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reuben munn – preaching in crisis

As I sat watching the unfolding horror of the Christchurch earthquake aftermath on TV last week, I have to admit that one of my concerns was a bit more selfish: does this mean I need to throw out this week’s sermon and start over? Our church is in Auckland and many people in the congregation weren’t directly affected by the event. But we were all shocked at what happened and wanted to show our solidarity with and support for Cantabrians. Should I completely rewrite my message in view of the tragedy, or stick to the message I had prepared?

That’s a difficult question for preachers, especially because in the case of crisis events we are often forced to answer it quickly. In this case I had several days before Sunday, but disasters can arise at the last minute and throw everything up in the air. It is worth thinking through how we as preachers determine our response to such events.

There are certainly times when it is appropriate to set aside whatever we have prepared and address the situation directly. Maybe this is what Paul meant when he told Timothy to be ready to preach the word “out of season” as well as in season. Those out-of-season moments come when unexpected events are weighty and significant enough that they need to be spoken into from the pulpit. When the hearts and minds of our congregation are gripped by a tragedy (even if they’re not directly affected by it), we risk becoming disconnected and irrelevant if we ignore it in our preaching. Moreover we lose an opportunity to help interpret that event biblically and give expression to the grief and hurt people may feel. Even though it may require some late night hours of rewriting, it is worth it to bring the gospel to bear on the realities of life that are confronting us.

For events that are not as close to home, or not as serious (I know, this is subjective—how do you apply scientific criteria to these things?) it may be appropriate to carry on with the message we’ve planned, but find another way to address the situation in the service. This could be through a pastoral prayer, a special offering, or comments we make at the beginning of our message before launching in.

I chose to rework my existing message around the Christchurch earthquake. I was planning to speak on Ecclesiastes 1 and there is a natural affinity between that passage and the sense of futility we feel at the devastation the quake has caused. And the earthquake has reminded of the fragility and transience of life, which the writer of Ecclesiastes laments. This approach seems best when we are already working with a passage that speaks into the situation. The danger is that we end up twisting the passage to make it fit the circumstances and try to make it say something it’s not really saying. So we need to be careful that we are still being lead by the text, while making application to the situation.

I’m aware that my task is nothing compared to that of preachers in Christchurch who will be standing before congregations on Sunday that are suffering deeply. I pray they may be given grace and strength to speak an out-of-season word through which God brings hope and healing.

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Reuben Munn is Senior Pastor of Shore Community Church on Auckland’s North Shore. He also preaches on the TV programme Connection Point, a ministry of SCC, which screens on Shine TV. He enjoys reading and is a keen piano player.

4 Comments

  1. Mark Maffey says:

    An interesting conundrum. I guess part of the answer is the lead in time you have before Sunday. With the Chinese Earthquake happening on late friday,I think the best response is not to try and re-calibrate a sermon to take account of the event, but rather to lead a pastoral prayer in the service on Sunday. Then the next week having had some time to pray and meditate seek out God’s will for your sermon the following week.

    If we have time to re-work a message, i.e. a few days out then it is appropriate, and I believe if we are following what we believe to be God’s plan for our congregation then it will not be chance that a passage like Ecclesiastes was already being prepared.

    For a such a time as this we do need to take account of the grief, the emotions that people are working through, and in some way enable them to work through the process with an understanding of how their God is with them in the situation.

  2. shaun hutson says:

    hey reuben
    this was the subject of an email floating among my fellow carey pl graduates as we begin pastoral ministry.
    as i am in greymouth, and we have been looking at this a bit, I was aware that there would be, (and was), people from chch visiting us on sunday.
    my final decision was to stick with my planned text.
    we are working through the ‘signs’ in John, and I thought Jesus was about as apt a subject as i could find.

    we did have a open time for people to share ‘whatever’ and I was struck by one lady from christchurch who got up to share about the issues facing her home country, and the death of the pastor there, by heart attack.
    as i learnt due to proximity to the mangatipopo tragedy, no matter how huge or terrible a situation is, there will be many people for whom it is NOT the biggest issue in their lives at the time.
    preachers need to keep this in mind, when tailoring sermons to fit perceived distress.

    maybe if I was somewhere else in scripture i may have changed, but I cannot say.
    not sure of the season down here
    but
    God is great

  3. carogerdb says:

    How we dealt with it was the sermon on Sunday, yes, but also through the week as we opened the church for prayer. See our sermon archive entry for that week for more details: tbc-sermons.livejournal.com; it ‘just so happened’ that the specific aspect of the disaster I wanted to address (after pastoral prayer) tied in directly with what came out of the passage I was preaching that week. I think it is very rarely that the scriptures are not applicable to the big issues of life.

  4. Laura says:

    I really appreciated Reuben’s sermon and prayer time that Sunday after the earthquake.
    As I led youth group that night I too wondered how much to overlap with the events that were so clearly in everyone’s minds. But I agree Shaun, I knew that for many of the teenagers, this wasn’t a priority for them. They might not have known anyone involved or just couldn’t understand what had happened and so weren’t processing it or choosing to ignore it. I was honest about that and offered that as a genuine place to be at. I wanted them to know that whatever they were feeling was ok; whether that was questions or doubts or, even, nothing at all.

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