By Russell Moore
Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
The past week reeks of blood. We saw the cellphone videos of black men killed by police officers in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. We saw a terrorist ambush on police in Dallas, killing at least five officers and injuring seven. The country reels beneath all this violence. So how should a pastor speak to this on Sunday? Here are a few suggestions.
1) Pray specifically for the families of those killed, by name.
One of the most chilling aspects of the violence we see around us is the attempt at invisibility, as though those who are killed lived lives that didn’t matter. This is not new. After Cain killed Abel, he chafed at even the reminder of his existence (Gen. 4). Read aloud as you pray the names that we have:
Pray not only for their families to be comforted, but also for justice to be served, that others—whether police officers protecting a rally or African-American young men in any given city in America—would no longer be unjustly killed.
2) Lead your congregation in a time of lament.
Too often our worship is discordant from both the example of the Bible and the lived experience of our people. A peppy song service of easy celebration does not speak to a time such as this. The Psalms are filled with examples of lament, many of them about fear of violence or about the fact that injustice seems so often to “win” in this life. Choose hymns, songs, and spiritual songs that can speak to such. The specifics are going to depend on the “language” of hymnody your church employs. A reading of a lament from the Psalms (such as Psalm 74 or Psalm 90) would be appropriate.
3) Before you preach, ask where the minds and affections of your people are.
Some have asked if I would put forward a sermon outline for pastors to use this Sunday. That’s impossible because the needed comfort or correction will vary from church to church. Look at the social media feeds of your church members. Consider your conversations with them. If it seems that your church ignored the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, then it may well be that the struggles of black lives are invisible to your people; speak to that. If it seems that your church members were concerned greatly about the injustices apparent in those situations (and the many just like them) but don’t know to think or pray about the attack in Dallas, speak to that. Ask before you preach whether most people in your congregation are angry, scared, confused, defensive, or apathetic. Knowing that will illuminate you on where your people need to be led by the Word of God.
4) As you preach, consider these biblical truths, all of which are bound up in this crisis.
The Sanctity of Human Life and the Sin of Murder (Matt. 5:21-22)
The Truth that God Knows about Lives We Deem Not Worthy of Life (Gen. 4:1-10; Jas. 5:1-6)
The Unity of the Church as the Global People of God (Rev. 5:1-14; Eph. 2:11-22; Gal. 3:1-29)
The Need for the Church to Bear One Another’s Burdens (Gal. 6:2)
The Mandate for Justice to Be Impartial (Prov. 17:15)
The Good Calling of the Authorities Responsible for Public Safety and Order (Rom. 13:1-7)
5) Remember the counter-cultural witness of the church
In a time of national disunity, God has called the church to model unity. Ask how your church is doing at this point. Does your church look like the people in your mission field around you, or are you a mono-ethnic church in a multiethnic community? If so, ask why.
In a time of fear, God has called the church to be courageous. Many are fearful that the violence we’ve seen is a sign of a fracturing American social fabric. That may well be. Even so, we are part of a social order that transcends and will outlast the American one (Phi. 3:20-21). We can pray for our country with concern and yet do that not as the pagans do, who have no hope.
6) Consider a word of testimony.
If your church is one that can easily identify with the plight of police officers but not with those of African-Americans grieving the deaths of those shot by police, consider asking an African-American parent to speak for a few moments of what he or she experiences with worries about his or her child. If your church is one that is grieved and angry about the way black lives don’t seem to matter but does not know how to grieve for police officers slain in the course of duty, perhaps ask a godly law enforcement officer to speak about how he or she seeks to live out the ethic of Jesus in maintaining public order. In either case, pray then not only for the person who has offered testimony but for all who are in similar situations.
7) Start and end with good news.
A week filled with violence will shake people, and can remind them of their mortality. Such a week will also remind them of the persistence of sin, both individual and corporate, in the fallen world around us. Our sense of outrage at injustice can remind us that our sense of justice points beyond us to the Judgment Seat of Christ. Remind people then that they are created in the image of God, and loved by him. Call people to see that their secret sins are not secret and will be exposed at judgment. Warn people that life is fleeting. Point people to Jesus Christ who lived out the life we cannot live, bore in his own body the judgment of our sin, and was raised from the power of death. Offer the gospel as the only word that can reconcile us to God and then to each other.