Ministry Post-9/11: Thoughts from Leading Pastors
Today, I’ve invited several well-known pastors to reflect on doing ministry in a post 9/11 world. The question I posed to these men was: “How does living in a post-9/11 world influence the way you preach and do ministry?” Here are their responses:
Matt Chandler: 9/11 created some legitimate seriousness in what I perceived in 2001 to be a general silliness among a bulk of younger evangelicals, a comfort with the shallow end of the pool. This manifested itself in a concentration on what we should or shouldn’t be doing that was driven by moralism and wasn’t flowing from transformed hearts.
The grief, fear and shock of that day revealed that for all of the comfort in the shallow end there was a need for transcendence, greater depth, we needed deeper water. Depth that could help us understand how such things could happen, could show us where God was that day. Depth that could help us worship when everything was going wrong not just when everything was going right. An understanding of God that went beyond our personal safety, bank accounts and health. We need an understanding of the nature and character of God and how He interacts with His covenant community, how He interacts with the fallen world and where our hope should be placed.
I was just starting my last year of seminary on September 11, 2001. My theology of preaching was already pretty well set. After reading Calvin, Edwards, the Puritans, and lots of Lloyd-Jones I knew that I wanted to be a preacher that would try to give people a big picture of a big God.
9/11 didn’t change my convictions about ministry or about preaching. But it certainly confirmed that pastoral ministry could not skirt past the hard issues of life. I didn’t want a God, a theology, a view of eternity, or an approach to ministry that would look trite next to the rubble of the Twin Towers.
When 9/11 occurred, I was waking from a comfortable night’s sleep in an upscale San Antonio hotel. While dressing, I watched the news footage like most people—dumbstruck. After I gathered a good sense of what was happening, called to check on my wife and daughters in D.C., I joined my coworkers gathering in a hotel conference room for a discussion of public policy and improving the life outcomes of children and families. When I arrived, I found a room heavy with confusion, sadness, and fear. We were a collection of policy professionals from around the country—lots of us with family and friends in Washington, D. C. and New York. In the silence, confusion, and sporadic telephone connections with family were the questions, “What’s going on?” and, “Who is in control?” A few dared ask, “Is God involved in any of this?”
I was the lone evangelical Christian in a group of committed political and social progressives. I wasn’t in the room 3 minutes before everyone was looking to me for an answer and for prayer.
That scene reminds me that everyone needs to answer some basic, deep questions about life. Is God involved in my life? Who is in control? How do I explain this pain? It also taught me that, at bottom, we all need to encounter the majestic, glorious, merciful, and awesome God of the Scripture. He’s the only God there is. And when we really need Him, we need Him in all His bigness and splendor. Suffering people hardly settle for a puny god.
So, I want to preach in such a way that recognizes that the God that truly is and the God we truly need holds all things in His hand. He rules and reigns with no rivals. And when the world seems to come undone, the sovereign God of the Bible is who we need. In truth, we need that God all the time and the purpose of preaching in a post-9/11 world is to simultaneously reveal Him in sovereign glory while stripping away the mundane to expose our deep need for Him. Most of us live in a routine-induced daze that distracts us from ultimate matters. Preaching is the audible interruption of that daze to ask, “Do you see this great God? Come and love Him!”
9-11 of course did not introduce tragedy into our world, but it certainly elevated it in our public concsciousness. In a tragedy-less world, simple, practical, ‘how-to’ messages seem relevant, but in the midst of deep pain and troubling questions, “3 ways to fix x in your life” is less so. Deep calls unto deep, and a God who is better than the pain and deeper than the questions is the only thing relevant.
Since 9-11, I have found that the distinction between preaching relevantly and preaching deeply has vanished. Deep is the new relevant. (Unless, of course, by “deep” you mean parsing tenses of inconsequential, obscure Greek words or minute dimensions of theology. That is neither deep nor relevant.) If by depth we mean “depth in gospel”– showing how the God of the gospel is a superior trust than all other false idols, and how the wisdom displayed at the cross is deeper than the questions asked, then there is nothing more relevant to the modern audience than that. It sounds ironic to say, but I find the “traditional seeker sermon” to be no longer very relevant. Silly, shallow sermons may attract bored, cultural Christians from other churches, but that number is rapidly shrinking.
Increasingly our society is made up of true skeptics and fervent believers; both want, and need deep, gospel-saturated preaching. Indeed, in my observation, both are turned off through light, personality-driven entertainment.
9/11 had a profound effect on our culture by exposing the widening gap between belief and behavior among many people in our society. On that tragic day, we witnessed in horror the powerful effect of a group of people whose behavior was so intricately tied to their radical beliefs. It forced many to come to terms with what they really believe and then to ask the deeper questions of why they believe what they believe and does their belief even make a difference in their lives. People began to search for a deeper understanding of who God is, what His purposes are in the world, and how their lives fit into His plan.
This trend has produced among younger evangelicals a thirst for a faith that is rooted in a personal, deep understanding of God’s word and not just what they’ve been told all along. This has also led to a hunger for a belief system that truly does inform behavior. Christians in their 20s and 30s desire to witness the powerful effect of radically believing and living out their faith. We must take this as an opportunity to preach the full counsel of God’s word in hopes that God engenders a faith with real substance that can stand in the face of what good or evil may come.