It will be a long time before this nation and the world outlive the effects of September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on American soil virtually revolutionized U.S. foreign and domestic policy, while the effects on the U.S. economy have been well documented.
Perhaps more important than the political and economic effects, however, are the far more subtle effects on the psyche of individuals and of the nation as a whole. The world has become less trusting. The expectation of a secure and comfortable life—indeed, even the expectation of life itself—has become less certain. The specter of international terrorism looms ever near.
The nation has changed spiritually. Fewer people take life or loved ones for granted. It is well known that when individuals experience a personal tragedy, their lives are changed. They think in different categories, adopt a revised set of priorities. Thus, in a very real sense, September 11 was experienced by literally millions of Americans as a personal tragedy. Across economic and social barriers, American citizens—individually and collectively—worked through the stages of grief, including denial, anger, and profound sadness. Many have been hesitant to arrive at the final stage: acceptance. For no decent or caring person can easily resign him—or herself to accept a world where so many innocent human lives can be snuffed out so cruelly, callously, and quickly.
Were churches prepared?
Through the time of the nation's reflecting and mourning since that fateful September morning, the church has been present. Many people, in their initial stages of shock and grief, turned to the church for comfort. And they turned to churches also for answers, some of which many of those in positions of leadership simply could not provide. "The shock of 9-11 was almost immobilizing," says Richard Dresselhaus, interim academic dean at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. "Most pastors wondered how to respond in a way that would be appropriate and proper. This moment was without precedent. Most pastors, in retrospect, would recognize responses that might have been taken had there been any kind of background to draw on."
For a time after September 11, church attendance quite understandably experienced a rapid rise. Casual churchgoers experienced a heightened sense of spiritual awareness and a more urgent search for answers and perspectives that would enable them to process and live through this terrible tragedy.
By the time of the first anniversary of September 11, however, things had pretty much returned to normal. By and large, the sense of spiritual urgency (and the increase in church attendance that accompanied it) had, for many, waned. In fact, as Tal Prince, director of external relations at Beeson Divinity School, points out, "Church attendance spiked [after 9-11], but shortly afterward we lost not only the spike, but also some of the base." Prince adds, "The number one reason people surveyed gave for not staying in church after 9-11 was that they did not hear a life-changing message."
Still, it would be wrong to conclude that nothing has changed, that the church and the society have merely returned to where they were on September 10, 2001. For even though the passing of time has faded the sharp edge of the tragedy, the dull pain that accompanies its memory remains, and if not for all, for many. Also remaining are some possible lessons for the church.
Covenant Theological Seminary professor Jerram Barrs maintains that the church as a whole has missed an opportunity to take an introspective look. Says Barrs, "One of the great failures of the evangelical community and its leaders has been not calling the church to repentance, fasting, and prayer in the months since 9-11." He adds, "There is a remarkable contrast here with the challenge of Lincoln during the Civil War." Barrs notes how some have hastened to blame American culture when Scripture calls the church to "judge the household of God" rather than the world.
A wakeup call for theological education
Though it may no longer be in evidence visibly in such areas as church attendance, the tragedy of September 11 has had a significant impact on the church and on those institutions whose mission it is to prepare leaders for the church. For theological seminaries, the tragedy to some extent provided a wakeup call. Says Jo Ann Deasy, dean of students and community life at North Park Theological Seminary, "We felt that few churches in our area adequately responded to the situation. While services were held, they often never addressed the most important issues. Or they moved too quickly past lament to triumph. There were few resources available in the area of hymns or liturgies. And it seemed that few pastors had training or awareness of the long-term psychological effects associated with such a trauma."
Timothy Robnett, associate professor of pastoral ministries at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, reflects the widely held view that many seminaries were not prepared to respond to 9-11. Says Robnett, "Some felt unattached from the event. Some students commented that our institution did not handle the initial responses well in the classroom or as an institution. We were silent when we should have actively listened to one another and prayed for our nation."
Adds Byron D. Klaus, president of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, "We were not ready to respond to the tragedy as Christians. As Americans, yes, but not necessarily as Christians. Seminaries need to train students to understand global issues with greater breadth. We need a much broader awareness of the realities of our world historically and culturally."
The tragedies of 9-11 have sparked many if not most seminaries to make changes in their curricular and extracurricular offerings. These include the addition of classes or special sections of classes focusing on such topics as Islamic fundamentalism and pastoral care following a crisis.
Scott M. Gibson, associate professor of preaching and ministry and director of the Gordon-Conwell (Theological Seminary) Center for Preaching, says that while he has not changed his classes in response to 9-11, the event has made him more alert to the need to heighten students' sensitivities to crisis preaching. Gibson cites the results of a study conducted after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy that revealed how many pastors did not address the event in their sermons or even in their prayers. "Some preachers just went on," says Gibson. "Sometimes preachers ignore the reality that the gospel brings hope to people when they need it."
