How a church responded to the Newtown and Navy Yard shootings. How it was the best and worst responses that were seen in evangelical Christianity. Why a church should lead and respond to grief in its backyard.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good”
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.Is he both able and willing? Then whence come evil? Is he neither able nor willing ? Then why call him God?
When I was in my faith crisis there was one issue above all others that drove me the most. That one issue was the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil was like gasoline on a fire, it drove, and drove and drove me. Time and again when I read the Washington Post, listened to WTOP, etc… it was a constant stream on the Problem of Evil. Another murder, another terrorist attack somewhere, fraud against the Elderly, a woman being gang raped, or a Youth Pastor who was a pedophile who sexually abused a number of young people. There was no end to the Problem of Evil. During my faith crisis I showed up at churches and tried to ask questions, interact with Pastors and pleaded with them to explain the Problem of Evil. Many times people didn’t know what to say when an agnostic at the time walked into a church off the street. Many times churches could not help that person. In late 2012 I somehow ended up an Fairfax Community Church…one of a long list of places that I was trying. And during my time at Fairfax Community Church (FCC) I would see the best of evangelicalism shine and the worst of it as well. And it centered around how Fairfax Community responded to the Problem of Evil.
Newtown Shooting Response
First let’s address how FCC (note this is not to be confused with Fairfax Covenant Church) responded to the December 14, 2012 shootings at Sandyhook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. You’re familiar with what happened in Newtown, and how Adam Lanza went on a shooting spree inside an elementary school. 26 people lost their lives, and it ended with Adam Lanza committing suicide inside the school. The massacre was the second worst in US history, with the Virginia Tech being first. I still remember watching the early reports coming in over CNN and that feeling of dread in my stomach at the news. Learning about the details made me sick. It was a question that begged an answer…what kind of loving God would allow 20 children and 6 adults to be killed in an elementary school?
As I said during this time I was at Fairfax Community Church. I was looking for a place that had some intellectual depth to it, some teeth, a place that was not fluff. One of the major problems with evangelicalism is that it is a mile wide and about an inch thick. Lots of “happy clappy” but really no substance in many quarters. Since the evangelical culture is largely anti-intellectual I believe that this was one of the problems that occurred when I was asking deep, philosophical questions germane to the Problem of Evil. And I also have come to the conclusion that it helped drag out my faith crisis maybe by a few years.
At FCC that Sunday morning December 16, the service was lead by Dan Turner. I did not know that Dan Turner was a Pastor at Northwest Community Church. Initially I thought he was on staff at FCC. I had shown up late and was still driven by the Problem of Evil, which had been reignited by the Sandy Hook shootings. Most of the time I usually hung out in the back as I wanted to be anonymous. When your professing agnosticism the last place you want to be identified in is a church; after all I would have preferred to have been identified in a porn shop any day. I honestly feared being known or spotted at church. That Sunday morning I was late and the only place I could find a seat was in the first row. While sitting there I was struck by watching evangelicals worship, and cry for what happened in an elementary school in Connecticut. Evangelicals are not known for their lament…most of evangelicalism doesn’t know how to mourn, grieve, and deal with the issue of pain and suffering. That perception was seriously challenged that Sunday morning. And that perception was further challenged when Dan Turner gave his talk.
In a sermon Dan remarked how the last time he preached at Fairfax Community there was a mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. He spoke about how 26 candles were lit for the 26 people who were killed at Sandy Hook. He then proceeded to talk about pain and suffering and weaved in what occurred in Sandy Hook into his talk that Sunday morning. He spoke about how God enters into the pain, and the questions that flow from such a tragedy. Where was God in such a senseless act? What kind of God sits on the sidelines and allows something like Sandy Hook to occur? Why didn’t he intervene? He challenged us that if angry we could yell at God and express our displeasure, even pointing out how 60% of the Psalms deal with anger. He pressed on during the sermon and talked about other acts of violence in the Bible that were senseless including Herod’s slaughter of children. And how the darkness that is in the Bible is still present today. He addressed how God knew what it was like to lose a child. He then closed the talk in prayer and prayed for the 26 people killed in Sandy Hook, and he also prayed for the Lanza family.
For me and given my struggle with the Problem of Evil that Sunday morning I had met something that helped me immensely. I saw a sermon that had some intellectual teeth to it, and wasn’t afraid of discussing hard issues. Even more appropriate the service addressed a critical and pressing issue that was on the minds of those who attend. Why did God allow such an evil act to occur? And at the same time the Pastor led the congregation in mourning. A pastor who leads effectively can be one of the best tools of Protestantism. I was impressed and I walked away from church that morning deeply contemplating what I had witnessed. When the sermon was uploaded online I would listen to it several more times in chewing on the Problem of Evil and Pain and Suffering. It was due to this talk that I decided to give FCC a chance and pursue my doubts there. The way the situation was handled…addressing a critical faith issue, an opportunity to mourn as a body, a Pastor leading the congregation in mourning, and taking a step back from the usual routine stunned me. It was one of the best times I saw evangelical Christianity shine. For the first time in a long time a church acted like a church.
Navy Yard Shooting Response
While the reaction to Newtown represented the best response I feel to the Problem of Evil by a church that I witnessed; sadly this would be offset by a casual and largely no response to the Navy Yard shootings which took place in FCC’s backyard of Washington, D.C.
The Navy Yard shootings took place on Monday September 16, 2013. On a Monday morning in the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command a lone gunman, Aaron Alexis, who was mentally ill went on a shooting spree and killed 12 people. On his rampage he also injured 3. He was finally killed by the police. It was the second deadliest shooting on a US military base. When the Navy Yard shootings began to unfold I was horrified and reminded yet again as to how pervasive the Problem of Evil is in the world. Later on the images I saw on CNN of gunman carrying a sawed off shotgun inside a professional office building would be deeply disturbing to look at. When the shooting happened I wondered what FCC would do? How would they respond? I had hoped for a similar response to Newtown, after all this happened in the Washington, D.C. area. Not only that but I was quite certain that a number of people from FCC worked at the Navy Yard and was personally affected as a result.
The following Sunday September 22, the response at FCC just stunned me and left me perplexed. There were a few words by the worship leader Jay Kim but the series they were doing continued unabated by John Falke. There was no pause to talk about what happened. No sermon about the Problem of Evil and how we should we respond. No discussion lead by a Pastor on where was God inside the massacre at the Naval Sea Systems Command. No Pastoral leadership of a congregation or guidance. No…nothing happened it was almost as if nothing had happened. It was like the evangelical circus must continue. When I heard the sermon and saw how the church responded I was deeply disgusted at the epic fail I saw play out that Sunday morning.
After the service I had a number of questions and issues of which I was personally struggling. The response to Newtown had deeply impressed me. As an agnostic (or militant atheist depending upon who you talk to…) at the time I became convinced that FCC could be the place that could help me deal with the doubts I was struggling with. Perhaps I could find an answer to my questions of the Problem of Evil there. Now after seeing how they responded to the Navy Yard shooting I was unsure if FCC would be capable of spiritually helping me. But after the Navy Yard shooting these were some of the questions that went through my mind.
- What good is a church that ignores the pain in the community it claims to serve? The Navy Yard shootings happened right in FCC’s back yard. Washington, D.C. was reeling in pain and people were asking questions.
- What about people who maybe showed up at FCC that morning having questions? Did they walk away with their questions unanswered? If people came to FCC asking, “What kind of loving God allows something so evil to take place?” Were the sheep there guided and led by a shepherd? I would say they were not.
- Another thought that popped up in my mind. Washington, D.C. is a military town and did FCC realize how this affected the military community? Or did this shooting reveal another side to FCC, a side that showed how deeply the church leadership lives in a bubble, to the point that they don’t know what is happening in the community around them.
In winding this down I have to state that this was the biggest fail I had seen by a church on how to respond to a tragedy in its community. It was hard for me to realize that both reactions could come by the same church. And yet its pretty indicative of the issues in evangelical Christianity. In the course of time there were other issues that troubled me at Fairfax Community. Here are some of them:
- I was honestly puzzled as to why it could be easier to get involved in the atheist community when I brushed against those circles than a church. Plus I was amazed as to how they didn’t have much in regards to Men’s Ministries, retreats or other programs that I’ve seen in other churches. When I inquired the answer I got was, “We follow the Tim Keller model.” So when does Tim Keller become the final word on authority? Or does this just illustrate the problem of fads in evangelicalism and a church being caught up in the latest one?
- There was an authoritarian situation that reared its ugly head by a Pastor that stunned me. I felt it was handled poorly, deeply impacted another person, and led me to shake my head in disgust. In many parts of evangelicalism there are Pastors who forget that leading the sheep is a privilege and not a right. Trust is earned by gentle love and guidance.Out of concern for what happened I ran the situation by another person to get their response and my feelings were confirmed. Sometimes its healthy to get a fresh set of eyes to look at a problem.
- Against all these other problems FCC became more and more consumed with growth. This is a common problem in evangelicalism today. In time they became fixated with a church plant in Maryland. To the best of my knowledge that church plant wasn’t laid out before the church and the church wasn’t asked if this is something we should do. Therefore many people couldn’t “buy into the concept”. Worse Fairfax Community Church has a problem of people falling through the cracks at its Fairfax location and can’t be a good steward of what they currently have. So why the focus on growth? Isn’t that going to make a bad situation worse?
In the course of time those issues above weighed me down more and more. However, I stayed due to a commitment I made to a small group. However, when that fell apart I made a decision that it is time to move forward. The first church experience I had after spending half a decade away from Christianity would be problematic. Yes I got baptized there, but I also was realizing that it could not meet my spiritual needs. Against that I had to find another way forward. For those loyal to that tribe it should be noted that I still believe in God so my salvation shouldn’t be questioned. I’m just looking for a place that will allow this pilgrim to move forward.