A Theology of Tragedy in Youth Ministry

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There is something about a high-profile tragedy that brings to light the fact that our world is very, very broken. Yes, on some level, we understand that the victims of violence at the Boston Marathon yesterday represented but a fraction of number of victims of the violent crimes that occurred yesterday in our country and our world. But when the violence occurs on such a large stage, we cannot avoid the news and we are forced to grapple with the questions that inevitably enter our minds when we see such brokenness. At our church office, we paid special attention to the news, as Roy Gruber, our lead pastor was running in the marathon. After about twenty minutes of tension, we finally heard he was safe, having finished the race almost an hour before the explosions turned a scene of joy into a cloud of chaos.

When such events force us to pick up the rock of our humanity and see the dark underside, as youth workers we need to be prepared to help teenagers–and their families–navigate through their emotions and questions. This week, your regularly-scheduled-plan will likely be interrupted with questions about yesterday’s tragedy or others like it, such as the Newtown shooting that occurred only months ago. Any youth worker worth his or her salt needs to have worked through a theology of tragedy. Otherwise, the words we offer may be empty, irrelevant, and not based in Truth. Here are some ways to help frame the conversations you may have with teenagers this week:

This world is broken because of sin. Yes, this one seems obvious, but it’s an important piece of groundwork to lay in any conversation about tragedy. There is good, there is evil, and it’s healthy to distinguish between the two. Even in the case of natural disasters, we can conclude that sin is what broke our world.

God is present, and he is good (and this can be seen in the people he created). When we see pain, it’s natural and logical to ask where God is and whether he is truly benevolent. Of course, there is no “silver bullet” answers to those questions, but I appreciated what John Piper tweeted yesterday: “In the looping video of Boston’s explosion ponder the reflex of empathy of many running toward the wounded not toward safety.” Even in the midst of pain, God’s mercy can be seen.

Evil of this magnitude exists each day in our world. Forty-four people in the U.S. are murdered every day, not to mention the violence, abuse, and slavery that exists around the world. This is not to diminish tragedies that do happen to catch our attention. My point is that in a month or so, the tragedy of the Boston Marathon will be forgotten my most people and media outlets, and we will also be lulled into forgetting we live in a broken world. A proper view of the world will see that things are not as they should be in our world, and it’s okay to grieve.

Jesus came to heal, mend, and reconcile. I was already preparing to speak this Sunday on Luke 4 in which Jesus says he fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of a Messiah who would come to heal, mend, and reconcile:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus came not just to save us for some far-off world called Heaven. He came to heal, to mend, and to set us free by reconciling us to himself through the cross. Our brokenness will mend, and Jesus is healing our world even now. One day there will be a day when “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus calls us to do something. We are not saved so that we can be arm-chair theologians who can’t take our eyes away from the TV screen every time a tragedy strikes that warrants 24-news coverage. We are called to do something. Perhaps there is nothing practical that the teenagers you work with can do to help in Boston, but there are plenty of hurting people in our world and in your community that need to be loved and served. By all means, answer the questions teenagers will ask you this week to the best of your ability. But at some point we have to say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I know there’s something I can do to love someone in Jesus’ name, and I think that’s what God is asking us to do.” If the teenagers you work with want to respond in some way, help them find a way they can serve others.

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