Our family just moved to Dayton, Ohio. In just over two months, the city has been hit by a devastating tornado and a mass shooting.
We moved here to lead a church located in the same part of town where the shooter lived and worked. He went to the middle school where our church meets on Sundays. He worked at the Chipotle down the street where my family goes to eat.
Our reaction was first shock, then grief, then the inevitable temptation to skip ahead to the part where we move on. But as often as shootings are in the news, this time, my attention was less on the shooter or “the state of the world.” My heart was broken about the Church (meaning all the people who believe in God).
I can’t help but wonder: What if we (our church designed for people who have given up on church but not on God) had been here ten years earlier? What if the shooter had experienced people who radically lived like Jesus? Would anything be different?
This article began as a space for me to process my own thoughts and emotions about this tragedy. I shared it with a few close friends, and we found common ground. If you count yourself part of “the Church,” I hope you resonate with it. If you are someone who actively dissociates with it, my hope is that you’ll find we’re all discouraged by the same things.
In the hours after the tragedy, as new details kept breaking, I couldn’t get the phrase “We need warriors,” out of my mind. In my mind at the moment, I meant people trained to fight back against attack. Not people at the scene of the crime—that’s a whole other conversation. I mean people trained to fight back against everything prior to each day of disaster, all the baby-steps that led to it. My next thought was, “We have got to rise.” Both thoughts centered not around politicians or advocates, but the Church, the rag-tag group of people who claim to follow, and model their life after, Jesus.
There’s a verse in the Bible that says our battle isn’t “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” There is evil that faces us daily in “big” and “small” forms. Bullying, fear, bias, disrespect, greed, indifference, disengaged parenting, selfishness—the list goes on and on. We’re constantly bumping up against it in ourselves and others, and most of us are not equipped to conquer it.
In situations like this, everyone seems to have a “response” except the church. I have to believe that if followers of Jesus looked more like Jesus, we’d have fewer avoidable tragedies like El Paso and Dayton. Most everyone I know who claims to follow Jesus, (myself included) are a far cry from the type of people who originally followed him. The original disciples of Jesus grew wildly. They were able to heal and cast out demons. They took care of each other at incredible costs to themselves.
Today’s church people might be nicer than the average person on a good day. We might serve or give or show up on Sundays. But the call to truly follow Jesus would blow all of that out of the water if we really believed what it meant. When a crisis happens, yes, we should pray. Prayer is insanely powerful if it’s paired with actual belief. But belief includes action. God defines Himself as love, and that love is meant to pour through the people who follow him. God is not silent or passive or jaded.
If you’re starting to feel defensive or skeptical, I get it, but stick with me. I write this to myself as much as anyone. Some days, I just can’t look at the news. Sometimes, I just hold my kids tight and want to hide them from it all. I often blame the system or just mentally check out. But I know that the love of the God I follow can move us. It calls us to wake up and continually grow.
Wake, o sleeper. Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.
Too many of us are sleeping and might not even realize it. I long for this tragedy to be the one that shakes the Church awake. The one where we stop numbing ourselves to the epic pain and suffering around us and instead choose to engage, head-on. I pray for the day we choose to rise, and continue to rise again, when the next tragedy hits.
Don’t get me wrong. I think many of us care deeply. But we get stuck. We’re haunted by the question: what can I do? It feels like the answer is—nothing. But that’s a lie.
It feels like we can’t change the big things but we’re often unwilling to change the “small” ones.
The “small” things matter. Our actions multiply. They ripple towards ends we’ll never know. We’re constantly making the world better or worse as we move throughout the day, because whether we notice or not, the way we live impacts others. The choices we make are pushing ourselves and others closer to heaven or hell. We’re constantly making life more inspiring or depressing, ushering in love or hate, communicating value or apathy. That impacts people which directly results in the state of the world around us.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “hurt people hurt people.” You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to imagine that most of history’s most destructive people probably had some level of trauma or neglect that shaped them. Each shooter was probably impacted by someone along the way. Someone normal. Someone who thought their actions (or lack of action) towards them didn’t matter. Maybe they experienced trauma. Maybe they were bullied. Maybe no one cared enough to pull them back when they started to get off track. Or maybe they cared but didn’t know how.
