On the Fourth of July, United States citizens celebrate our nation’s independence and the freedoms won and defended by the men and women of the military community. But though we may honor veterans and military personnel on special days each year, how should our churches reach out to and care for them?
For more than 20 years, America has been engaged in the global War on Terror, and men and women have been deployed to combat zones across the world. According to the National Library of Medicine, over 1.9 million U.S. military personnel have been deployed in 3 million tours of duty to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.
Though we may honor veterans and military personnel on special days each year, how do our churches reach out to and care for them?
During a deployment, service members live as part of a tribe, a culture unique to those subjected to the horrors of combat. But when combat is done, many veterans struggle to adapt to the rhythms of civilian life. The Veteran’s Administration reports alarming rates of depression and anxiety among combat veterans, and more than 22 veterans take their own lives daily.
Military veterans need help from the church to combat these concerns. We are uniquely positioned to meet this need by stepping into the pain and helping veterans reestablish the kind of deep relational connections they left behind when they returned home from military service.
Unique Bonds Lost
In the military, individuals from different walks of life work together for a common mission. Service men and women live, work, breathe, and bleed alongside one another. They endure long hours, pain, and stress as they daily look death in the eye.
Though military personnel often live relatively simple lives during deployment, they make high-stakes decisions. A soldier may drive on the calm city streets of Baghdad one moment and be tasked with seeing the signs of an improvised explosive device the next.
When military personnel come back from a deployment, they encounter culture shock. Simple life choices such as navigating a grocery aisle to choose which type of bread to buy may have minimal stakes, but they can feel overwhelmingly complex. Moreover, the soldier no longer lives in proximity to his unit, so the deep bonds and support he developed through shared suffering are lost. These radical differences between civilian and active-duty life can make it difficult to reconnect mentally and emotionally. Many veterans feel empty and isolated.
This was my story. I separated from the U.S. Air Force in 2018 and moved into the private sector. The transition was exciting but challenging. Others I’d served alongside continued to serve, and I felt as though I was missing out. Adjusting back to everyday American life rhythms further complicated my thoughts. I felt unfulfilled, and I longed to return to combat. What made the difference for me?
Close-Knit Community Gained
The church’s mission to bring peace and righteousness in the world is far removed from the mission and objectives of the military, and the deep unity and common mission Christians share surpasses that of any worldly organization (Eph. 4:1–6). The Bible testifies to how first-century Christians shared all things in common (Acts 2:42–47). The early church first gathered in homes. Then, under persecution, the community was bolstered and spread the gospel quickly across the Roman Empire. The early Christians lived, worked, breathed, and bled alongside one another for the sake of the gospel.
In Acts 2:46, Luke uses a Greek adverb, homothumadon, which means “with one mind or purpose,” to describe the unity the first Christians shared when they met together at the temple. He uses the word 10 more times in the book to describe the uniqueness and depth of close-knit Christian community.
Today’s church must display this same close-knit unity. We must connect every member of the congregation—including those coming home from military deployments—to a community of care. How can a local church reach out and provide care for hurting veterans? Here are three suggestions.
1. Recruit military members and veterans to help.
Regardless of their varying branches, locations, or time in service, military veterans usually love to connect with one another. Their shared experiences create an instant bond. If you’re hoping to reach out to hurting veterans within your community, begin by recruiting those in your church who have served. The most effectual ministry to veterans begins here. You’ll discover that younger veterans and active-duty military members benefit greatly from the experience and encouragement of older veterans who have walked the path from service to civilian life before.
2. Host an outreach event.
According to the 2020 census, 18 million veterans live in the United States. So even if your church isn’t near a base, it’s likely that former or current military personnel live near you. Hosting a breakfast event or game night that’s tailored for the service men and women in your community is a great way to show your appreciation for them and invite them into your church.
3. Invite those with military experience to use their gifts.
The church provides a support system for veterans coming home, but it also gives them the opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts. Veterans often have more leadership training and experience than your average church member. Integrate them into your church body in ways that allow them to both serve and be served. Take the same approach with active-duty personnel who may be far from their families; welcome and include them even if their assignment in your location is short. This not only shows them Christian love but also gives them an opportunity to be an asset to the local body.
Active-duty military members benefit greatly from the experience and encouragement of older veterans who have walked the path from service to civilian life before.
Veterans want to replicate the deep bonds and shared mission they established while deployed. Sometimes they see events unfolding on the news and are tempted to ask, “Did I do enough?” When I have those thoughts, I consider the unique opportunity God has given me to serve other former military personnel. Instead of redeploying, I can help my fellow veterans by pointing them to the unity and common mission Christians share in Christ.
Just as deployed soldiers go into combat with one mind and purpose, so also church members move together into the trenches of ministry. And as veterans serve alongside their Christian brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit will knit them together in unity. By imitating the common life we see in Acts, I believe the church can launch one of the most extensive and effective homecoming campaigns veterans have ever experienced.