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Making church safer

Congregations take measures in light of a society that no longer considers
the sanctuary sacred

By Robert Mims

On March 8, Terry Joe Sedlacek walked into the sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., and strode up the aisle during the first service as Pastor Fred Winters preached. Then, police say, he began firing a .45-caliber Glock handgun, fatally shooting Winters in the heart.

Police say Sedlacek brought enough ammunition to kill 30 people, but his semiautomatic pistol jammed after four shots. Before being subdued, Sedlacek allegedly stabbed two congregants with a knife.

Such headlines, while far from commonplace, no longer are unique. At First Congregational Church in Neosho, Mo., the pastor and two deacons lost their lives to a gunman in August 2007. That December, two sisters were murdered and their father wounded by a gunman at the evangelical New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

Bible-believing congregations are also encountering non-lethal attacks in the so-called “culture war” as groups hostile to biblical teaching increase their attacks on Christians. During a November 2008 Sunday morning service at Mount Hope Church in Lansing, Mich., homosexual rights activists rallied outside, carrying an upside-down pink cross and using a megaphone to shout blasphemous slogans. They also infiltrated and disrupted worship inside the Assemblies of God church, throwing fliers, unfurling a banner and pulling fire alarms.

John Elieff, associate pastor at Mount Hope, says church leaders didn’t have an inkling such an incident would occur. Subsequently, measures have been taken to improve security for the congregation of 4,000.

“We have updated our guidelines for dealing with civil infractions and clarified what actions we can and cannot take to minimize or circumvent these types of disruptions in the future,” Elieff says. “Churches need to have a plan in place that includes ushers, security, leaders and local law enforcement that has been reviewed by competent legal counsel.”

There was a time, not long ago, when churches typically left their doors unlocked for visitors to come in for counseling or the solace of prayer. Those who came through the doors of their cathedral, church or chapel knew they could feel safe as they sought the presence of God.

“In the past, the church in America was generally seen as a sacred place, viewed with respect and as a safe haven. This is no longer true,” says Jeffrey Hawkins, executive director of the Cincinnati-based Christian Security Network (CSN). “This is, in part, due to the general moral deterioration of our society, which is reflected by the types of attacks against the Christian community we have seen.”

A lifelong law enforcement professional, Hawkins founded CSN last year to advise churches, schools, ministries and missionaries on security and emergency planning.

Hawkins says the risks for churches today fall into three main categories. The first encompasses crime, medical emergencies, protecting children and natural disasters. The second category includes risks specific to the church and its beliefs. This includes the risk to high-profile members or visitors who draw the ire of political or social activists such as advocates for homosexual and pro-abortion causes.

Hawkins describes the third level of risk as “planned, coordinated terrorist attacks that target the Christian community.” While U.S. congregations have yet to face that level of threat, Hawkins warns that “intelligence indicates it is out there, and we know from experience these plans sometimes take years before they are carried out.”

So what can be done? Should Christians turn their churches into fortresses, their wariness and suspicion of outsiders perhaps blunting the message of the gospel of love?

Hawkins contends such concerns betray a misconception many Christians have about the nature of church security and the measures that can be implemented quietly and unobtrusively.

“Putting security measures and practices in place will hardly be noticeable to the casual parishioner, but highly visible to those looking for a ‘soft target,’ ” he insists. “Criminals notice staff and volunteer awareness; they look for cameras and other measures to which a regular person wouldn’t pay attention.”

Churches need to consider what security measures and training will work best for their congregations and community, Hawkins says. And, he notes, that means more than installing alarms and cameras or hiring armed guards.

“It is a frame of mind that starts with acknowledging that ‘it can happen here,’ ” he says. “The biggest obstacle to security is often overcoming the denial of threats and risk.”

After the incident at the charismatic independent New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Radiant Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in the city, moved quickly to beef up security. Pastor Todd Hudnall says a volunteer security team formed, backed up by security camera installations complete with long-term recording and remote monitoring capabilities. Among the team’s members are security-trained volunteers licensed to carry firearms.

Still, Radiant Church works to keep its security presence low-key. All guards are in plain clothes, though they do carry badges should the need to identify themselves arise. Hudnall says he and his staff never have forgotten their primary calling is to lead their community to Christ.

Hudnall stresses God’s commitment to lead His Church. Just as He did for first-century Christians who risked persecution and death for their faith, God remains faithful to His people and the gospel today.

“If we look through His eyes, God always provides opportunities in every dark and evil situation,” Hudnall says. “Through Christ and in the Scripture, the Church provides the antidote to unrest, evil and fear.”

If a church and its people are truly called of God, there will be opposition, indeed persecution, Hudnall says.

Mount Hope’s Elieff agrees that when persecution comes, Christians need to be as energetic as ever in their endeavors to live and share their beliefs.

“[Such times provide] an extraordinary opportunity to be salt and light and a platform for communicating to the community what the Bible says about homosexuality and other issues,” he says.

ROBERT MIMS is a journalist and member of Life Church of Utah, an Assemblies of God congregation in Salt Lake City.

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