September 11 and the Church: A Challenge for Sunday Worship

On Sunday, the country will recognize the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is surreal to think it has been 10 years since that awful Tuesday morning. We can still remember where we were when we heard the news, what we did that day, and how we responded that week.

That day is still a vivid memory for me. I was a senior at West Virginia University, and just finished a psychology exam. I was heading back to my apartment for the day, before planning to go to the newspaper offices that afternoon. As I started the car, I heard an unexpected voice on the radio in ABC’s Peter Jennings. He was reporting on an “accident” of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I rushed home and made it in time, I believe, to see the second plane hit. I spent the rest of the morning watching in terror of all that took place. The rest of the day was spent at the Times West Virginian editing an abbreviated sports section, and helping the news desk as much as I could.

The memories of September 11, 2001, are ones that will often come up in the days ahead. We should not run from these memories, or emotions, but embrace them as a chance to reflect, to heal, to process where we have been in these past 10 years, and to move forward as best as we can.

As we approach the anniversary, the church faces a challenge in how to respond to these memories. The anniversary falls on Sunday, which gives the church an unique opportunity for engagement. Churches will respond in different ways. The pastoral and lay leadership of each church must determine the appropriate response for that community. Regardless of the response, I believe there are four that will be basic on Sunday.

One is that a church will decide to do nothing. In this, a church will decide to treat the day as a normal Sunday in the season of Pentecost. I believe this will be a rare decision. September 11 will be a large elephant in the room that will be hard to ignore. Some will believe the church is not called to interact with what is taking place “in the world.” This would be a difficult decision to make, but pastors know their own capabilities and their congregations. If mentioning September 11 is a distraction to the Gospel, then it should not be addressed. However, if there is an opportunity to show the grace of Christ, by engaging September 11, then it should be engaged.

Another option is that a church will make some mention of September 11 during worship. In this response, the leadership will decide to reference September 11, but not devote an entire service to the day. This could be a mention during the congregational prayer, or the sermon is in direct response or reflection of September 11. Churches that decide on this response will want to find a balance between recognizing the day and going about a normal worship service. The task will be to make sure the mention does not become a distraction in worship.

A church may decide on a full-fledge response to the September 11 anniversary. The church will decide that the entire service will be focused on the anniversary. This could be a special recognition, special music, the sermon, or other ways of worship and response. Everything that a church would do on Sunday would be in response to September 11. The challenge here, as well all forms of mentioning September 11, is to make sure the worship does not worship country instead of God. Churches must fight against the temptation of being excessively patriotic on this day, or doing things that would place the church’s allegiance first to country, and then to God. A proper response to September 11, regardless of how it is done, seeks to glorify God, and recognize God’s desires and purposes as we continue to heal and reflect. A church that focuses too much on patriotic themes runs the risk of missing what it means to worship God in the midst of September 11.

One final response is a special service that is conducted outside the normal Sunday worship. The church decides to conduct an alternative worship that focuses entirely on September 11. This could take on different expressions. The same dangers exist as with a full-fledged response, but has the additional risk of going overboard. The leadership must take care to make sure that a special service is held in balance and placed in proper perspective. If too much focus is made of September 11, it could distract from true worship, and emotionally exhaust a congregation.

At my two churches, we are using the special worship response. We will hold a special worship that evening, which will be conducted as a community prayer service. It will also include an opportunity to pray not only for the victims and those in war zones, but also for our country. I recognize the danger we face is doing too much. We will also make a scant mention of September 11 during worship. My hope is that these services will be held in balance, but I’m optimistic because the two services will be different in nature.

As you can see, there are many options in how to respond to September 11. My prayer is that for all churches to prayerful consider how to respond, and to be responsive to how God calls that community to respond to this day.

This is a great opportunity to engage, but it must be done in the proper way.

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4 thoughts on “September 11 and the Church: A Challenge for Sunday Worship

  1. Shannon,

    Honestly until a day or two ago I had pretty much no plan to do anything about 9/11. We are starting our new fall series that day and frankly working on bigger things. But, I decided to at least have a time of responsive prayer on Sunday to acknowledge the anniversary. It will be a part of the service, but it will by no means dictate the feel or focus of the service for us.

  2. Greg,

    Like I said, I think we are all going to respond in different ways. I know of a lot of churches that are starting fall programming on Sunday, or are focusing on other events in the life of the church. Each pastor and church has to decide what is the best way to respond. I don’t think there is a wrong way to respond, but there can be some inappropriate ways (overly patriotic, more concerned with worshiping the country than God, etc.).

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