By David Roach
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (BP) — Church shootings like the massacre at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, will not intimidate the body of Christ, according to a Washington Post op-ed by Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore. Congregations that have experienced shootings are offering testimony to support his assertion.
“The goal the gunman sought, to terrorize worshipers, has been attempted constantly over the centuries around the world by cold, rational governments and terrorist groups — all thinking that they could, by the trauma of violence, snuff out churches, or at least intimidate those churches into hiding from one another,” Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in a Nov. 6 op-ed.
“Such violent tactics always end up with the exact opposite of what the intimidators intend: a resilient church that, if anything, moves forward with even more purpose than before,” he wrote.
Moore was referencing the Nov. 5 shooting at First Baptist that left 26 dead and some 20 others injured. The alleged gunman, Devin Kelley, died later, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being pursued by bystanders in a high-speed vehicle chase.
For some, the Sutherland Springs slayings called to mind previous church shootings like a 1999 incident at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas; a 2009 incident at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill.; and a 1980 incident at First Baptist Church in Daingerfield, Texas.
Those who kill followers of Jesus apparently assume, Moore wrote, “that gunfire or poison gas or mass beheadings will show Christians how powerless we are. That is true. They assume that this sense of powerlessness will rob the community of its will to be the church. That is false.”
Because of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, “death is not the endpoint” for Christians, Moore wrote. That’s why churches long have stood firm and even flourished amid violence.
“To eradicate churches, our opponents will need a better strategy,” Moore wrote.
That’s also the assessment of a pastor at Wedgwood, where 18 years ago a lone gunman killed seven people and injured seven more at a Wednesday-night See You at the Pole rally before fatally shooting himself on the back pew.
Jeff Laster, then a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary student and head of facilities for Wedgwood, was among the wounded. He told Baptist Press the church did not allow Satan to have victory over it through the shooting.
Hundreds have been baptized at Wedgwood during the ensuing years, said Laster, now the church’s associate pastor for administration. At least one sister church has been planted because of the congregation’s labor.
“Going through [the shooting] allowed us to be able to minister to people and help them in a way that I don’t think we could have before,” Laster said. “And not just from a shooting perspective, but in other ways.”
Laster noted, “Anytime you’ve gone through something that traumatic, it either makes you or breaks you. If you allow it to, it can damage the church body. But if you’re trusting in God,” strengthened faith can be a result of the healing process.
In subsequent years, Wedgwood was able to help sister churches that experienced violence, including First Baptist Maryville, when its pastor, Fred Winters, was fatally shot during a 2009 worship service. Then-Wedgwood pastor Al Meredith spent a weekend with First Baptist Maryville, comforting and helping the congregation, Laster said.
Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, said, in the eight years since the shooting at First Baptist Maryville “God’s grace has eclipsed that tragedy over and over again.”
“The people and the leadership there have trusted Him through pain and then healing and then renewal and then the good that only God can bring out of such pain,” Adams told BP in written comments. “Those who were there that day, and those of us who were touched deeply by it later, are somehow stronger and deeper and closer to the Lord because of it. And that’s a miracle that only God can bring out of such tragedy.”
Another congregation to experience God’s steadying hand following a shooting was First Baptist Daingerfield, where in 1980 a gunman shot 15 people during a worship service, killing five. A documentary film titled “Faith Under Fire” traced how the massacre led some church attendees to experience crises of faith, nightmares, divorce and thoughts of revenge.
Nevertheless, some two decades later, then-First Baptist pastor John Stone told BP, “As painful as it is to remember, it is also something you don’t want to forget, because if you do, you also forget the faithfulness of God to His people. The Scripture is true: ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love Him and who have been called according to His purpose.'”
First Baptist Daingerfield continues to minister in its east Texas community today, with an average worship attendance of 110, according to data from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Church Profile.
Pastor Danny Broughton told BP the father of a First Baptist Daingerfield member is among the dead at First Baptist Sutherland Springs. That member and others have resolved to write “letters of comfort” to the believers in Sutherland Springs.
At First Baptist Daingerfield, the shooting 37 years ago increased “our urgency, because we’re not guaranteed life,” Broughton said. “Tomorrow is not a guarantee, so for this congregation, I have seen enjoyment and urgency to continue the work of Christ.”
Yet another congregation to experience victory after a shooting was Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
A year after a white supremacist killed nine black worshipers at Emanuel in 2015, a victim’s husband told BP the tragedy led some people to testify “about the fact that they were racist, and they’ve repented and confessed.” The church, however, was still transitioning “from mourning to healing,” he added.
Reflecting on this week’s shooting, Texas pastor Bart Barber wrote in Christianity Today that a small, rural congregation like First Baptist Sutherland Springs faces unique challenges, especially when required to recover from the murder of virtually all of the church’s lay leadership. Yet “smaller churches can generate a loyalty and a resiliency that make them hard to kill.”
“A single scandal involving a key personality can make an entire network of megachurches vanish without a trace in the span of a few months. I predict a better outcome for First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs,” wrote Barber, a speaker at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference, which focused on pastors of smaller churches.
“People are less likely to abandon the church they attended with their grandparents,” Barber wrote. “I believe that members who have been on the sidelines will step up. Sister churches in that rural area will reach in and give a helping hand. The martyrdom of these believers will bring people to Christ…. The gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church.”