How we interact with each other matters deeply.
If each of us bears the image of God, then the way we treat one another is the deepest form of worship. Every interaction with another human being is a chance to reflect the character of God and communicate the value we place on Him.
Just imagine if everyone who believes in God actually looked like Jesus. If we spoke like him. Parented like him. Healed like him. Faced evil like he did.
Imagine if we were trained to help people turn from despair to hope, apathy to sacrifice. As long as our world is breaking like this, our “niceness” isn’t going to change anything. How “good” our lives are compared to the rest of the world won’t matter. We need believers who become warriors committed to putting things back together again.
Sound hard? It will be. It will require our whole lives. Jesus stubbornly refuses to get squeezed into the margins. Jesus plays all or nothing. He’s either God or he’s not. He’s either worthy of all our focus or he’s not. He promises that we can do even greater things than he did, and we either believe him or we don’t.
You may or may not believe in God, but the best solution I see is for more and more of us to be conformed into the image of Jesus—to walk in his power and tangibly multiply his love everywhere we can. We’ll have to prayerfully dissect our hearts first. We’ll have to ask God to expose and heal our bias, passivity, apathy, resentment, or resignation before we call out anyone else’s. We’ll have to let tragedy push us to do something somewhere. We need warriors willing to do that work. It won’t happen overnight, but the more we do, the more we’ll be able to look evil in the eye and do whatever it takes to send it back to hell where it came from.
I’m not saying there aren’t political changes to be made, too. There are, but that can’t be our main hope. We were made to rise. God created humanity in his own image—and it’s an image that takes action. It’s an image that gets in the game. It’s an image that doesn’t wait for someone else to fix the problems in front of it.
How do we do that? Here are four ideas to get us started.
Get low. There’s a precedent in the Bible about kneeling before God, falling on our faces even. Each time another tragic news story breaks, actually get on your knees for two minutes and feel it. Let the brokenness of the world break you. Find our complicity in it. Choose to change.
Immerse yourself in God. Become ravenous for connection with Him. Find podcasts, music, articles, maybe even that book he wrote. Experiment with doing things He taught. Forgive an enemy. Be exceedingly generous. Stop worrying. Then evaluate what happens in you and in the world. Then do it some more even when it’s challenging.
Get a mentor. Be aggressive about finding someone who’s spiritually further along—a good parent, someone who knows how to pray, a justice advocate. Beg them to lead you to a stronger place.
Pick a fight and give it your all. Pick one place where you can pour yourself out—where you can bring heaven to earth. At the very least, it should be your home and whoever you live with. Commit to becoming the very best person to the people around you. Wherever you notice selfishness, arrogance, lack of compassion, and brokenness in yourself or others—take it seriously. Vow to stamp it out.
Let’s not turn our back on evil of any level.
Bullying at school? Invite that kid into your home. Sibling rivalry among kids? Lead them to healthy relationship. Hear someone being a “little” racist at work? Have the conversation. See a bigger issue around you? Organize a bigger solution. Mentor the kid. Start the group. Reach out to the friend you see walking the wrong way and do whatever it takes to bring them back. The brokenness of the world is traced back to the brokenness of people—ones we interact with everyday—ourselves included. And that we can change.
Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to stand and do nothing.” Or you can take James, the brother of Jesus, who said “faith without deeds is dead.”
This time, let tragedy wake us up. Thoughts, prayers, and action. We can’t change the tragedies that have already happened, but each of us can change something. If we all did, that has to be as impactful as any other plan out there. And it’s accessible—to each of us, right now. Pick a spot, and make each of your opportunities count. You may ever know who, or what, may be saved from your simple obedience.