Praying For Christchurch: First Impressions of How Local Churches Responded in Gathered Worship to the Mosque Shootings

The Christchurch mosque shootings of 15 March 2019 were a heart-breaking moment in Aotearoa New Zealand's history. So we begin by acknowledging the dead, in particular the fifty-one victims of this horrific attack.

Ka mahara tātou ki a rātou kua mene atu ki te pō
(Let us remember those who have passed on beyond the veil)

Ka huri tātou ki a rātou ngā hunga ora, kua morehu mai ki e ao
(But let us turn towards those who have survived in the realm of the living)

Kia tau te rangimarie o Te Atua
(Let the peace of the Almighty prevail)

Ka pō, ka ao, ka ea, ka awatea
(Let light arise to meet the dawn)


This paper offers some initial analysis of our research into how churches responded immediately following the Christchurch shootings. What did churches do in their worship services? What and how did they pray? What resources did those leading the services draw on in deciding how to respond? In answering these questions, we bring the responses of 141 church leaders into conversation with theological questions of who is God, who are we and how then we should live and act as Christians and as churches. We argue for the vitality of a broad ecclesiology and a theology of staying in the unfolding moment.

Our research arises from our context as Kiwi Christian practical theologians. First, as New Zealanders, we wonder how to respond to a tragedy that shattered perceptions of a peaceful and egalitarian Aotearoa.[1] The Christchurch mosque shootings invite our craft as researchers seeking to understand and interpret challenges to our Kiwi identity. Second, as Christians, we follow a God who blesses the peacemakers, the merciful and those who mourn (Matt 5:3–12). The Christian church has historically found in the Psalms a language with which to pray. This language includes both "joy finding words" in praise and "grief's self-expression" in lament.[2] Were such resources adopted in worship? Third, as practical theologians, we understand actions, such as prayer following a tragedy, to be theory-laden, value-directed and profoundly saturated by meaning.[3] What theological insights are evident in the actions of a prayerful church?

In this research, we engaged in three tasks. First, a hermeneutical task in which we employed empirical methods (online questionnaires) to research actions-as-theological-praxis. Second, we engaged a critical task, in a conversation between actions-as-theological-praxis, Scripture, and wisdom from the Christian tradition, in particular theologians, educators and priests, Storm Swain and Sam Wells. Third, we undertook a constructive task, considering implications for future praxis. Hence critical reflection on how the church prays in trauma is brought into dialogue with understandings of how God is engaged in human history, in order to speak to contemporary praxis.

Research and findings

Following the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019, church and worship leaders were invited to complete an online questionnaire.[4] Pastoral leaders in two New Zealand denominations (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ and Baptist Churches of NZ) were informed via email. At the same time, general invitations to participate were posted on social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter).

We used the same research tool that we had used in November 2015, following coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Utilising the same questionnaire enabled us to respond quickly and capture responses in the Sunday immediately following each event. It provided a rich dataset, with 157 responses following the 2015 Paris bombings and 141 responses following the 2019 Christchurch shootings. In this paper, we focus on the Christchurch data, drawing on the Paris data for comparative purposes.

Respondents to the Christchurch questionnaire came from six denominations; Presbyterian (n=43), Baptist (26), Uniting Church in Australia (17), Anglican (13), Pentecostal (5) and Salvation Army (1). Geographically, most were from New Zealand: Christchurch (n=8), elsewhere in the South Island (21), and the North Island (63), with a further 19 from Australia.[5]

The Christchurch tragedy was a central theme or focus of the sermon for nearly half the responding churches, and was mentioned in sermons by another 25%. In contrast, the Paris attacks had been a central focus of the sermon for 4% of churches surveyed, and had been mentioned by another 55%. This comparison demonstrates that the Christchurch mosque shootings elicited a considerably higher level of engagement than the Paris attacks.

All the churches who responded had included the Christchurch mosque shootings in prayer. Again, the levels and types of engagement were significantly higher than they had been in response to the Paris attacks (Table 1).

