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.
4. 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.
In taking such precautions, we must be careful to respect the privacy of the abused. We don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to their plight. But we also should make it clear to them that they should be able to feel safe and free from threat when they are on church grounds.
5. Identify and prepare the guardians.
Every church should identify and prepare members who are expressly willing to rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82:4). These should be volunteers willing and able to lay down their lives to protect their brothers and sisters in Christ (John 15:13).
Once identified, they need to understand how they will be expected to prepare and respond when threats of violence arise. Their regular duties may be as simple as having them regularly sit in pews close to the doors during church services or to be the one to dial 911 in an emergency. Whatever their roles they should each also be aware that they may be called upon to sacrifice themselves in order to buy a few minutes for others to get to safety.
These “guardians” don’t need to be police officer or former SEAL team veterans. They don’t need to be the biggest and bravest in the congregation. All they need is the conviction that they will do whatever is in their power to protect the church from violence.
6. Protect the children.
The self-identified guardians have the responsibility to protect the congregation. But the congregation should be aware that their primary security responsibility should be to protect the children.
Every safety measure taken should be measured against this standard. Every security policy should start with this goal. In every step you take to protect your church from violence, the primary concern must be to protect the children.
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 also 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).
We should prepare our congregations to be ready for whatever threats of violence we may face. Yet we must also be ready to sacrifice everything—including our security and our lives—for the sake of the gospel. We can make our churches “hard targets,” but we must do so with soft hearts.