What can we preach in moments of crisis?

There are moments in life when everything suddenly stands still—moments when an item of news or something we have witnessed changes everything in us and around us for the worse, perhaps for a short time, perhaps forever. Some of these moments are inevitable, yet are still traumatic, such as illness and death, and others are more unexpected—such as a terrorist attack ripping through the fabric of a community, or a tragic event that cuts a life short. There was a time when our awareness of such events would have been limited, but now our phones and televisions sear these moments into our consciousness with a frequency and ferocity that can be overwhelming. And still, in moments such as these, the people of God gather to worship, waiting to hear what the preacher has to say. We as preachers are called to get up and speak despite ourown confusion and con icting emotions.

So begins the latest Grove Pastoral booklet on Preaching in a Crisis by Robert Beamish, minister of Prince’s Drive Baptist Church, Colwyn Bay. It addresses an issue that every preacher must face at some time or another—and since we won’t know when this arises, have we thought about it ahead of time?

Responding to a crisis pastorally in the pulpit requires the preacher to exercise discernment drawn from their knowledge of the congregation and the crisis itself. This is a process which can take time, and time is often in short supply when crisis comes. The Rev’d Dr Paul Mathole, waking up in Manchester the morning after the bombing, was due to lead the BBC Radio 4 morning service a few hours later; time was not on his side. Years before, when American President John F Kennedy was assassinated, a preacher heard the news, rang the church bells and the people gathered, eager to hear a word from the Lord, and again time was not on his side. A few years ago, I was in the process of leading a service when part-way through I was given the news that a member of the church had suddenly died, and as I considered how best to respond with the congregation before me, time was not on my side.

As part of our planning ahead of time, Beamish argues that we first need to understand the dynamics of crisis moments, and what expectations they create. But we also need to understand our own response to times of crisis.

The theologian Carol Norén defines crisis as ‘an unstable or crucial time in a state of affairs, a decisive moment that may come unexpectedly and is usually unwelcome and unwanted.’ Her claim here is threefold: first, that the crisis brings instability; secondly, that it demands response; and thirdly, that it is unwanted. In her comparative study of funeral, wedding and crisis preaching, she considers how we should respond. For Norén it is the wedding sermon which presents the greatest challenge as the expectations around it are not always clear, whereas the funeral sermon is normally defined by general and liturgical convention. And in crisis she claims that ‘There is the assumption that a crisis-related sermon and service will do something: strengthen faith, lead to action, and/or create and reinforce a sense of communitas.’ How a crisis sermon goes about meeting assumptions of what it will do will depend on our understanding of the type of crisis being faced…

Important here is how we deal with our own response to the crises around us and also any personal crises we are facing ourselves. Joseph Jeter comments that ‘So many times we step into the pulpit out of the wreckage of our own lives.’ Those moments when we are experiencing our own emotional devastation are those moments when God’s grace can be most on display, but we must be honest with ourselves as to how we are really feeling. As an example, barely a week after I buried my own mother I took the funeral for someone else’s mother, and I can reflect now on how broken I felt at the time and how that affected my engagement with that grieving family.

Of course, the primary resource that we draw on is our understanding of God in the Scriptures, and particularly in the psalms, including their vivid expressions of lament.

I remember being surprised by a preacher who focused only on the psalms of praise and thanksgiving and ignored the psalms of lament. These psalms, where the writers cry out to God, are amongst the most valuable in the psalter. They give us permission to express to God how we are feeling when faced with a crisis, and that is an essential part of processing the experience. Not to lament is dangerous, as we can find ourselves suppressing how we really feel, which results in us not asking the hard but necessary questions. These questions come as we seek to understand what has happened and why. We find ourselves questioning why God would allow such a thing to happen,and this unsettles us as it is opposed to everything we want to believe about God’s character…

