Making church safer
Congregations take measures in light of a society that no
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
“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
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
“[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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