The role of the local church when crisis strikes a community

February 2, 2018

Growing up in a pastor’s family, I didn’t quite understand that people had 9-to-5 jobs. My dad was the pastor of a Baptist church in a rural community in Western Kentucky, and my mom was the church secretary. Often I would hear them say, “Ministry isn’t a 9-5 job; it’s a lifestyle.” That’s not to say that my parents didn’t have boundaries; they did. But they didn’t buy into the lie that to lay down one’s life for the church you had to sacrifice your family. Instead, ministry was a family affair.

Our family was far from perfect, but my parents lived their lives with an open door to the community. I would often wake up on Saturday mornings to members from our church eating breakfast in our kitchen after serving an elderly lady who needed her yard tended to. And whenever our little southern town would be hit with an ice storm that knocked out electricity for many, our home would fill up, and my dad would be out on the streets looking to help a stranded driver. Our local first responders all know my dad, as he’s been a chaplain for many of them during various seasons over the years. And still to this day, when I come home for holidays, I never know who I’m going to find at the dinner table.

So it was not a shock to me that when the Marshall County High School shooting happened, I got a phone call from my mom telling me to pray because we hadn’t heard if our family and friends were safe, and to pray for Dad because he was already at the school to be there for parents and students. When a crisis happens in our community, and even our surrounding communities, more often than not my dad, Pastor Mike Donald, will be nearby, and the people from his church are ready for action.

In light of last week’s events, I took some time to interview him about the importance of the local church during a community crisis. Here is the wisdom he shared:

Be a physical presence: When I chatted with my dad about the day of the shooting, he recounted story after story of parents, students, and first responders that he hugged and prayed with. He retold the story of a young boy he didn’t even know who fell into his arms weeping while entering the middle school gymnasium. My dad comforted the teenager, and then as the boy calmed down, he apologized to my dad for falling apart. “No need to apologize son, that’s what I’m here for.”  

My dad shuddered as he discussed seeing the fear in the parents’ eyes as they waited at a local middle school to be reunited with the high-schoolers who were being bused in. His voice cracked as he recalled stories from his church’s students, relaying terrifying moments of running through blood-stained halls, losing shoes, backpacks, and carrying their friends to safety.  

After being a pastor for over 35 years, carrying his community’s grief was less of a job description and more of a second nature.

When I asked my dad why he went he simply stated, “It’s what we do,” as if the physical presence of a pastor in the middle of a community crisis was understood as a fact of life. After being a pastor for over 35 years, carrying his community’s grief was less of a job description and more of a second nature.

In these tragic moments, this is the role of the local pastor. It’s not to have all the answers or to put band-aids on deep wounds. Rather, it is to be physically available for hugs, prayers, and tears, and to be a safe place for the community to grieve. It is the local church’s honor and great responsibility to run into the middle of dark circumstances and be a bright light and to continue to burn brightly throughout the long healing process.   

Partner with other local churches: In a culture where churches seem to be competing with each other or quibbling over denominational differences, a crisis demands that be pushed aside. In all seasons, my dad has always stressed the importance of churches working together to bless and minister to their shared community, but it is especially important in times of crisis.  

When my dad first heard news of the shooting, he immediately called the pastor of another local church and asked if he would like a ride to the high school. On the night of the shooting, they partnered with other local churches in the area to host a community prayer vigil. And although his church hosted the vigil, all of the town’s local pastors involved played an important part.

When I asked dad about his ongoing teamwork and partnership with other local churches to minister during this crisis he said,

God has chosen the church to be the vehicle to carry his message of good news to his people and our communities. The enormity of this event naturally requires more than one local assembly to carry that torch. I knew from the onset that this crisis would require the body of Christ in all of Marshall County to shoulder together. Any attempt to go solo would have been an act of treason against the moving of the Spirit in my own heart during those moments.

Provide necessary care during and after the crisis: In the days following the shooting, my dad’s church held a lunch for any students who wanted to come eat and fellowship. His small church staff has added additional office hours to be available for prayer. And my dad, who was scheduled to speak at an ordination in Oregon, canceled his trip in order to be a physical presence that weekend and to be available for our church and community.

Marshall County has families who are grieving the loss of children. It has a family who is grieving and ashamed of the actions of their son who took two lives and injured many. It has dozens of families navigating hospital bills while youth, teachers, and first-responders deal with post-traumatic stress, wondering how to simply move forward. To put it plainly, there are many needs to be met.

The truth is, healing from a school shooting will not be quick, nor will it be easy. The work is slow and hard and gut-wrenching, but it is the role of the local church to be there throughout the entire process, consistently assessing the needs of their people while representing the physical hands and feet of Jesus. As a result, my dad isn’t just looking at the here and now, he’s thinking ahead and planning with other pastors on how they can meet the needs of their people and local community for the months to come.

Do not use tragedy as a means to grow your church: Sadly in times of crisis, people can cause more harm than good. Pastors can use these moments to get their 15 minutes of local fame or attempt to use the fear created by crisis to manipulate people into their churches. Not to mention, some will misuse truths found in Scripture to simply cover the wound, rather than let the good news of Jesus heal their deepest, darkest sorrows.

“We don’t exploit tragedy to grow our numbers or gain a platform,” he stated emphatically, “Our churches should be about proclaiming that Jesus is good news for a weary and broken world. We proclaim no name other than his.” God will grow his church, and he will use the local church to continue to do so, but we should never prey on the wounded and lure them in. That’s spiritual malpractice, not the Great Commission.

The church is God’s plan A

My friend and former pastor, J.D. Greear, reminded our congregation frequently, “The church is God’s plan A for working in this world.” This is especially true in the middle of a community crisis. Where there is suffering, despair, and brokenness, the people of God will also be there doing God’s redemptive work. This was definitely the case in Marshall County, Ky., on one of its darkest days, and I am beyond proud of the rural church that raised me and their compassionate response in the midst of tragedy. May these observations from my Dad bless you and your church if you ever find yourself ministering in the midst of a community crisis. 

Brittany Salmon

Brittany Salmon is a professor, writer, and Bible teacher. She is the author of the book It Takes More than Love: A Christian Guide to Cross-Cultural Adoption releasing in April, 2022. She has an MA in Intercultural Studies from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Teaching from NC State … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24