Grieving With Grace | Planning A Service Of Worship In The Midst Of Tragedy

By Jonathan Allen

I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the 9-11 attacks, the space shuttle disasters, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. There are events in our lives that leave permanent marks on our souls, whether a national tragedy, the loss of a musical icon, or something that hits much closer to home. More vividly than any of these, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about Josiah Berger’s car accident. All time stopped.

Our pastor’s eldest son Josiah was in a catastrophic accident on August 11, 2009. Thus began one of the most difficult seasons of my life and the life of our church. As soon as I heard, I went to the hospital and joined the people of Grace Chapel who were gathering to pray and offer comfort. The doctors’ reports were not good, but we continued asking God for a miracle. We crammed into the small hospital chapel, crying out to God for healing. As a church body, we cried and worshiped.

Realities

As hours became days, the hospital graciously opened a larger room for us. We sang every hymn or worship song that came to mind and continued to beg God for a miracle. In the midst of all this, I knew that Sunday services were still fast approaching. Needing to prepare for the possibility that Josiah would be going to Heaven, I began to contact worship team members for Sunday. The texts read something like: “I don’t know how Sunday will look, but I know that we need to be ready. Can you play?” They responded immediately. It’s so important to have a healthy team around when tragedy strikes, willing to do “whatever it takes.” And this leads me to lesson number one: Prepare, equip, and release your team members before grief comes knocking at your church’s door.

Empower Your Team

I am eternally grateful for the extraordinary people of the Grace Chapel worship team. In the months leading up to the accident, I had been learning how to more fully embrace each team member’s strengths, releasing them to serve in new ways. In those dark hours they selflessly went to work, leading the people in worship wherever and whenever they were needed.

When we got the news that Josiah had gone to Heaven the time had come to plan the upcoming services. I realized that the songs had to allow the people to grieve honestly while clinging to the faithfulness of God.

Most worship songs fall into one of two categories: those that express how we feel about God, and those that express the truth of God. Both are important in the worship life of a church. However, I sensed it was critical to rely heavily on songs that declared the truth about God during our time of corporate grief. Mourning can definitely affect how one feels about God and, frankly, just about everything else, but God’s goodness does not waver. Honestly allowing God’s kindness and steadfastness to intersect our grief in worship is a great, healing gift. Reminding ourselves that “Jesus has overcome and the grave is overwhelmed”; singing out, “God in my laughing / There in my weeping / God in my hurting / God in my healing,” these words brought strength. To declare, “No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from His hand. Till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand,” anchors us in His sovereignty. We can sing those lyrics, even through sobs, because they are faithful and true, just like the Jesus we worship. 

During a difficult season, it’s critical to model authenticity. During profound loss, people are looking for leadership. There is a temptation to try to be something you’re not, claiming to have answers you don’t. We don’t have to have all the answers, we just have to point to the One Who does.

No matter how weak we feel, God is able. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. In Christ, you have what it takes because God has placed you in this place of leadership, for this congregation, for such a time as this. If you are faced with congregational grief remember to trust your team, worship honestly, and above all, lean hard into the God who gives grace in and to the grieving.

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