Prayerful Responses

Alongside the verbal sermons and prayers, were a wide variety of non-verbal responses (Table 2).

Table 2: Nonverbal responses

The diversity and creativity of these responses were intriguing, suggesting that in lived reality, Protestantism has moved a long way beyond the caricature of a purely word-based faith. Leaders had worked quickly, carefully and skilfully to engage thoroughly with an event that had occurred less than 48 hours before Sunday morning services. They curated audio-visuals, crafted creative prayer responses and prepared resources for parents exploring how to discuss the attacks with their children.[6]

Leaders had also shared resources and ideas in the hours following the shootings. Some denominations provided responses that were read aloud in member churches. Other denominations emailed selected resources to their mailing lists. The data also suggests that prayers and liturgies were shared via social media and email. For example, five churches drew on Psalm 10: a text included in an order of service that had been posted to an online ministers’ resourcing group.[7] As Table 3 demonstrates, leaders were engaged in real-time: both in curating event-specific responses and in sharing resources. The internet, including social media, is changing how leaders are resourced.

Table 3: Resources leaders drew upon in preparing worship

Research participants demonstrated a desire to help their congregations process the tragedy of 15 March, to resource them to support others, and to help them respond in life-giving ways.

Seeing Actions as Theological

In seeking to understand churches’ actions-as-theological-praxis and bring them into conversation with the Christian tradition, three questions are generative:

1. Who is God?

2. Who are we?

3. How then shall we live?

We draw on the writings of Storm Swain and Sam Wells to consider these questions.

From Trauma to Transformation: (Who is God, who are we?)

When the disciples ask how to pray, Jesus offers them the Lord’s Prayer. A New Zealand Prayer Book / He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa includes an alternative version, adapted from a prayer written by Jim Cotter, which names God as "Earth-maker, Pain-bearer [and] Life-giver."[8] These words provide insight into the nature and being of God. Storm Swain, an Anglican priest and chaplain at 9/11's Ground Zero, argues that as we are made in God's image, "these nouns can be turned to adjectives describing our involvement in the missio Dei: earth-making, pain-bearing and life-giving."[9] In her book, Trauma and Transformation, Swain takes and applies these adjectives to the experiences of chaplains at Ground Zero and links life-giving to transformation; pain-bearing to suffering with; and earth-making to what she calls holding.[10]

Each of these three images of God was strongly evident in the data gathered. Initial coding to Swain’s categories revealed 134 instances of a move towards life-giving transformation. Life-giving (transforming) actions included invitations to act beyond Sunday, for example, in writing notes and cards that were taken to mosques, and in cancelling worship services in order to participate in vigils.

There were 127 instances of suffering with. This pain-bearing was seen in words that acknowledged the pain of the congregation and the pain of Muslim community, and in the space provided to sit in and with that pain.

However, our data revealed that Swain’s understanding of earth-making required further nuance. While 99 instances were coded to her idea of holding, we coded a further 135 data points to what we interpreted as creating. We suggest, therefore, that what Swain describes as the holding space is better understood as creating space. We saw such holding in the spaces that had been created to be present with all the emotions of the moment. However, this holding or space-creating aspect of earth-making needs to be considered alongside another aspect of creating: one that was evident in prayers and the liturgies crafted, and outworked in the embodied actions invited of the congregation (for example, in lighting candles and placing items on the altar/up the front of the auditorium). This extension of Swain’s use of creating (both creating space and creating liturgical responses etc) would be consistent with God as creator, as revealed in Genesis 1–2 and Proverbs 8. In Psalm 8, the glory of God’s creation is reflected in human actions. God’s creating work is not just a past action, but an unfolding present toward a future in which God is creating all things new (Rev 21:5).[11]

Examples from two churches are illustrative (Table 4 and Table 5):

