Crisis Preaching

By Dr. Scott Gibson

The nation was shocked on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Four airplanes were hijacked. Thousands of people were killed. Preachers across the United States knew that Sunday was coming. They had to preach. They preached in the aftershock of crisis.

Sometimes the crises people face are personal: the diagnosis of cancer or the loss of a job. Still, the preacher has to preach. Other crises are more local, congregational--the unexpected death of a faithful church member or the untimely death of the president of the youth group in an automobile accident. Yet, the preacher has to preach. Other crises have broader public impact, like the assassination of President Kennedy or even the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The entire country felt the shock waves of the tragedy. The calamity took place on Tuesday, but every preacher knew that Sunday was coming.

What do preachers say in their sermons in the fallout of a national crisis? She can look the monstrous problem in the eye and speak to it, or he can ignore it. To be sure, the Sunday following the terrorist attack some pastors spoke about the horror of the moment or horribly neglected it. Any preacher worth his or her salt cannot help but speak to the situation with a word from God.

The Monday following the attack, The New York Times published excerpts from sermons preached on Sunday. Religion columnist Gustav Niebuhr wrote, "In houses of worship across the nation this weekend, clergy came before congregations with the difficult, yet urgent task of interpreting the single subject that has dominated Americans' consciousness since last Tuesday, when terrorists attacked New York and Washington." (1)

That is what some of our graduates tried to do. They looked the crisis square in the eye and spoke to it. This issue of Contact has excerpts from sermons preached by our graduates on that fateful Sunday. They preached in the aftershock of crisis. Men and women were numbed by what happened. They needed to hear a word from God.

There is a strong theme that runs throughout the sermons; it is this: one's security is found in dependence upon God. Listeners are reminded about the sovereignty, trustworthiness, healing, and hope found in God alone. Each preacher draws from various passages from the Scripture, but the careful reader will discover how several of the preachers drew comfort from the Psalms.

Not only is there a theme in these sermons, but these preachers are aware of their listeners' questions. They raise questions and answer them. This makes for good preaching—the preacher understands the text and his listeners, too.

The thread of dependence upon God is what listeners needed to hear—and still need to hear as they struggle with questions in the face of this crisis, and all the other public, congregational and personal crises they may face in the future.

Crisis preaching is not easy. It demands thoughtful yet quick reflection by the preacher. The apostle Paul says that preachers are "heralds" of God (I Cor. 1:23). We have something to proclaim to men and women and boys and girls in the uncertainty of crisis and in the mundane of the ordinary. The sermon excerpts in these pages show what crisis preaching is all about.

1. Gustav Niebuhr, "Excerpts From Sermons Across the Nation," The New York Times {17 September 2001); AS.

Dr. Scott M. Gibson is the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching, Director of the Haddon W. Robinson Center for Preaching, Director of the Th.M. Program in Preaching, and Director of the A.J. Gordon Guild. He is the author of Preaching for Special Services (Baker 2001).