Like many believers, I’m still processing the events which occurred in Sutherland Springs last Sunday. A 26-year-old man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and wearing a ballistic vest, entered a Texas church and killed 26 members of the congregation while injuring several others. Not only was this a heinous attack on innocent people, but it also served to violate the sacred space of many Christians. If you’re like me, the Church has always been a place of hope, comfort, and healing. The realization that danger could lurk just beyond the chapel door is a frightful and upsetting prospect.
So what can we do? Well, a number of prominent figures have already begun discussing ways the Church can prepare for emergencies on Sunday morning. In particular, Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition has listed several practical steps every congregation can take. Below are a few of his recommendations along with some policies my own church has implemented to ensure the safety of our members.
1. Communicate to your congregation
“As much as possible, and consistent with the leadership and decision-making structure of your church, you should solicit the input of your congregation before making a formal security plan. This is especially necessary for pastors and leaders who may be serving in cultures or regions whose perspective may differ from their own. For example, elders carrying concealed pistols during church services may be culturally accepted in rural Texas but may cause a scandal in a suburban California congregation.”
“Once the church agrees on what security measures are acceptable, that information needs to be regularly disseminated (i.e., at least annually) to the entire congregation. Simply being aware that the church has a plan of action can help alleviate the worry and concerns of members.”
2. Work alongside Local Law Enforcement
While I don’t know the specifics, I do know the leadership of my Church has open communication with our local law enforcement. They have even been gracious enough to station an officer outside the church on Sunday mornings when people are leaving or entering. This extra bit of security has come in handy to the congregation, such as the time when an inebriated man tried to visit while not wearing any pants (true story). Thankfully, my church has never seen any instances of violence, but we still appreciate the brave men and women in blue who stand up each week to ensure our safety.
3. Think outside the church door
“While the main priority of church leaders must be to focus on the safety of the congregation while in the church building, we should consider how we could protect members outside the church doors.”
“As Duke Kwon, pastor of a church in Washington, D.C., recently noted on Twitter, ‘Here in DC, our members have a much higher chance of getting shot while walking to church than while worshipping.’ To reduce such risks we can implement programs that protect people as they come to and from the church, such as having pickup and drop-off van service or providing volunteers to walk them home. Larger churches may also need to have patrols of the parking lots to ensure the safety of all churchgoers as they enter and leave church services.”
4. Implement Rules to Protect Children
As a Sunday School volunteer, and I’ve learned it’s important to have detailed rules when looking after children. One example is my Church’s two-leader bathroom policy. Whenever a child asks to go to the bathroom, we always insists two leaders accompany them. This is not intended to cast aspersions on anyone’s character, we merely feel this is an effective way of deterring potential abuse. We also ask that parents take an ID number whenever they drop off their children. This way, a stranger claiming to be so-and-so’s father has to provide identification before they walk off. These are pretty simple policies, but they go a long way to creating a safe space for our children.
5. Understand the singular threat of domestic violence
“The one threat every church should expect and prepare for is spillover of domestic violence into the church. Over the past 50 years, the targeting of a family member or intimate partners has been the motive in almost 20 percent of church shootings. And while statistics are not kept on the prevalence of such acts, violence that starts in the home is likely to be one of the most prevalent types of violent attacks encountered in church buildings.”
“Church leaders should be aware of which members of the congregation are vulnerable to violence in the home. Not only should we be helping to find a solution to the problem in the home, we also need to prepare for how we can protect such members when they are at church.”
6. Know Your Building
For a time, my Church gathered in an old theater we rented for Sunday mornings. It was a nice building but very labyrinthine, with entrances and exits at bizarre places. Our Church leadership felt it was prudent to instruct our members on where to go in the event of an emergency. If a fire broke out, there were two large doors on either side of the building through which we should exit. If there was a tornado, the basement was large and well protected. Like any major gathering spot, it’s helpful to know the layout should something dangerous take place.
7. Prepare against anxiety and hardheartedness.
“We live in a fallen world where violence can erupt at a moment’s notice. We are not immune to such threats even when we gather to worship our Creator. Because of this reality, churches must be prepared.”
“…We must be cautious, but not fearful. We can’t shut our doors to those who need to hear the gospel because of our anxiety about violence. As Paul tells us, ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6-7).
These are troubling times, but perhaps God will use them to raise up the strong leaders and selfless guardians people are searching for? Whatever may come, it’s important for Christians everywhere to remember the promise of the gospel, and live each day undaunted by fear.
*Ryan Duncan is an Editor for Crosswalk.com