Ten years ago, the church where I pastor, New Life Church, suffered through its darkest day when a gunman came on our property, opened fire with an assault rifle, killing two of our teenage girls, injuring others, before taking his life in the hallway. This Sunday, I was taking a special guest to our memorial site to tell her the miracle story of our healing, when the news broke that another church in South Texas had just experienced the same horror.
A military trained man with an assault rifle with the intent to kill unarmed people is almost impossible to stop. No amount of training could have prepared that tiny church in Texas for this evil. We’re now living in a violent society where even small-town America and small rural churches are not safe.
Church security was something I never heard discussed while growing up in North Louisiana. Guns were plentiful, but there seemed to be no threats to our safety in the sanctuaries of my youth. Today, the world has changed, and violence is seemingly always at our doorsteps.
We are not fearful, but we are wise. We are not downcast, but we are watchful.
The sad reality is that every church should have a strategy to protect its members when they gather. We had a great plan on December 9, 2007 that saved scores of lives and today, we are even more prepared. In fact, our church may be the safest public gathering place in our city. We take it seriously.
We have learned some valuable lessons. First, every church should hire at least one uniformed police officer to be visible in the main lobby and parking lot. Every Sunday, there is a police car parked in front of our church. These off-duty officers are paid by us to be present. They are now our friends and we see them as part of our vital team each weekend. Most crime studies show that criminals can be deterred by the physical presence of the police on property. If local police are not available, hire a very visible security guard.
When we first employed uniformed police, people were concerned that church would feel unsafe, but the opposite has happened. So many people have personally thanked me for having the officers present, because it is so reassuring. That is a huge testimony to our local police and sheriff’s department, who both have stellar reputations in our community.
Because we live in a military town, we’re able to recruit and train dozens of men and women to serve our church as volunteers. They spend all week protecting our nation and they love serving their church the same way. They dress in plain clothes, but walk the property during our worship services, serving our people.
We live in a state that allows most people to carry concealed weapons and to carry openly if they choose. We discourage our members from bringing guns into the church. In fact, if we know someone has a weapon, we escort them out to their car and watch them put it away. We have plenty of trained and qualified people who are appropriately armed, so extra weapons are not necessary and can actually cause more harm should there be a violent episode.
We train our team to be watchful and diligent, but not obtrusive or aggressive. In fact, most of the 10,000 or so people who attend our church are not even aware of the security team, other than noticing a police car out front. We are a church, not a sports stadium, so we do not have metal detectors, and we are not checking handbags as people enter.
Most of the violence that happens in a church is a spillover of some sort of domestic issue. Families target one another at church because they know they can be found at a certain time and place each week. Our pastors are sensitive to families going through divorce or some type of custody dispute with their children. If there’s a problem at home that could affect our church, we alert the police officer on duty. Many times, that officer has diffused conflict before it ever turns ugly and violent.
With all this attention to violence and securing our worship space, we have made sure that we have not lost our innocence along the way. We are not fearful, but we are wise. We are not downcast, but we are watchful. We gather every week, to pray our songs, to sing our prayers and to learn the Scriptures. We have chosen to forgive those who wish us harm and to bless those that speak evil against us.
Church is a holy gathering of imperfect people. People wrestling with mental health and those struggling with relationships come through our doors every day. Our security team makes it possible for them to find hope and healing in a very safe environment.