Table 4: Church A
Table 5: Church B

An astute reader may have noticed the instructive interaction between creating space and pain-bearing. It might be tempting for the slogan "forgive and forget" to be employed by those not directly affected by this trauma, suggesting a need to move on. Such an approach draws on an individualised worldview and a forward-facing eschatology. However, such a response risks surrendering the space for pain-bearing and limiting the opportunities to move towards transformation. Truth-telling is an essential part of pain-bearing. In examining New Zealand history, Rachel Buchanan describes the past, not as "an event that can be boxed up, labelled and put away. [Rather,] the past seeps, unfurls, radiates. It is not a straight line but a loop or a coil, a koru."[12] This approach to memory understands pain-bearing as spiralling in relation to truth rather than adopting the linearity of moving on. Sociologist Paul Connerton argues that humans make sense of the past as "a kind of collective autobiography."[13] Theologian Miroslav Volf has examined the way that Israel remembers. The pain-bearing of Egypt is remembered in the Exodus in ways that transform Israel’s collective autobiography. Thus, "Communities of sacred memory are, at their best, schools of right remembering – remembering that is truthful and just, that heals individuals without injuring others, that allows the past to motivate a just struggle for justice and the grace-filled work of reconciliation."[14] These writings remind the church to create space to be a community of truth-telling in pain-bearing: a task that may lead towards life-giving transformation.

Thoughts and prayers: (Who is God, how then shall we live?)

"Thoughts and prayers" are commonly offered to victims of large-scale tragedy. The phrase has produced a backlash, being seen as a way to avoid action.[15] A striking feature of the way churches responded to the Christchurch mosque shootings was in their actions beyond thoughts and prayers. The respondents provided multiple avenues to facilitate engagement with their local Muslim communities. The scope of this engagement is clarified in conversation with Samuel Wells, former Dean of Duke University Chapel and research professor in Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School. Wells provides a four-fold approach to Christian engagement, drawing on God being with the world in the Incarnate Christ.[16] Wells considers the entirety of Jesus’ life. Jesus was born human as part of God being for humanity. Jesus then spent 30 years being with humanity as a child and carpenter. This was followed by three years of working with the disciples in ministry, culminating in Jesus working for us in death and through resurrection. Each of these postures, argues Wells, is essential to God revealed in Christ. They provide a way for the church to live God’s mission in the world.

What do these four approaches mean for how Christians engage with people of other faiths? Wells argues that mission in a pluralist world is enacted in specific ways through each of these four postures.[17] Strikingly, each of these four postures was evident in the data on responses to the Christchurch mosque shootings, specifically in the ways that churches offered social engagement.

Working for is an established model of social engagement. Known strengths are applied to the problems of another. Working for includes advocacy and this posture of engagement was evident in the ten churches that read official statements from denominational leaders. These statements drew on existing national or local leadership resources of the wider church and engaged by advocating for solidarity with the Muslim community. Another example of working for was the church that took up an offering for victims, using financial resources to offer practical engagement. A further example was the church who changed their signage to say "Kia kaha NZ" and "Be kind to one another." These acts of engagement rely on existing strengths of the church: in this case, having recognised leaders, financial resources and property with signage. Working for is an essential posture of mission.

Working with, like working for, gains energy from solving problems. However, rather than valuing the expert, it seeks "coalitions of interest."[18] This approach to missions includes joint justice statements and shared community projects, as churches seek partnerships and networks to enact God’s mission. For example, one church not only produced a letter of support (a working for) but did it in a way that was "received and reciprocated" by the local Muslim community. Another church "held a peace vigil on the Wednesday following [the shootings] which included a significant involvement by the local Muslim community." Another church drew on the lectionary text (Luke 13:31-35), exploring: "how the ways we learn to live as a community … will have an impact on the ways we live in the wider community." These examples are a working with through relationships of partnership and reciprocity.

Being for seeks to engage, but tends to do so from a distance: a "philosophy that’s more concerned with getting the ideas right."[19] Wells notes that being for can be shaped by not knowing what to do. Afraid we might say the wrong thing, we pray for those who grieve rather than both praying and paying a visit. Being for was evident as churches wrote messages of condolence: "We have commemoration books ... so people can write a message of condolence." These actions were important as they allowed grief to be expressed and prayer offered. However, being for, if the only mode of engagement, runs the danger of keeping those in pain at arms-length.

