There is nothing that can truly prepare us for tragic events that we will encounter in this life. Evil lurks around every corner and this generation seems to be at an all-time high for acts of terrorism and gun violence. With all of the mass shootings, including church shootings, that have taken place in the last decade, you may be wondering, “How do I keep my church safe?”. We know that hatred and violence are part of our fallen world, and that our call to love others will make us vulnerable at times. What’s the balance, especially because church attacks are growing in number?
Did you know that the first mass shooting at an American church was in 1980 when a Baptist church in Texas lost 15 people? It could happen at any church, at any time as we saw in the most recent shooting that took place in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, a town about 40 miles southeast of San Antonio. On Sunday, November 5, a 26-year-old lone gunman named Devin Patrick Kelley targeted The First Baptist Church. With several guns and many rounds, he started firing even before he entered the church. As he left the church, a local resident saw him and used his own rifle to try to stop him. After a brief chase, it was all over. Devin died and he had killed 26 people and wounded 20 others. The victims ranged from 5 to 72 years old. We grieve for everyone involved and pray for the peace that passes all understanding to guide and keep everyone in the congregation. Like many churches, The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, meets at 9:15 every Sunday morning for food and fellowship, followed by Sunday School and a morning church service at 11.
Remember what happened just two years ago, on June 17, 2015? In Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof shot 9 church-goers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Identified as a ‘hate crime,’ Roof opened fire at this historically black church at about 9 p.m. as several members of the congregation met for Bible study. After his rampage, he left the church and police went on a manhunt until 10:45 p.m. In the end, eight people died at the scene and two were taken to the Medical University of South Carolina, where one later died.
These churches are not dissimilar to any of the ones we attend. These tragic events leave us all in shock, both as a wider church community and in the country at large. Since before America’s founding, the church has played a central role in communities, serving as a place of hospitality, direction, and strength. Those are still its hallmarks as we intently try to love a dying world. And God instructs us not to fear. What a delicate balance! We must both be hospitable and aware, kind and discerning, loving and aware of potential danger.
As a practical guide, we put together 10 considerations as we continue walking through a world that is much more restless and more and more hostile to faith of any kind, especially Christianity. In a spirit of hospitality, kindness and love, let’s ask one another the nuts and bolts questions of church security and prevention.
Church Security: How to Prevent A Mass Shooting In Your Church
1. Greeters and security guards
Greeters, both in the parking lot and at all entrances provide a warm and inviting first impression. Today, these volunteers can also be the first-line of defense. Perhaps we never want to check bags or use scanning wands, but training greeters to be watchful is important. Since communication is vital, consider using two-way radios with a central point person who assesses any issues. If members have law enforcement experience, ask them to conduct a general training session for volunteers. Also consider the expense of a security guard, especially during events like youth group and children’s meetings. A security guard can provide a deterring presence.
2. Lock up!
Unfortunately, locking the church is the reality of our day. Churches of yesterday wanted to provide a place of solitude for anyone, including the stranger, at any time, day or night. The senior pastor lived next door and could often be found in his church office or preparing for services in the sanctuary. Unfortunately, our communities are more disparate now and coming to church usually has more of a routine to it, around events or services. This reality of life, combined with the violence we’ve seen over and over again, makes locking our doors more essential. Having a regiment on who is charged with this duty after each event is paramount. More and more churches also lock their doors when a services begin. Consider a voice box system and maybe a card swipe for weekdays. Posting hours on the door might also help inform a person about the availability of staff members for counsel or individual prayer.
3. Secure your children’s ministry area
It may seem obvious but many small churches struggle with the cost and time to run a beeper system. There are low-cost options that help organize drop-off and pick-up. This is a high-touch ministry of a church so any suspicious persons or behavior need to be reported. We also encourage having women AND men on site and present in any volunteer rotation schedule.
4. Train your deacons to be watchful
Once the service begins, there are natural transitions where the deacons/ushers can be actively watching. Perhaps they carefully survey the audience as they move half-way to the stage, making sure nothing is out of place. A balcony provides a great view too.
5. The offering as target
We’re working on the assumption that potential violence is connected to hate, but it might be money. We suggest changing rooms each week where the offering is counted. Patterns of behavior can be the easiest targets.
6. Promote membership
It might seem like an odd point, but we always encourage churches to get to know each member on a relational level. Because there’s a historic trend away from membership, it’s easier for someone to slip into a service and not be noticed. That’s not good for safety and it’s especially unhealthy as you seek to minister to everyone who comes through your doors.
7. Have an emergency plan
Schools, hospitals, and offices have emergency plans. Does your church? Do you practice it? Plans should cover acts of medical assistance, fire, severe weather events, and most certainly violent acts including a live shooter. Points to consider include: (1) an active list of area counselors; (2) an emergency texting system; (3) list of nearby hospitals; (4) members who have medical training; (5) area church network.
8. Strengthening community partnerships
Do you know the police and fire personnel that inspect or patrol the church? How about the city mayor and council members? Leaders at local hospitals? These are prime areas of witness and also the people who any church will depend on if something ever happens.
9. Background checks
It may seem intrusive, but background checks help any organization, whether a volunteer work with children or teaches in a home group.
Why is God allowing the violence we’ve seen recently? What is he teaching us? How do we minister to the stranger, the sinner, the broken, knowing the vulnerability that we face as people and as a Christian community? Prayer will help make sure our posture is service and love, no matter how God uses each of us. How do we respond in times of tragedy? The Bible can strengthen and encourage us in times of tragedy.
Future of Church Security
An interesting article published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of The Atlantic regarding the idea of Bulletproofing America: Could technology help prevent mass shootings? highlights some interesting points about the future of gun control in America. Basically, we have the technology available to bring gun control to the next level but would that really solve the issue? Do you think churches will be safer with the increase and implementation of technology for firearms?
Further, apps and robotics can serve as another element to protect innocent victims of mass shootings. There may be light at the end of the tunnel with advances in technology, but we have to continue to do our due diligence by preparing our church in the event of an event like this.
*Stats vary slightly. Here are three helps we found: