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Crises Will Come to Your Community. How Do You and Your Church Respond?

There are some things that God has brought to mind in our church over the past week. These are things not tied to programming or ministry events, but out of a response to a community crisis.

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Photo credit: neil cummings on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

You see, last week a story ran on our local news stations regarding a crime committed in the Mayport area of our city (Jacksonville, Florida.) A young man robbed an internet cafe, then escaped from the facility with police in pursuit. He ended up in a neighboring community where he was running through yards, jumping fences, and eventually found a back door open (the screen door was closed due to the nice weather) at a home where he entered, kidnapped the elderly man who lived there, then stole the resident's vehicle. A high-speed police chase developed with the suspect in the driver's seat and the elderly man in the backseat. At a speed in excess of 100 miles per hour, the driver ran over two police officers, leaving them in critical condition and after a PIT maneuver by a pursuing officer, the vehicle crashed, leaving the driver and the kidnapped victim gravely injured.

This is an amazingly terrible story and when I saw it on the news that day, I was shocked.

Later than afternoon I received a phone call from our campus minister at Oak Harbor Baptist Church (OHBC), Brian Hoffman. OHBC is a revitalization we are leading at a small, fifty-year-old church in the Mayport community. We have been working and partnering with this congregation for almost three years. Brian asked if I had seen the news and then told me that the gentleman who was kidnapped was Louis Reese, one of our deacons at the church who has been key to our ministry and revitalization efforts.

I was shocked and a flood of emotions came over me. I know that whenever a story like this hits the news that it represents real people in very real circumstances. However, like most people who read trending news stories or who actually watch local broadcasts, there are always other stories presented and the impact of the initial one often fades as commercials and others are shared.

In this case, it was clear that this story would not fade away for me. It would not disappear, at least from the minds of the OHBC church members, the neighbors and friends of Louis in his subdivision, or the officers and family members impacted. The family of the suspect would be viewing this news story closely as well.

Since last Wednesday when this occurred, we have held a prayer meeting, under the guidance of our campus minister, Brian. We have given interviews with numerous media outlets to get the word out regarding the prayer and the online giving option available where we are collecting funds for our church member and the two officers who were injured. Many in the community have joined us in this journey. We have sought to keep those informed of the latest updates as we asked for prayer for Louis and all involved.

Sadly, on Tuesday of this week (January 8) our brother and deacon Louis Reese died. His body was badly injured and after valiant work being done by the doctors and nurses of Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, God brought Louis home. We are deeply grieved and yet, so very hopeful. We know where Louis is. He is in no pain. These are not simply religious sounding "funeral words" to help the living cope. These are truths based on the goodness and grace of God and of Louis's surrender to Christ as his Lord and Savior. It was Louis who stated his desire to see many in the Mayport community come to know the Lord as he himself had through the ministry of God's church at Oak Harbor Baptist. Though he never dreamed that these circumstances would possibly lead to that, we are confident that God's message of hope and salvation is being proclaimed through the life and legacy of Louis Reese.

As we now plan a funeral service for our loved one, we are reminded of his desire that Christ alone be honored. What a legacy! What a lesson for his church (OHBC) and His church throughout the world. 

What To Remember When Crisis Hits 

  • Don't Waste Your Crisis - Years ago John Piper wrote a book titled Don't Waste Your Cancer. This was written as he was undergoing treatment for the disease and has been a helpful resource for many who have faced similar trials. In our case, we know that the tragic, evil, and seemingly random events of last week have impacted many in our city. Through these difficult times, God provides peace, hope, and help. To ignore this reality is to ignore an opportunity to live out one's faith and to let others see the hope we have in Christ. This is not easy and this is not an opportunity for the church to grandstand or take advantage of circumstances. It is, however, a time "such as this" when the church must firmly and clearly, even through grief, present the fullness of the gospel. 
  • Your Church's Address Is Not An Accident - It was just a few years ago that OHBC was at a point of crisis regarding survival. After months of prayer and meetings with other churches and associational leaders, hard decisions were to be made. This is not uncommon among many of our smaller churches in America. The glory days of ministry are often gone and the realization of next steps often leads to either a revitalization or replanting effort, or sadly in some cases, the dissolution of the church and sale of property. OHBC is located in an area with great need. There are two large schools next door (an elementary and a middle school.) There are two large trailer parks nearby. There are numerous subdivisions of homes and a large number of duplexes and multi-housing facilities as well. The Navy base is just a few miles away. There is a large military and civil service population nearby. While there are other churches in the region, there is no church on the road where OHBC is within such close proximity to all these people. It is no accident that OHBC is located where it is - in the middle of a "field" where the "harvest is ready." Sometimes, we long for the people who used to live near us and in so doing, program and do ministry for a people group that no longer exists. OHBC is positioned to minister to many who now are living in fear due to the criminal activity that made the news, struggling to know what to do next, and have many questions related to faith, among other things. This is true for every church plant (even those who didn't get into the property they initially desired) and established church (even those who are placed in a community that has changed dramatically.) We must remember that we are where God has planted us, for his glory and the good of his church and the community surrounding it.
  • Crises Will Come, Be Prepared to Respond - No one looks for a crisis moment. You shouldn't. Yet, they happen. In small towns, rural areas, and big cities there are moments when things occur that thrust the community out of its "regularly scheduled programming." This may be a storm, a tornado, a hurricane, or some other natural disaster. It may be a closing of a factory or a base leaving many fearful for their economic future and stability. It could be a crime, such as we have experienced. The fact is we live in a broken world. Sin has infected all of creation from the moment of Adam and Eve's betrayal to God and his commands. Yet, we do not live as those without hope. We do not believe God to be good only when everything in our lives is going according to our preferences and plans. We do not worship a God who performs for us. We lives surrendered to a God we do not deserve to know personally, but can through Jesus Christ. In the crises, we hold tight to this faith, showing and sharing with others that all else falls apart when the world is falling apart. Christ alone, our hope in crises. Our hope and salvation. The crises will test your theology. You can pass the test. That's God's desire.
  • Have a Public Voice, But Be Clear and Hopeful - There are many religious people who have found the microphones over the years during moments of crisis. Some seek to bring attention to themselves. Here are my recommendations when giving interviews and speaking to the public at these times:
    • Have One Voice - Whether it is the Lead Pastor of your church or another designated spokesperson, have one person speak to the media from the church. This allows for clarity and a solid, concise message.
    • Share Hope - Crises are difficult, thus the name. There's a flood of responses and emotions that come from fear, anger, worry, etc. Don't minimize these. Address them. Share that you have them as well, but always be clear that hope is available and it is found in Christ. You don't have to preach a sermon, but a clear, focused, quick message of hope that comes from Christ is needed. Don't forget that.
    • Provide a Press Release - If possible, and the crisis is something where many are seeking an interview or a statement, provide a written press release that can be emailed or faxed (yes those still exist) to the news media and reporters. This allows the words to be thought through, clear, spelled correctly, with information on follow-up if need be. There is an acceptable format for such and it would be wise to use that. Click here for a good template and example (don't forget the hashtags at the bottom - that's protocol, not decoration.)
    • Stay On Target - When interviewing, especially with various outlets about a story, you need to realize that you will be talking to people who are doing their job and also competing with the others doing the same job in order to get the story, a different take on the story, or a unique perspective. Be careful to stay on target with the information you provide. If there are medical issues, don't respond to those questions. If there are legal issues, don't respond to those questions. If there are questions about the person's past or relatives, don't go there. These questions are common and will come. Be wise. Stay on the story of the moment. In our case, it was about praying for the health and recovery of our loved one and the officers injured. Remember, whatever is said will be aired, printed, and posted online. In most cases, you're speaking for the church, not the family, neighbors, etc. This is vital to remember. 
    • Don't Overstep - As stated in the above point, you are speaking for the church. Unless the family has designated you or your church's representative as their mouthpiece, do not speak for them. Don't post updates or events related to the crisis online (especially if it is related to a person, not a natural disaster, etc.) without approval of family members or those impacted. No one wants to learn the latest family update from an online post rather than from a family member.

We are continuing to journey through this crisis as a church family. We are hopeful and confident in Louis's eternal home and the legacy he leaves. Please join us in praying for his family as well as others who have been so greatly impacted by these events. May we be viewed by our Heavenly Father as a church that responded well, brought Him glory, and provided good to our world.

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