In my previous article “A Suffering Group We’ve Largely Forgotten,” I addressed the way in which the church has struggled to provide holistic care for the military veterans within our communities. I am both a lead minister and a veteran, and I am passionate about mobilizing churches to minister to veterans; after all, you would probably be surprised how many veterans you’ve got in your area. Although I felt the goal of raising awareness was accomplished, the overwhelming response was emails, texts, and phone calls asking how to accomplish this.
When processing the how-to, I am reminded of a toy you may be familiar with: the jack-n-the-box. If you are unsure how this toy works, it’s essentially a box with a spring-loaded figure inside (the “jack”) and a crank located somewhere on the outside. One person cranks the handle for a few moments, and the figure on the inside pops out of the box, creating a moment of surprise or excitement for those observing. Then the jack is replaced back in the box until the handle is cranked again to repeat the cycle.
What if I told you that many of our churches have treated our military veterans not much better than the jack in our metaphorical box? I hope this isn’t true of your church, but we only need to consider how many times a year the typical church notices or acknowledges veterans. As someone who pastors and has been in churches my entire life, I could venture to guess it is once or twice a year at best. There’s the weekend of Memorial Day, or perhaps Veteran’s Day, where some churches feel obligated to do something. This could be a meal but most commonly, in my experience, it involves asking all the veterans present that weekend to stand up so that the congregation can clap and celebrate them.
It’s a bit like slowly cranking a handle in order to get maybe one or two appearances a year—and then they can go back in the box. This might not be such a problem, except that our veterans are suffering with elevated levels of suicide (23 a day in the US), PTSD, substance abuse, and divorce. Many are struggling to function, both physically and mentally, in a society that has seemingly forgotten them.
“It’s a bit like slowly cranking a handle in order to get maybe one or two appearances a year—and then they can go back in the box.”
In what ways can we emulate Christ and bring the redeeming power of the gospel to a group of people that we have largely forgotten?
“I Will Never Leave a Fallen Comrade”
Truthfully, I wish that the solution was like that of a math problem. Meaning that we could just plug something into the equation and efficiently solve the crisis at hand. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to such a diverse problem and thus, in this article, my plan is simply to suggest four possible steps. My encouragement to you is this: try each of these steps until you find one that works especially well in your specific ministry context.
Before we look at some possible solutions, it might be helpful for me to mention a creed we learned in the Army. In the Army, there is a creed titled the “Soldier’s Creed”; it is something that all Army personnel must memorize. Within this creed, there is a small section, known as the “Warrior’s Ethos,” that articulates what it means to be a soldier. These go as follows: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
My challenge is this as we explore these solutions: allow the intent behind this creed to guide you as you navigate these uncharted waters. Do not quit when the mission gets hard, do not accept defeat if something doesn’t work, and most importantly, do not leave a brother or sister lost in the darkness of their desperation, because we have a responsibility to reach the lost.
“Do not leave a brother or sister lost in the darkness of their desperation, because we have a responsibility to reach the lost.”
1. Identifying the Veterans
If we want to reach out to veterans, first we need to figure out who the veterans are within our communities. Helpful ways of doing this are reaching out to local organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or even to your local Veterans Administration hospital or clinic. Of course, there is no clear picture of how this will always work, but my suggestion is simply to reach out and ask about volunteer opportunities involving ministries we already try to do. The VA uses volunteers as greeters and guides in their hospitals and these roles are completely volunteer-based.
As you volunteer, you will have the opportunity to interact with local veterans opening the door for conversations that otherwise you may never have. This is also where I think it can help to acknowledge veterans in church, for example, during Memorial Day weekend, because this can help us identify those who are veterans within our churches.
2. Building Relationships
My second suggestion is simply to meet them where they are. Figure out what they enjoy doing and go and do that with them. I have a friend who has a pond at his home and several veterans within his church love to fish. This provides a unique opportunity for him to invite veterans over to fish and have dinner. In short, this is a helpful way of breaking down walls so that he might be able to build an intentional relationship with them.
3. Inviting Them In
As we discuss these ideas for reaching veterans, it must be said that our goal isn’t to isolate a group of people in our churches, but rather to encourage them to become a part of a unified body whose aim is to emulate and glorify God. In inviting them to church, we’ve got to remember to simply love them for who they are. This begins with the assumption that you believe that all people are made in God’s image and of His likeness (see Gen. 1:26). This means that we must not get hung up on the things that they have seen and done and love them for who God created them to be. Prison and addiction ministries do this well, so it may be a good idea to investigate what they have done to become successful to give you ideas moving forward.
“We must not get hung up on the things that they have seen and done and love them for who God created them to be.”
One of the things I love about prison ministries is this: many of the guys you see in videos online that are dedicating their lives to Jesus are serving life sentences (this means that they have committed the most heinous of crimes and were deemed not acceptable to return back into normalized society). However, people who go to minister in these situations do not see these people for the crimes that they committed but rather for the person God created them to be. This filter is likewise helpful in veteran ministry.
4. Creating Space for Them
A final suggestion is to think about creating a group or a class specifically for veterans. This could be a small group, a Sunday school class, or even a counseling group that is made up of veterans from your church and community. This can be effective because veterans are trained to be reliant on the concept of community and thus you are creating a safe place for them to be themselves within the church.
This plea cannot be stressed enough as I have lost friends to suicide—something we military guys call “losing the war within.” Last year alone I lost a dear friend who was a combat veteran and seemed to be crushing it from an outward perspective. He had a beautiful wife and family; he was successful at work and was living what appeared to be the “American Dream.” As I sit here and write this article, I can’t help but wonder, what if the church had been able to reach out to this young man? Could that alone have saved his life? Would his six children still have a father, his wife a husband, and his parents a son? Although we cannot know the answer because that is something only God knows, it remains a convicting thought in my mind and heart.
What if we as the church slowed down the numbers by even just one a day? That means one more father, husband, son, wife, or daughter is here to be loved and to love their family. As I close this article out, my prayer is that you may have an overwhelming spirit of conviction leading you to reach out to a veteran in your area.
For Part 3 in this series (“Do’s & Don’ts in Reaching Veterans”), click here.