We live in a world under God’s providential control. 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).
A homeless man you’ve never seen before visits your church, stands in the back behind everyone who is sitting down, and begins eating a piece of chicken on a switchblade knife.
How would your congregation respond?
That’s a situation a church plant in Virginia faced several years ago. When the elders approached the man they discovered he knew someone in the church, and that person was able to help them ask the visitor to put away the weapon.
Fortunately, the knife-wielding man had no intention of harming anyone. But that wasn’t known—and couldn’t have been known—until the church leaders confronted the stranger, putting their own lives in potential danger.
Over the past few years, church shootings like the one this week in Texas have captured our attention. But mass shootings in a church are extremely rare events. The actual threats of violence your church is likely to face are more likely to be similar to the scenario in Virginia—a situation that is unexpected, unusual, and for which the appropriate response is unclear.
How then can we prepare for the range of potential violence we may encounter on Sunday mornings?
While there are excellent resources and organizations that can help you develop formal and specific plans, here are seven general actions to prepare your church:
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. Be realistic about your security context.
Threats to churches vary in kind, degree, and probability. Your church needs to be honest about the most likely threats of violence you may face in your particular context, and the most appropriate actions to protect against them.
Some threats, such as mass shootings, are a low-probability event for all congregations. Others will be based on the location of the church. For instance, a medium-sized church located in a high-crime area of a city will face different challenges than a small church in a low-crime rural setting. Hiring an off-duty police officer to patrol the lobby during morning services may be a prudent measure for the former while being costly and unnecessary for the latter. While the rural church shouldn’t overreact by implementing expensive security measures, the city church should not ignore the real dangers they may encounter.
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.