9/11 is a this-generation defining moment. My guess is that you can easily go back to that morning and remember exactly what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell. Sadly, this terrible event—much like the assassination of JFK years ago—has marked our generation.
For me, the day began by feeding Cheerios to our then two-year-old while watching the morning news. Between the first and second planes, I drove to church. The T.V. was on, and people were gathered together in one of our main gathering rooms. Our staff was there, along with many people from the community. Watching. Wondering. The second plane hit. It was jaw dropping. Then came the news—we were under attack.
Since then, we’ve heard a myriad of explanations and reasons for 9/11 from well-meaning church leaders. Some have chosen to focus on judgment, others grace, and still others have been decidedly ambivalent about the terrible events surrounding that day.
This Sunday, you have an important decision to make—how will you address 9/11? Will you spend a lot of time focused on the anniversary of the attack? Will you skip over it or just mention it in a brief announcement—squished between the need for more children’s workers and the upcoming picnic in the park?
It’s a big decision.
I think there is great freedom in how we deal with events like this in the church, but I’d like to share some basic guidelines to help you think critically about observing the 9/11 anniversary. Please share what you have planned or offer your feedback on the list to help other church leaders plan wisely this weekend.
Here’s a list of what I think you should and shouldn’t do to remember 9/11 this Sunday.
First, what you shouldn’t do:
I know, it’s tempting to pass over events like this for some of you. It can be tough to work it into a service—and it can be difficult to know how to deal with it in a way that is biblical and Christ-centered. However, it’s too big an event to gloss over. Your people are waiting for guidance and direction from you, their leader, about how to respond to this event in a way that brings hope. It’s simple: Don’t ignore it.
Use a video without personal reflection
There are many good videos out there about the anniversary of 9/11—these are great tools to help you engage your community. However, don’t use a video as a crutch to do the teaching and reflection that you’re responsible for as a church leader. If you use a video, please provide some commentary at the beginning or the end to help clarify the purpose of the video and how you think your people should respond biblically to the anniversary of 9/11. Short videos are great tools but often poor teachers. Use a video to break into the topic, but don’t let it do all the work.
Honor community servants without a clear purpose
9/11 is a great reminder that we need to honor those who serve our communities and often put their lives at risk to do so. It’s great to lift up community servants, but make sure you have it planned out and provide a solid biblical context to the event. Remember, this is church, not the Elks Lodge—don’t be afraid to frame the segment with the gospel. Also, don’t just give them a pin or plaque; pray for them...and make sure it's well organized.
Glorify or demonize America
Be careful not to get caught up in the over-glorifying of America by making the memorial more about our country than about the hope we have in Christ. This is often a subtle attitude, but when it’s communicated, it’s a theological mess. My suggestion—if you plan to use anything by Lee Greenwood, scratch it from the schedule. At the same time, be cautious about making America out to be the cesspool of sin that deserved the attacks we received—this isn’t biblical either, and it’s not healthy to frame your memorial in either extreme. We’ll talk more about this in the next section.
Focus on end times without giving hope for today
There’s an easy out that many of us as church leaders can go to with events like this—we can simply pull out the trump card and focus completely on the imminent return of Christ. For sure, the return of Christ is a great encouragement—but your people are also looking for answers that will guide them, from Scripture, in how to respond to tragedy, loss, and evil today. Simply focusing on the end times will help encourage, but it won’t necessarily equip your people to respond to this event and others like it in the present time.
Here's what you should do:
Even if you don’t have something planned yet, prayerfully consider taking time to remember this historic—and tragic—event in your service. Give your people biblical encouragement as they wrestle with the emotions and questions they have about that day. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you can help guide your community with the comfort, hope, and faith we have in a risen Lord—in the midst of suffering and evil. You may have something elaborate planned—or a small and meaningful time of prayer and teaching—but make sure to address it.
Pray with confidence
Use the anniversary of 9/11 as a teaching and prayer time. Pray for those who are suffering today because they’ve lost loved ones. Pray for our country and its leaders. Pray for our enemies—the terrorists still seeking to kill and destroy us in the name of their god. Whatever you do to remember—make sure you wrap it in prayer. Also, be careful not to pray with ambivalence or lack of confidence. Don’t go soft on this one. Remember, you’re a leader—inspire your people with the hope we have in Christ in the midst of dark times. Pray with boldness.
Clarify the events for young children
Don’t forget, it’s likely that you’ll have children and young teens who know about the event, but they might not grasp the whole story. Make sure you give a short recap about the events that happened that day and encourage young leaders to respond to this event in faith—remembering the sovereignty of God in a tumultuous world.
Honor community servants and remember those who gave their lives
It’s right and good to remember those who lost their lives and to honor those who served that day and serve us still—whether in New York or in your community. Take time to express your thanks as a church to those who serve the community. Pray for them. Also, use the time to point to Christ—the ultimate servant who gave his life for all of us so that we could live.
Provide encouragement for people to respond to the gospel
One of the most powerful passages I’ve used to encourage people on past anniversaries of 9/11 is found in Luke 13. In it, Jesus speaks directly to a group of people about the issue of sin and judgment. In Jesus' day, the people held a belief that if something tragic happened to you, it must be because you were wicked and deserved it. Jesus answers their unspoken belief by talking about a tower that fell in Siloam and killed eighteen people. He says, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus deflected their questions about the "why" and guided them to the more important question of personal repentance. At the end of the chapter, Luke gives a portrait of Jesus—both sorrowful and compassionate—longing to gather those in Jerusalem.
The bottom line: The events of 9/11, in many ways, are beyond our understanding—but the grace of God is still present, and the main message we still herald as church leaders is this: Today is the day of salvation.
What additional tips would you add? What do you agree or disagree with? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.