“I want to go home.” Those were the exact words I said out loud to God as I stood in the front yard of the church parsonage and surveyed the destruction around me that Hurricane Katrina had left behind. The church I served was in Franklinton, Lousiana. Since my church was about 60 miles north of New Orleans, we didn’t experience the catastrophic flooding that New Orleans experienced, but the eye of the storm had passed right through Franklinton as the storm headed north.
I evacuated a day or two before the storm, and from my parents’ home in Augusta, Georgia, I watched the television with disbelief as Katrina made landfall. I saw images of my seminary underwater, and I wondered if my seminary would ever reopen its doors again. Those days after the storm were so uncertain as I wondered what would await me when I returned to my parsonage in Louisiana.
About a week after the storm, my dad and I headed to Franklinton to survey the damage as well as take some supplies to my congregation. The storm left us without the basic necessities. People needed food and water. As we crossed into Mississippi, we began to see the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. The roads were littered with downed trees, and as we arrived in Franklinton, it seemed as if trees had fallen on the rooves of every home in town. Many vehicles had also been destroyed by trees crashing down on them.
I immediately began to check on members of my church. As I pulled up in the driveways of my people, I was greeted with tears of grief as people wondered how they were going to even begin to put their lives back together. Sure, people in New Orleans seemingly had it worse than we did, but many in Franklinton lost their homes because of fallen trees. In some ways, it looked like a bomb had detonated in our town.
As I pulled into the driveway of my parsonage, the home in which I lived had not escaped damage. I opened my front door to find a tree in my living room. I walked into the front yard and saw downed trees and debris as far as I could see, and at that moment I said to God, “I want to go home.” I was ready to pack up the car and head back to Augusta; far away from the damage of Hurricane Katrina. I was more than ready to give up.
However, God quickly reminded me that he had called me to Franklinton, and I wasn’t going anywhere. My people needed a pastor, and I was the one God had placed at that church to serve through the tragedy. So, in my own pain and grief, I did the best I could to encourage, love, and shepherd my people. In the days that followed, I learned so much about ministry that I would have never learned without the experience of Hurricane Katrina.
Not only did I learn much about hands-on, practical ministry following Hurricane Katrina, I also learned much about preaching. What do you say to people who are grieving the loss of their possessions? What do you say to people whose lives have been turned upside down as a result of a disaster? In the weeks and months that followed, I developed a keen interest in preaching after times of tragedy. As I looked for resources to help me preach to my congregation after Katrina, I was surprised to discover that little had been written to help pastors preach after their church had experienced a major catastrophe. That lack of literature led me to write my doctoral dissertation on preaching in a time of crisis. Through my own personal experience of dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and through my research, here are three simple lessons I learned about preaching after a time of tragedy:
(1) Acknowledge the tragedy.
I still vividly remember that first Sunday of corporate worship after Hurricane Katrina. Since we had no electricity (and wouldn’t for over five weeks), we held our worship service in the front lawn of the church under the shade trees. In some ways, it was a homecoming service. People hadn’t seen each other in a couple of weeks, and the storm had knocked out telephone lines and cell towers, so people hadn’t even talked to each other since the storm. Everyone was sharing their story. Many tears were shed, but there was much comfort in knowing that everyone was accounted for.
I preached from Psalm 46 and reminded my people of God’s help. Obviously, Hurricane Katrina was on everyone’s mind, and we were all dealing with the grief. It would have been unwise to not acknowledge the tragedy and what we had been through. Since our community dealt with the aftermath of Katrina for months following the storm, I continued to acknowledge the tragedy in my preaching. My sermon illustrations were full of stories that came from the disaster. I simply kept acknowledging the tragedy because it was at the forefront of the minds of my people. By regularly speaking about the tragedy, the preacher demonstrates that he is sensitive to the tragedy-related needs of the congregation.
(2) Preach the Bible.
After Katrina, I was tempted to take a topical approach to preaching. I was tempted to preach sermons like, “Five Ways to Survive a Storm” or, “Three Ways to Overcome Your Storm-Related Stress.” However, my people didn’t need my opinions on how to overcome their storm-related stress. My people needed to hear from God. They needed to know that the Word of God was unchanging, and that the Word of God gave them the hope they desperately needed. I wanted my people to continue to hear God’s voice after the storm, so I continued to systematically preach through books of the Bible. Certainly, I made application from the text to address needs that were related to Hurricane Katrina, but I stayed in the Bible.
I am convinced that after a time of tragedy, people are hungry to know what God says. After Katrina, our attendance increased drastically, and I am convinced that attendance increased because people were looking for answers. What an opportunity to point people to The Answer, Jesus Christ, who is revealed in the Bible. After a tragedy, don’t shy away from preaching the Bible.
(3) Remind people of the mission.
Tragedy does not excuse you from the mission of God, and often tragedy becomes your best opportunity to live out the mission of God. Sunday after Sunday, I reminded our people that in the midst of our hurt, God had given us a wonderful opportunity to bless our community with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People were looking for hope, and I wanted our church to be a church that provided hope.
In the weeks after Katrina, we ministered to our community in a variety of ways. We brought in teams from all over the country to help with disaster relief. We gave away food, clothing, and so many other supplies as a way to bless our community. Serving people in the name of Christ gave us an opportunity to take the focus off of our problems and grief and put the focus on the needs of others.
I hope I never have to live through another Hurricane Katrina, but I am thankful for what God taught me through that storm. If you find yourself ministering to a congregation after a time of tragedy, keep your focus on Christ, His mission, and His Word. Your tragedy may turn out to be your greatest season of ministry.