crisis in some way and answer the question of the people, which is usually: “Is there any word from the Lord in this situation?”
Worship planners and pastors will want to ask some questions like the ones below when working on the Sunday-after-the-crisis service, whether it’s a national emergency, natural disaster, tragedy in the community, or trauma in the life of the congregation or its members:
- How close is the crisis to our congregation?
- Does the text with which we have already been working for this service have words to address the crisis?
- What other parts of worship may address the crisis, such as prayers, songs, readings, offerings?
- What will be the duration of the crisis; that is, is it an unfolding situation that may be addressed through worship at other times? or elsewhere?1
Pastors and worship planners need to consider the elements of the service through new filters because of the crisis. They need to realize that because of the crisis or calamity, the “acoustics” of the situation have changed and the gospel will be heard differently. That’s why the message of Psalm 46 was so poignant for Americans in the weeks following 9/11. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” was heard through ears that had been opened in a new way by the terrifying attacks on the United States.
The normal themes of the church year are also affected by these new acoustics; they “sound” different in a turbulent time. Congregations going through a crisis may find certain seasons in the church year more difficult to observe because their circumstances either intensify or contradict the meaning of the season. For instance, the longing and waiting of Advent may seem more urgent in a time of crisis. Church members may need a gentle leader to help them understand why they have difficulty singing Christmas carols in the aftermath of a crisis—or why they may want to sing only carols and avoid the feelings evoked by Advent hymns. With careful guidance, they may discover in Advent a new appreciation for the longing reflected in Scripture.
On the other hand, a time of crisis may bring deeper meaning to a particular time of year. For instance, in a Lenten season that occurs during or soon after a crisis, the contemplation of Christ’s suffering may be particularly comforting to parishioners in pain and grief. Wise worship planners tune their ears to the new acoustics brought by the crisis, and make adjustments accordingly.
Often in difficult situations the impulse of leaders is to pretend that everything is fine and therefore not to “mess up” the worship service—especially if the crisis has to do with an internal problem like a firing or the sudden departure of a pastor or staff person. Some may assume, or hope, that ignoring the problem will be better for the people. However, if the matter is public knowledge, then avoiding mention of it may be counterproductive. The people will already be somewhat disturbed, so ignoring the obvious may only heighten their stress. A better way to lower the congregation’s anxiety would be to acknowledge the difficulty publicly, both honestly and prudently, and to make it a matter of prayer. One church-shopping couple visited a congregation on the day the suspension of its pastor was announced. They kept coming to see how the church would respond and observed the honest and open way it dealt with the crisis. They are still members of that congregation 15 years later.
Worship planners and leaders will need to anticipate the reaction of their own congregation to the crisis and what the needs of the people will be, and that will require communication with the leadership body of the congregation. They need to ask:
- Do parishioners need information? Comfort? Stability? An action plan?
- Will they feel angry? Afraid? Shocked? Sad? Bewildered?
- Will this difficulty be short-lived? Long-term? Or will it cause permanent damage?
All of these needs and emotions may arise and can be acknowledged by careful service planners through the words they choose and the readings they offer. Sensitivity to timing is also important. Wise worship planners will be sure to give the congregation some breathing room as well—some “time off” from the crisis. Like counselors, they need to remember that the therapeutic hour is only 50 minutes and that everyone needs a break from dealing with difficult issues.
Themes for Worship in Times of Crisis
Worship planners will want to discern carefully the biblical themes that will be most helpful in the context of a particular crisis. Jill Hudson argues that even those churches that don’t usually follow the lectionary may want to in difficult times. She notes that in a crisis the prevailing question often is “Why did this happen?” and then, also, “Why did God let this happen?” In the face of such questions, pastors and worship planners may want to look to the lectionary for guidance because it follows the ongoing story of God’s faithfulness to God’s people. Focusing on that story may be “the most consistent way of demonstrating that God does not break promises.”2 Furthermore, the congregation is likely to find itself connecting with that story in new ways in this situation.
For congregations that don’t follow the lectionary and decide to address the crisis more directly through special themes, here are a few suggestions:
- God’s providential care for all creation and creatures (Ps. 55:22, Matt. 10:29; Acts 14:15-17, 17:24-28; Rom. 8:38-39)
- God’s promise always to be with us (Isa. 43:1-3, Matt. 28:20)
- God’s promise of forgiveness and reconciliation (Eph. 2, 1 John 1)
- God’s call for justice and peace (Amos 5, Micah 6)
Other overarching biblical themes can also be fitting in times of crisis, such as the ongoing narrative of redemptive history, the promise of forgiveness through the cross, the eschatological hope in the second coming, and the restoration of the new heavens and the new earth. In worship we can move the focus beyond ourselves to the bigger family of God and God’s plan for the world, which is far beyond our understanding. We can trust in God’s providence—that indeed all things work together for good for those who love God—even when the situation we face doesn’t seem good at all. As Professor John Cooper of Calvin Theological Seminary explains:
“All things” does not necessarily mean “each and every thing.” More likely it means “the totality of things.” Understanding it this way implies that God may allow some instances of evil and suffering that do not lead to greater good. But his whole plan, ordained from before the foundation of the world, does work together for the good of those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). That plan includes bad things that God does directly turn to our good. It includes perplexing things whose purpose takes a while to figure out. It includes awful things that are much worse than any good that comes from them. But all of these things work together for the ultimate good according to God’s plan. The Gospel is that whether or not bad things lead to good things, God is always with us, loving and sustaining us even through the greatest pain and darkest despair. “Nothing. . . will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39 [NIV]).3
Helping the congregation to remember God’s lov
e and to look ahead and trust in God’s ultimate purposes for the kingdom of Christ can bring hope and comfort in the wake of a crisis. Knowing that the world and the church are in God’s hands assures us that we will not be in distress forever. Communicating these important themes of assurance in each element of the worship service is essential in times of crisis.
1. Carol M. Norén, In Times of Crisis and Sorrow: A Minister’s Manual Resource Guide (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 64.
2. Jill M. Hudson, Congregational Trauma: Caring, Coping, and Learning (Herndon, Va.: Alban Institute, 1998), 95.
3. John W. Cooper, “The Problem of Evil: The Shipwreck of Faith?” Calvin Theological Seminary Forum 13, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 7.
Excerpted from Stilling the Storm: Worship and Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go towww.alban.org/permissions.asp.
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