Being with rejects the problem-solving orientation of working with and working for. Instead, it looks for assets, rather than problems. It seeks to accompany, choosing to enjoy people for their own sakes rather than as problems to be fixed. Applied to engaging with people of other faiths, being with can include being present in the same space, reading sacred texts and visiting the places of worship of another faith.[20] Wells argues that essential to this posture is the expectation of being surprised by the faith of another. In Gospel examples, Jesus is surprised by the great faith shown by the Roman Centurion (Matt 8:20) and the Syrophoenician woman (Matt 15:28).[21] For several churches, the being for of writing condolences became an avenue for a being with. One church took a gift of native flowers "to the mosque … accompanied by many members of the congregation and a card of support and love signed." Significantly, the card of love and support is "accompanied by many members." Some other churches found ways to engage by being with beyond the gathered Sunday worship. "It was mentioned that the local mosque had invited the community to a vigil with them that evening. ... Some responded to the invitation to go to the mosque vigil." Another person wrote of how "during the week after, I personally visited a Muslim couple who run a café near the church which I frequently visit. I took them flowers and a card. ... We had a cry together."

Wells argues that one way to engage by being with is to read the sacred texts of another religion. Several churches read from the Koran during their gathered worship. For example, one participant reported: a "story was read from the Quran." Another noted: "the visiting preacher also read from the Koran." Other churches made links between the lectionary reading from the Old Testament (Gen 15:5–18) that was "intriguingly … about Abraham. ... [Our] emphasis was on Abraham as the common ancestor of Christianity, Judaism and Islam." In another church, the sermon considered "How do we as children of Abraham and Sarah become bearers of blessing alongside our sisters and brothers in the other two Abrahamic faiths?" One respondent "spoke of Abraham as common ancestor of Jews and Christians and Muslims, so these were our cousins who had been killed." This is a being with in which sacred texts – both Christian and Islamic – become points of commonality, rather than difference.

Wells calls the church to embody all four postures of the Incarnation. Our research suggests that such ministry is best shared across the breadth of the church. Working for can best be done by national representatives, who have existing inter-church forums. Being for can involve personal expressions of care, evident in the many and diverse ways people prayed, whether with candles or by signing a commemoration book. Being with turns these prayers into personal contact. Working with takes time. It is not easily done in a few days between an attack on a Friday and gathered worship on a Sunday. It is enhanced if relationships already exist. We plan to do further research exploring how working with has unfolded in the weeks and months following the shootings.

Implications from the Research for Contemporary Praxis

Thus far, we have researched action, and reflected critically using Storm Swain and Samuel Wells. The article has explored three theological questions, in the light of the Christchurch mosque shootings: Who is God, who are we and how then we should live and act? While we long and pray for a world free from tragedy and trauma, this final section turns directly to the third question: how should we live and act as Christians and as churches? This section offers suggestions regarding contemporary praxis, integrating research and theology. Practical actions are offered to provide spaces to hold with God the pain of the world, and move towards transformation (Swain) and that embody all four postures of the Incarnation (Wells).

Speak: In the sudden shock of violence, with events rapidly unfolding, it is tempting to say nothing. However, less than 48 hours after the Christchurch mosque shootings, these churches had adapted sermons, prayers, or responses to speak into this tragic reality.

Express: When finding your own words is hard, borrow from others. The church’s ancient prayer book (Psalms) gives us words of thanks and praise but also to express anger, grief and despair. When words fail, actions and symbols can be helpful.

Engage: People took time to express compassion and to make personal connections with local Muslim people and communities. They wrote letters and cards; set up a commemoration book; and wrote on symbols of peace. Some took flowers to their Muslim neighbours; others provided food.

