The Play Is Not The Thing
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
March 9, 2009 - This morning, many across the nation awoke to learn of yet another tragic church shooting. This time a young man strode down the aisle of First Baptist Church in Maryville, IL during an early morning service and fired four shots at Pastor Fred Winters. The shooter was apparently eventually wrestled to the ground by congregants, but not before using a knife to injure a couple of church members during the skirmish.
The death of Rev. Winters – a husband and father of two children – is a deep tragedy. Undoubtedly, in the coming weeks and months, his family and friends will experience not only the pain that attends his absence from their lives, but also the frustration and moral confusion that accompanies all such apparently senseless acts of violence. For the hardened skeptic, occasions such as these might represent callous opportunities to renew old charges against God’s goodness and power. Yet even the Christians who, like Winters’ family and friends, find themselves closest to the heart of the pain cannot help being shaken by what they have experienced. Such challenges can induce serious doubts about faith – a facet of the Christian life about which great saints have written for centuries.
For this very reason, the family of Rev. Winters and the community of First Baptist in Maryville need prayer – prayer not only for healing the hurt that is certainly now felt, but also for renewed faith in the loving-kindness of a God whose counsels are often beyond our ken.
In praying, Christians should reflect. Considered as merely the terrible tragedy that it is, this shooting is, sadly, not unique. But the details of this particular tragedy are. And one would be remiss in failing to reflect on one specific aspect of this story.
According to the associated press, police reported that as the shots were fired, worshippers “initially thought that [it] was a skit.” One member was quoted as saying, “We just sat there waiting for what comes next not realizing that he had wounded the pastor.”
It is difficult to comprehend the complexity of the varied emotions and reactions that congregants must have experienced in witnessing this horrifying scene. Surely, some would have experienced shock, as a result of fear. In the cool, dispassionate reflection that follows such trauma, unsuspecting, perhaps even stunned, bystanders should be faulted for failing to intervene. Nor should one second guess: “If only I had realized sooner . . .”
At the same time, it is worth asking precisely what it says about the nature of church life that congregants at this church, or any church like it, would even be tempted to infer that the events unfolding before their eyes – namely, the shooting of their pastor with a “confetti-like spray of paper” coming from the Bible he was using to shield himself from the shots – were nothing more than another dimension of the worship of God on a Sunday morning. A skit! We have apparently reached a point in evangelicalism where liturgical experimentalism has conditioned worshippers either to believe that staged-shootings at least might be part of a typical Sunday morning order of worship or to attend church with absolutely no expectations whatsoever about what might happen. In the latter case, the sincere believer must either suspend judgment altogether, simply going with the flow, or he must be constantly engaged in an evaluative process – distinguishing the true from the false, reality from fiction.
Either way, the disorder should be manifest. When Christians assemble for the worship of the living, triune God, they should come with a sense of anticipation and expectation. Built into that expectation is both an understanding of those things in which the worship of God consists and foreknowledge of the shape of their participation therein. Among evangelicals, the penchant for novelty in worship cuts against this. Insofar as we never know what to expect on a Sunday morning, we simply cannot worship God aright; for we cannot come into His presence in precisely the ways that He commands. We will simply be “waiting for what comes next.”