But researchers found that after a mass shooting, similar to what studies show in the wake of natural disasters, “religious support buffers the deleterious relationship between resource loss and negative outcomes.”
That means, even when the suffering is greater, survivors with high levels of support from their faith communities don’t show the level of worsening symptoms experienced by people without such community.
No one expects their church to become the target of an attack—especially not the kind of spare-no-one shooting that took place Sunday at a Southern Baptist church in rural Texas.
A gunman shot nearly 50 worshipers, 26 fatally—a figure that nears the total attendance at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs many weeks. For survivors and their neighbors, it’s the kind of unimaginable tragedy that will change their small single-stoplight town forever.
However, recent research around mass shootings indicates that people of faith, particularly those who receive support from their churches and religious communities, fare better in their recovery.
“Finding comfort in one’s faith and faith community is particularly important to helping mass shooting survivors hold onto hope amidst such horrible tragedies,” said Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College. “Now is the time for First Baptist Church and surrounding churches to gather, pray, and lament in community.”
The first in-depth empirical studies examining faith and mass shootings—which HDI presented during the American Psychological Association convention last year—found that faith communities that rally together in the wake of a mass shooting make a measurable difference in the lives of survivors.
After a mass shooting, people who felt supported by their religious communities ultimately experienced fewer symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and their faith didn’t suffer as much.
The research—which studied recovery efforts from shootings over the past two years in Orlando, Dallas, and Roseburg, Oregon—is currently under review, but already points to promising takeaways for how churches can help, whether the tragedy happens within their sanctuaries or not.
“These findings suggest that people in communities affected by mass shootings who identify as a person of faith or are open to faith would benefit from being encouraged to utilize their religious community as a source of social and religious support,” said Aten. “Helping to connect people for whom it is appropriate to support from their religious communities would appear to help buffer against common negative mass trauma reactions, placing them on a better trajectory for recovery.”
Even in the worst of times, Christians like those mourning in Sutherland Springs may have a few factors working in their favor, including a community to rally around them in their suffering and a view of God as caring and comforting.
The power of church community
Typically, the greater the loss a person suffers, the worse their psychological and spiritual outlook as a result. After a mass shooting, those affected by the tragedy may experience fear, stress, PTSD, anxiety, anti-social behavior, substance abuse, and “prolonged and complicated grief,” according to recent research by psychologists at the University of North Texas.