A congregation at prayer, hearing God’s Word preached and responding by singing God’s Word should be the safest place in the world. According to a story in Christianity Today, however, in 2012 it was not. Security experts describe them as “soft targets,” places where criminals (whether the insane, thieves, or those seeking to settle a score) can expect to find little or no resistance. How should churches respond? The Federal Government has recently issued guidelines for houses of worship. They give three options: run, hide, or fight. It is the last of the three that might, to some, be controversial. Were we considering any other setting this advice wouldn’t be controversial but because we’re thinking about churches, synagogues, and mosques the equation changes.
A quick search reveals a fair number of organizations offering training in church security, which, in turn, suggests a growing level of concern. There is a local organization in San Diego County that offers seminars for churches. Congregations should certainly have a plan. There should be designated, trained people in your congregation. It is important to have thought about these questions ahead of time. That will be essential if something violent does happen at church. Whether there should be (properly trained) armed congregants is perhaps something for the council (elders and deacons) to decide. For my part, I am happy to have well-trained, well-armed persons in church. Of course congregations should obey all applicable laws and firearms law can be particularly complicated. Certainly there should be a safety plan that includes plans for evacuating people, locking down the facility, and people either patrolling the property or at least alert during worship.
Violence at church, when it is not random, may stem from a crisis in a relationship. Parishioners who are involved in a domestic dispute where violence is a possibility should alert pastors, elders, and deacons so they can take appropriate steps to protect the congregation (including but not limited to notifying local law enforcement).
Certainly congregations should not deny that there is a great potential for danger than there was only a few years ago. Only time will tell whether this is fad or whether it signals a long-term problem. It certainly suggests that the sort of general restraint of evil that accompanied civic righteousness seems to be in decline. It was not very long ago that the idea of attacking people in church was unthinkable. We’ve crossed that boundary and congregations will have to adapt.
There are real ethical questions. It is one thing to stop violence, even with force, in the protection of life. If an abusive husband shows up at church looking for his wife, I have no qualms about defending her and others. How should we think, however, about violence against Christians on account of their faith? Early Christians did flee persecution and when caught they were martyred for the faith. The Apostle Paul was lowered in a basket in order to escape death. Nevertheless, it has been a long time since Western Christians have had to consider martyrdom except as a historical episode or perhaps as a news item from a distant place. What if the decline of the culture is so precipitous that we must begin contemplating martyrdom? Are we prepared for that eventuality? Is it too soon to begin asking such questions?
Congregations live in two worlds simultaneously. Christians are citizens of Zion but they are also citizens in this world. We have obligations to both places. Pietism has exerted a powerful influence in American Christianity and it tended to downplay earthly realities and responsibilities in favor of heaven. As Reformed folk, however, we affirm that we do live in this world, under God’s sovereignty. In that sense we have a very “world-affirming,” as distinct from a “world denying” or world fleeing” understanding of the world and our place in it.
There’s another influence with which to contend: the Enlightenment. One of the curses of the Enlightenment has been the cult of the expert. In the early 20th century (and since) there emerged a class of self-proclaimed “efficiency experts” who set about timing everything at work. The general result was misery for employees (particularly on the assembly line). We shall always have the poor and bureaucrats with us. There are experts and there are things we can’t do for ourselves (e.g., medicine) but not everything can be delegated to experts. One does not need to be a neurosurgeon to learn basic first aid. One doesn’t need to be a member of a Seal team to learn the basics about security and self-defense. Here is an opportunity to think critically about our culture. We’ve been trained since the early 20th century, particularly, in this country to defer to self-proclaimed experts, even when we are capable of doing for ourselves. Perhaps I’m overly influenced by the American “can do” attitude but this is America and historically we have not sat about waiting for other people to do things for us when we can do them ourselves. We are free people. As citizens of this world we have a responsibility to do what we can and must to protect those around us. Taking reasonable precautions to protect a congregation from foreseeable threats seems to be one of those things.