Shepherding people through the Baltimore riots – a letter to our courageous small group leaders

Dear small group leader,
The violence that has hit so close to home is both saddening and unnerving. We all know people directly affected – family and friends who live/work in the city, ministry partners valiantly seeking its welfare, and law enforcement officers seeking to uphold peace and order. Almost as troubling as the riots, has been the variety of perspectives, sentiments, and reactions that our people are expressing and posting. I want to encourage you to lead through these times. All of us have uncertainties and fears. He’s placed you in your group, and placed your group members under your care. The role of a small group leader is to cultivate a community that is becoming like Jesus and living out his mission. Our responses, postures and gestures toward what is happening in Baltimore are opportunities to be instruments of grace as well as recipients. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ve tried to summarize a few ways you can shepherd your people this week and next. 

1. Do not fear. 

It’s one of the most oft-repeated commands in the Bible. Do not let your hearts be trouble. Do not be afraid.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” Ps 46:1-3

Life has always been hard. It has always been unpredictable. There have always been those who would seek to stir unrest and trouble for personal gain. The world of the Bible is no stranger to such calamity and danger.

Baltimore riots near Hopkins in 1968
Baltimore riots near Hopkins in 1968

God’s people have always been in the midst of it both as intercessors and peace-keepers, even when the circumstances were beyond their control. Listen to the sentiments of your people. When they express fear, ask them what they are afraid of.
Of course, don’t do this in a condescending way. We all have fears. In fact, as you read this, you may want to think about the fears that have been exposed in your own heart. Fear often reveals what we are looking to for security and safety for our lives. Most times, that security and safety is not in God. We can place it in our zip code, in law enforcement, in our perceptions of control, even in a particular race or socioeconomic level. All of these things will fail to provide the security and safety we desire because they don’t last and can’t control the human heart.
Fear makes us say and do all sorts of desperate things. Things we don’t mean. We can take extreme positions that don’t make sense. The sooner we recognize, name, and repent of our fears (after all, whatever we trust in for our security and safety outside of God is an idol), we will begin to see through the eyes of faith – fixing our eyes on what is unseen and eternal. It doesn’t mean we won’t feel afraid, but it does mean that we won’t react based on that fear. We know who holds us and Baltimore.

2. Keep an open mind. 

Guard your people from the business of blaming. When turmoil hits, especially threatening our perceptions of control and security, we want to blame someone or something. Why doesn’t someone do something? How could we have prevented this? We blame city officials, broken systems, thugs, police, laws, you name it. What is happening in Baltimore is the result of so much sin – on both sides of whatever line you draw. It’s been generations in the making. There is no easy fix to this. Listen for statements like, “if people would just…” or “if leaders would only…” “if they would…” We must guard our people (and ourselves) from an US vs. THEM mentality. There is so much that is indeed wrong with the current situation. Resist the urge to reduce the matter down to a few answers. Too often we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve done something about the problem by just critiquing it or discussing it.
Related to this, I think by blaming or looking for causes first, we skip the necessary role of God’s people to lament. There’s so much to say about the discipline of lament, but I’ll leave it at this. Until we can learn to really cry and hurt with those who are hurting, any solutions we offer or causes we identify will be condescending at best and patronizing at worst. Encourage your community to participate with the Spirit of Christ through humble, reflective (and even angry) tears. This is not how the world should be. This is not the glory of the city or the beauty of man on display. We are heartbroken over this.

3. Pray, don’t just post. 

In our social media world, we have to deal with this. Too many people are voicing their emotions and sentiments over the cyber airwaves with little thought to the context or way in which their frustrations might be received. Some are saying mean things. Some are just posting videos. Some are ranting and criticizing. Refrain from this. There’s already so much noise, so many media channels trying to spin this. Everyone wants someone to blame (see above). We recognize that what is happening is a world that is out of control. We won’t fix this with a post or a status. (Ironic that you’re probably reading this via some social media channel, isn’t it?) If you must post something, will you stop to pray before you post? If you are engrossed in reading the various takes and reports, will you stop to pray after each one?
As you lead your group, and various members share what they’ve read/heard/seen, stop and pray. Use each piece of added data as a way to pray more specifically. This way you’ll steer the conversation away from over-analysis or even worse, gossip.

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7

4. Beware the suburban bubble.

I’m troubled by the number of people I’ve heard say, “I’m so glad I’m not there.” The temptation is all too real to isolate ourselves off from the trouble, to simply shrug off the plight of Baltimore with a sigh of relief that we’re not there. Christians have never taken that stance. They run to the battle, not away from it. Why? Because that’s what God did. He ran to face the great enemy, death, and he was victorious…at great cost. Encourage your small group to reconsider such language in light of the Gospel. What if God had taken the same stance towards us?

We must not think that the problem is just “over there”. Systemic inequality, oppression, injustice is everywhere, and the suburbs are no exception. We can watch the news and think that we are somehow walled off in safety, and fall into a false sense of peace and security, totally oblivious to the great evils around us…some of which we knowingly or unknowingly participate in. What if what we see in Baltimore is an opportunity for us to take an inventory of the kinds of lives we are living today? Are we living justly? Righteously?

Remember Jeremiah 29:7, in the welfare of the city, we find our welfare. God has so tied us to the plight of our neighbors that it’s impossible to contain what is happening to just one block or one zip code. To think that we can be immune and unaffected by the burning of the city is naive and irresponsible. I’d figure out a better way to say that to your group, but we must not ignore the kind of callous, “sucks to be you”, sort of privileged mentality that contributes to the problem.

5. Remember the heavenly city.

The most important encouragement I will give to you as a shepherd is to be a hope-giver. Though the streets should rumble, though the people should roar, though the looters should prosper, though the police should brutalize, we know that this is not what God intended, and that it is not what will be.

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Psalm 46:4-7

The final picture of God’s triumph in Revelation 21-22 is that of a heavenly city. It’s a beautiful, large, majestic city. God is in the midst of her, ruling over and dwelling with His redeemed people. John describes this city with so much detail, and then makes a startling observation. God fills this city.

“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” Revelation 21:22-26

Cities have gates because they have threats. Gates keep people in and people out. This city never shuts its gates. There are no threats. There’s not even a cover of night to pose a possible threat. That means no curfews. No state of emergency. No national guard. No riot police. No SWAT. No burning buildings. Not even a protestor. No brutality. No young men killed way too young. No mothers grieving. No communities at odds. No tension. Just a city with light shown by a Lamb.

If nothing else sticks in the above, remember the heavenly city. Meditate on it until you can draw a picture of it on a napkin for your small group. Let a vision of the heavenly city permeate you and redirect your tears. I think you’ll find yourself talking to your group differently, and maybe in seeing what’s going on in you, your group will experience the same.

We have a tough task ahead of us, leaders, but the grace of God affords us hope that no city official can give. Do your best, love your people, and God will show up.

Love you all and so proud to stand alongside you,


1 thought on “Shepherding people through the Baltimore riots – a letter to our courageous small group leaders”

  1. Mitchel,
    Our small group meets tomorrow. This was really helpful.
    Thanks so much.
    In Him, Robin
    Sent from my iPhone

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