What we must acknowledge is that the tension between what we are experiencing and what we understand God to be like has always been there. We see this tension in the Bible, particularly in those places where the people are questioning God but remain confident in the God they know. For example, Psalm 13 begins with the cry, ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ and goes on to end with a ‘but,’ ‘but I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.’ The crisis state is acknowledged as the people lament, but the confidence in God’s presence and provision at such a time is unwavering. We see this again and again in the psalms of lament where the reality of the situation faced is contrasted with what is felt to be true of God. King David cries out in Psalm 3, ‘O Lord, how many are my foes!’ but retains his confidence in God and declares, ‘But you, O Lord, are a shield about me.’Again, in Psalm 5 David cries out for God’s attention, ‘Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning,’ at the same time as knowing that, ‘but I through the abundance of your steadfast love will enter your house.’ We see this ‘but God’ dynamic repeated explicitly and implicitly in Scripture, and it builds a picture of confidence in God in troubling times, a confidence that must be declared from the pulpit in times of crisis.

Beamish then outlines the practical elements of preaching in crisis, which must include naming the tension, naming the therapeutic presence of God, naming and remembering God’s story, and naming the ‘monster’ of the evil that is at work in creating this crisis.

The framework I propose here develops an often overlooked approach to preaching known as the law and gospel model, where the reality of our situation is acknowledged and then the good news of the gospel is brought to bear on it. This model is seen by Paul Scott Wilson as unique in its theological focus:

It is the only school of contemporary homiletics that seeks its roots in preaching as a theological act: other schools are primarily, though not exclusively, rooted in form (narrative, point form, exegetical, inductive, deductive, conversational); content (topical, doctrinal, expository, kerygmatic); rhetoric; teaching; or theatre; plus various combinations.

The model simply names our reality and then names the gospel, allowing for a movement from one to the other and for the two realities to be held in tension. What is also helpful is that the model is an inherently creative platform for developing a framework for crisis preaching…

My suggestion is that we move in the sermon from pain to promise. Using the term ‘pain’ here allows the preacher to focus on the emotional reaction to the crisis, since that is the natural response to whatever may have happened for whatever reason, whether it was our fault or brought on from elsewhere. Pain as a term adequately covers the results of sin, but clearly allows the listener to reflect honestly on their own response to the crisis.

‘Promise’ is also a particularly strong term to draw on as it resonates with thecall to embrace our responsibility to remember the story of God, which in turn resonates with the call to narrate the chaos with God’s story, as shown in the chapter before that. It is also true that the preacher can look back to the promise of grace through Christ in the Old Testament and forward through the New Testament, seeing those promises fulfilled in Christ, and then to the future and the eschatological hope that is implicit in the doctrine of the second coming of Christ. Promise is a thoroughly biblical word and a well-tested one, and with its eschatological bent it adequately encapsulates the reality of facing pain in the moment whilst acknowledging the power of the cross and its promise for the future.

The booklet draws on a wide range of theological and pastoral thinking, and includes resources for further reflection, but also offers a practical approach to planning and preaching. You can order copies post-free in the UK or as a PDF ebook from the Grove website for £3.95. Order it now, as you never know when you are going to need it!

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4 thoughts on “What can we preach in moments of crisis?”

  1. Hi Ian,

    Last year, I preached at the memorial service for Baby M in Aldershot. At that time, her death was presumed to be a tragic result of child abandonment, but her case is now being treated by the police as a murder investigation.

    On that occasion, I applied an amended version of the model you’ve described, namely: ‘Pain, Perspective and Promise’. After acknowledging the ‘pain’ of this child’s terrible fate, its impact on the community and, especially, the mother, it was important to share a different perspective about the transience of earthly life. For, it’s by way of contrast with this that Christ’s promise of the resurrection and eternal life can truly be grasped.

    I’ve shared it on this blog before, but I still think that one of most poignant examples of how to preach in moments of crisis is Charles Spurgeon’s sermon, Accidents, not Punishments, which he delivered in 1861, in the wake of two terrible train crashes:


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