A greater sense of urgency
Some have wondered to what extent a general increase in seminary enrollment is attributable to 9-11. According to Howard Wilson, vice president of student life/enrollment services at Fuller Theological Seminary, it may be too soon to tell. Wilson notes, however, that "9-11 has given a heightened sense of urgency to current students." He says, "They have a greater desire to get on with it, to get our there and do something."
Steve Hutchison, director of admissions at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, observes that 9-11 has reinforced Eastern Seminary's traditional emphasis on a holistic gospel, one that encompasses both personal and social dimensions. The tragedy, says Hutchison, "has begun, in a small way, to enable our domestic students to better understand some of the dangers that many of our international students face in their homelands."
As Eastern Seminary's dean of student formation, Kristin Frederich-Smoot, puts it, "September 11, 2001, created an amazing opportunity for the United States to join the rest of the folks on this planet, most of whom experience terror as a part of living in an uncertain world."
Hutchison adds, "For many of our domestic students, this impact has caused them to put first things first by revisiting the verse in Zechariah that states, '[It is] not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord' " (4:6).
Says Ruth Vuong, dean of students at Fuller, "I think that as a community we are less patient with the trendy and frivolous, more interested in staying close to our spiritual touchstones." She adds, "Americans in seminary are feeling more a part of our wider world, but we are uncertain about what this will be like over the long term. We do not know what will be asked of us. We do not know what the wars and rumors of war may mean for us, or if and how war may divide us."
For some theological institutions, the increased sense of urgency is part a result of having a direct and personal connection to the tragedies of September 11. One Eastern Seminary student who pastors a church in Jersey City, New Jersey, lost three members of her congregation to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Among them was a single dad. The church has become family to the 13-year-old daughter he left behind.
Wheaton College lost one graduate school alum and two undergrad alumni to the tragedy, including Todd Beamer, the story of whose heroism has been widely told.
Renewed interest in Islam and world events
The events of 9-11 sparked a greater interest among seminary students in the study of Islam, as well as world events. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary experienced a noticeable increase in enrollment for its Islamic studies program. In addition, even students in other programs are taking more courses on Islam.
At Fuller Seminary, nearly 100 students enrolled in a class on Islam taught by Dudley Woodbury, professor of Islamic studies. Says Howard Wilson, vice-president of student life/enrollment services, "Our institution is more cognizant of what Islam is about and its importance in the world."
Multnomah's Robnett states that 9-11 "has alerted us to a greater awareness of the hostility in our world toward America. Whether that hostility is also aimed at Christianity is harder to discern. But it appears to me that our students have gained a greater desire to understand issues of ministry from a more global perspective." He notes that the Multnomah Seminary community is aided in its efforts to grow in understanding of students from Asia and Africa "who are bringing a new perspective to our students regarding the issues of genocide, war, and poverty."
Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw welcomes the desire among seminarians to broaden their political and social understanding. Says Mouw, "Although we condemn the perpetrators of evil deeds, it is not adequate to demonize one individual or group of people without thinking about why some other ethnic and religious groups may sympathize with them, even though they may disagree with their tactics."
An unwavering mission
While September 11 registered both visible and subtle impacts on seminary education, it has not changed its fundamental mission. In fact, how much the world really changed on September 11, 2001, is based in part on one's perspective. As Beeson's Tal Prince puts it, "I certainly do not want to minimize the significance of 9-11 on the world stage, but the son who lost a father on 9-12 hurt no less than the thousands of children who lost their fathers on 9-11." Prince adds, "All tragedies are the result of man's rejection of God in the Garden of Eden. When man invited sin into the world, tragedy and pain slithered in upon its coattails."
Reflects Fuller's Vuong, "One of the beauties about being involved in a field of learning that is centered in ancient wisdom and eternal truth is that, unlike advertising or television programming, for example, it doesn't have to change with every new event. Theology just has to cleave to its core wisdom and help people discern how to act in the present circumstances. In a way, nothing new occurred on September 11. What occurred is the age-old reality of evil, which harms the innocent. This occurs all over the world all the time. It tempts people to respond in kind. It also challenges people to find deeper resources for countering evil with good, which is an immense struggle."
Says Fuller President Mouw, "It has never been more obvious that the world desperately needs to learn about the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It desperately needs to learn of the healing power of Jesus Christ. And it desperately needs to experience the global reality of the church of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we need to think about what we have been called by God to do, what we have been chosen to do, and what it means to be faithful to that calling."
Ultimately, then, the events of 9-11 and the more fragile nature of a post-September 11 world present an opportunity for seminaries to prepare leaders to reach a fearful, uncertain world. Says Beeson's Tal Prince, "C.S. Lewis wrote that 'pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.' There can be no doubt that the megaphone was in use on 9-11, but it is in use every day."
Prince adds, "At Beeson Divinity School, we believe that the only hope we have is in Jesus Christ, and we need to continue to spread that message. There is a balm in Gilead! September 11 did not change our mission. It only served to remind us all of the need to carry out our mission within the scope of the Great Commission."
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.