Remain: The impact of violence is both immediate and long-term. Christians are called to be present at every stage, especially in an age of social media when information and misinformation quickly spreads. In the immediate, don't rush to blame. In the long-term, don't forget. At all times, speak truth, peace, and love with courage.

Act: Take big actions and small actions.

In preparing and undertaking such actions, we are invited to remember who God is, who we are and to consider how then we might live and act as churches and as Christians. Swain reminds us to work with God in earth-making, pain-bearing and life-giving: creating and holding space for people to grieve and process, suffering with those suffer, and encouraging movement towards life-giving transformation. Wells invites us to consider four postures of God's Incarnation in our world: inviting the church to engage in advocating, problem-solving, expressing solidarity and engaging deeply.

In a mihi, following the acknowledgement of the dead – Ka mahara tātou ki a rātou kua mene atu ki te pō– comes the greeting of the living – Ka huri tātou ki a rātou ngā hunga ora, kua morehu mai ki e ao. What happened in Christchurch has changed the ways that Aotearoa sees itself. We are invited to move to ongoing actions, respecting and getting to know people of all faiths and no faith. Because we are all human persons, created and beloved by God.

Lynne Taylor and Steve Taylor are based in Dunedin.

As the Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology (University of Otago), Lynne researches and teaches in the areas of chaplaincy studies, pastoral care, contemporary faith formation and congregational studies. Prior to (and in conjunction with) her academic role, she has worked and volunteered in pastoral ministry, and engaged in congregational and denominational research. Her PhD (Flinders University of South Australia, 2017) explored why previously unchurched Australians are becoming Christians today and she has recently published four peer-reviewed articles on this topic, as well as articles for popular press. She is currently investigating how churches responded to covid-19 in their worship, pastoral care and mission activities.

Steve is the author of First Expressions (2019), Built for Change (2016) and The Out of Bounds Church (2005). He gained his PhD in missional ecclesiology from the University of Otago (2004). In 2015, he was awarded the Flinders University Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and is a regular writer for Touchstone, Zadok and Church of Scotland Weekly Worship. He has published over 45 peer-reviewed academic pieces and more than 220 other articles and poems on various aspects of Christian faith and culture. Steve has served as church planter, senior pastor, lecturer in missiology, and principal of theological colleges in Australia and New Zealand and is currently lead researcher on a project exploring the future of theological education. This article was made possible through the provision of sabbatical leave from the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership.

[1] According to the 2019 Global Peace Index, New Zealand is the second most peaceful country in the world. Institute for Economics & Peace, "Global Peace Index: Measuring Peace in a Complex World," (Sydney, 2019), 8.

[2] Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), 10.

[3] Ray S Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Illinois: IVP, 2001), 48.

[4] On

[5] Not all respondents provided a denominational or geographic affiliation.

[6] Some of the detail of these responses will now be described.

[7] While we cannot demonstrate causality, most who reported using this text were of the same denomination as the minister who shared it to their denominational leaders’ Facebook page.

[8] Church of the Province of New Zealand, A New Zealand Prayer Book: He Karakia Mihinare O Aotearoa (Auckland: Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, 1988), 181.

[9] Storm Swain, Trauma and Transformation At Ground Zero (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 37.

[10] Here, Swain draws on Donald Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (London: Hogarth, 1965).

[11] Hence the definition of culture in Henning Wrogemann, Intercultural Hermeneutics, translated by Karl E. Böhmer (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 112 as “every material and non-material element of human existence which is not found in nature but was purposely constructed by human being using ‘innovations’.”

[12] Rachel Buchanan, Ko Taranaki Te Maunga (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2019), 103.

[13] Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 70.

[14] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory. Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 128.

[15] A J Willingham, "How 'Thoughts and Prayers' Went from Common Condolence to Cynical Meme," (CNN, 19 May 2018)

[16] Samuel Wells, Incarnational Mission: Being with the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[17] Ibid., 77-99.

[18] Ibid., 11.

[19] Ibid., 12.

[20] Ibid., 97-99.

[21] For more see Bob Robinson, Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).