A church family in Texas is devastated and other congregations need to lift them up in prayer and take the necessary steps to protect their own worshipers, according to a Virginia pastor who says church leaders have a responsibility to “protect their flocks”.
Steve Holley is pastor of ministries at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. He is also speaking out in response to the many activists who bristle at messages of prayer for the victims of mass shootings, such as those impacted by Sunday’s horrific assault on First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where at least 26 people were killed at another 20 were injured.
Those activists, most of whom want to see new gun control legislation, suggest that people stop praying and “do something” to prevent future atrocities.
For example, House Speaker Paul Ryan urged all Americans to pray for the people of Sutherland Springs in a tweet sent Sunday afternoon.
“Reports out of Texas are devastating. The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now,” stated Ryan.
Reactions from prominent critics were fierce. Former cable news host Keith Olbermann urged Ryan to “shove your prayers” in a vulgar way and then urged him to “do something with your life besides platitude and power grabs.”
Actor Wil Wheaton also raised eyebrows in response to Ryan by tweeting, “The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive…,” tweeted Wheaton,who later apologized to people of faith for insulting them but not for his views on prayer.
Pastor Holley says there is clearly a great misunderstanding of prayer.
“I don’t think it’s platitudes at all. It’re really beseeching God to help out nation in its time of need. That is what’s taking place. It seems like every two weeks these events erupt and they’re horrific,” said Holley.
He also strongly disagrees with the idea that the prayers didn’t do anything.
“Prayer accomplishes much. The scriptures say that. The scriptures encourage people to pray. The psalms are a songbook of prayer in many ways. So I think they’re really having a limited view of what prayer can do,” said Holley.
“Prayer sustains the spirit of those who endure and persevere through it. Prayer helps to readjust our focus, to understand that God is sovereign and that His will is in effect so we need to trust in Him and to seek after Him,” said Holley.
Holley says prayer should not be seen as a time of expecting all our prayer requests to be instantly granted. He says it’s something far more powerful.
“It shows that they really don’t understand prayer, that prayer is actually talking to the Creator of the universe, who called all things into existence, who loves us, who cares for us, cares for our every need and sent His Son into this world to die for our sin, and then by the power of His resurrection to give us life for eternity,” said Holley.
Rather than immediately promoting a political agenda in the wake of horrific shootings like the one in Texas, Holley says more valuable steps could be taken much closer to home.
“What are some things we can do to help people even curtail this, maybe even teaching our children that there is a God and that He has plans and purposes for everyone’s life, and that there is a right and there is a wrong and that human life is valuable and that we cherish human life,” said Holley.
On Monday, authorities said the killer came to the church because that’s where his mother-in-law worshiped, although it turns out she wasn’t there. Holley says another takeaway here is to seek conflict resolution long before it could escalate into the carnage we saw on Sunday.
“I think it’s training children along the way. how do you handle conflict? How do you handle difficulty? How do you work through those things and not have it end up with many people killed because you couldn’t resolve the issues you were struggling with?” said Holley.
Holley is no stranger to ministering to families suffering from terrorist attacks. One member of his church was killed in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and another severely injured. Another church member was killed in the 2013 attack at the Navy Yard in Washington.
He says there’s no magic formula for consoling believers devastated by the sudden loss of loved ones.
“We immediately try to get to their homes and just put our arms around them and love them and stay with them through the shock and horror that they’re facing. You try to comfort them with God’s word because His word brings comfort,” said Holley.
He encourages those around the grieving families in Texas to reach out and to know the families will need that kind of ministry for a very long time.
“This is going to be a hard road for a long time for some of those families. There won’t be a day that somebody goes by that church from now on that they don’t think about what took place in there yesterday.
“So the larger community around that small town need to think, ‘What can we do to stand by these folks and to encourage these folks and to show them God’s love. That’s what I would encourage them to do,” said Holley.
He says the most important thing is to be available.
“Just be there as sort of an anchor, as a means of encouragement, and just express your love for them and that you’re with them,” said Holley.
Holley says Sunday’s massacre is another reminder that none of us know how long we have to live. He says that should raise eternal questions in everyone’s mind?
“The hard news is it is appointed once for man to die and after that there’s a judgment. So each of us, somewhere in God’s day timer, has an appointment where we will face Him. The real issue is did I seek forgiveness of my sins through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and am I ready for that time?
“There nothing that can prevent our death. We will not live one day longer than God wants us to or one day shorter. He will have us at His appointed time. People need to understand that’s a significant thing. We don’t live forever. We need to make sure that our eternal security is taken care of and that we’ve placed our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Holley.
At the same time, Holley says church leaders have a responsibility to protect their family when they gather for worship. In the wake of the Sandy Hook school murders, Immanuel Bible Church got even more serious about security.
“At Immanuel Bible Church, we’ve done everything that we possibly can to try to provide an environment where people can worship Christ and also where they can be safe,” said Holley, noting that approach requires a security team made up of volunteers.
“It requires putting together a safety and security team that will be vigilant, that will be communicating with each other, that will be keeping an eye on things as people come to worship,” said Holley. “They have helped tremendously in the past with various situations that have arisen and many in the congregation never hear about or never know about.”
Holley also recommends churches work together with law enforcement to develop the best possible security strategy.
“I would encourage churches to run through various scenarios and maybe contact your local law enforcement agencies and see if they would come out and do an assessment of your church to see what things you may need to consider as you try to bring about security to your church,” said Holley.
Holley grew up in the same church he now pastors. He says attacks like the one in Texas never even crossed his mind until recent years, but he says good leaders will take the steps needed to keep their people safe.
“This is the world we are living in and so have to respond to it. We have to do it in love but we have to do it with very wise precautions and providing an environment for our congregation to enjoy a good worship experience,” said Holley.