Continued attacks on innocent victims in religious services are making many leaders question how they can protect congregations.
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In a matter of seconds, a beautiful Sunday in Texas went from joyful, warm and peaceful to bloody, merciless and filled with sheer terror.
The mass shooting that occurred at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on November 5 shocked everyone. Written accounts and video of that day were horrific enough. Think what it had to have been like for those inside the church while it was under attack.
A lone gunman walked through the sanctuary indiscriminately shooting people, leaving 26 dead and 20 injured. Moments earlier, the victims were praying, singing or reading Bible passages. Think about their terror and fear: crawling under pews, trying desperately to hide. What went through their minds? Prayers? A lifetime of memories flashing and fleeting? Perhaps many frantically questioned: How could this happen in a church?
From religious institutions to the security industry—and deep into society—the brutal and gruesome nature of the event stunned hardened professionals such as police and reporters, who flocked to the horrifying crime scene. Sadly, Sutherland was not an isolated incident. It was the latest violent criminal act committed in a place of worship.
Prior to Sutherland, the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting was infamous for its horrific nature and racial overtones. In June 2015, a white gunman opened fire at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, brutally killing nine worshippers. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who called the shooting a hate crime, noted, “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church while they are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”
This brazen, cold-blooded crime stunned everyone. People flocked to the crime scene to mourn. Reuters described a group of pastors praying across the street. One asked, “Why, God?”
This query helps introduce the purpose of this article: the tension between whether faith or firearms protect people.
Other incidents intensify the clash between two fundamental tenets—the worship of God and reliance on Him to protect, or the responsibility of one to protect himself from hurt, harm or danger.
Further stressing this thorny dichotomy is the fact that church shootings seem to be an emerging trend.
In September 2017, a gunman opened fire at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee, near Nashville, killing one person and injuring seven others. The shooter, a black man, was said to have committed this crime as retaliation for the Charleston shooting.
In December 2007, two church members were shot to death and three others wounded at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. About 7,000 people were at the church when the shooter, who was dressed in black, opened fire with a high-powered rifle. As shots rang out, the church security team responded and other churches in the area followed high-alert protocols. Security previously was increased because of a recent deadly shooting at a nearby church. Unlike these other incidents, the New Life Church gunman was shot and killed by a church security officer.
These tragedies leave trauma and unanswered questions. The New Life Church pastor told Denver7 that “my heart is broken today for people who lost their lives…It’s unfortunate that we live in a society where this happens, but it does.”
Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers told the news outlet that the intervention of the security officer “probably saved many lives.” He added that “it’s a tragedy that could have been much worse than it was.”
Media coverage makes these horrific incidents come alive in your living room. But one may ask, does this reporting—along with the notion that shootings ought not occur in “sacred” places—result in skewed and sensational coverage? Fair question. Let’s examine the data.
An article on The Gospel Coalition website revealed some insightful statistics. It cites the Center for Homicide Research, which analyzed online newspaper articles to document all cases of shootings on church property within the United States from 1980 to 2005. According to the data, there was a total of 139 shootings on church property, resulting in 185 deaths. During that 25-year period, an average of six shootings occurred on church property each year.
Note that these statistics account for all shootings that occurred on church property, including in parking lots, during church activities, plus those targeting of pastors outside of church services.
As for shootings that occur within church buildings, The Gospel Coalition reported that from 2006 to June 2015, 24 church shootings occurred including the Sutherland Springs incident. This averages to 2.7 shootings per year. Factoring in the total number of churches in the United States (this article cites 378,000 congregations) along with the number of services held per week, the probability of being shot in church is astronomically small—0.00000015 percent. This is a probability even more remote than being struck by lightning!
This data shows that gun-related church violence is relatively rare in the U.S. when compared to crime data in other areas such as retail establishments, schools or domestic environments.
Based on this, you may conclude that there is no need to worry—that the graphic and shocking nature of incidents like Sutherland is not a trend with which to be concerned.
Yet this conclusion fails to address the larger picture.
Remember, even one incident regardless of where it occurs is tragic. Also realize that religious violence—especially outside the U.S.—is getting worse.
Just consider the number of attacks against Coptic churches in Egypt. At least 25 separate incidents against Coptic Christians occurred since 2010. Hundreds were killed and multiple hundreds wounded. One of the most notorious was the beheadings of 21 people by ISIS in 2015. In Iraq, hundreds of Coptic Christians were killed and wounded in sectarian violence, which erupted during the mid-2000s.
Just before Christmas in Pakistan, two suicide bombers attacked a church where hundreds of worshippers were attending a service, killing nine and wounding dozens. This attack was just one of many in Pakistan through 2017.
Many other deadly incidents in or around places of worship could be listed.
Based on these trends, one can surmise that something is happening. Church violence worldwide is definitely growing and becoming a more legitimate concern for attendees. Recent events have made clear—churches are not guaranteed safe havens!
Consider: What if you were the pastor or leader of a church and were charged with the safety and security of your flock? With each violent incident that occurred within a church around the world, you would realize that the people you care about are at risk. Also keep in mind that a perpetrator must only be successful once. Those in charge of security must be successful every time to avoid the next massacre.
As a result of increasing tragedies, many church leaders are forced to take steps regarding security that they would not have dreamed of even 10 years ago.
Ironically, religious institutions are one of the last segments of society without widely accepted security protocols. Recent events are changing this. Churches are recognizing that intervention is needed. But what should or could be done?
There is a security term known as “target hardening.” This entails layers of various security techniques, including the use of cameras, access control measures and procedures, and metal detectors, with security personnel operating these tools.
For example, Fox59 reported on the Park Chapel Christian Church in Greenfield, Indiana, which employs a security team of 10 police officers, who are also members of the church. Scott Kern, the director of ministries, said the officers dress in casual clothing and have weapons on them during services. Ten additional security team members guard the entrances, but are unarmed.
Mr. Kern told the news outlet that “we’re hoping that it won’t be very noticeable to the congregation, it’ll mostly be us knowing where people are and what our responsibilities are.” He added, “we are watching…if somebody were to come in the building then we’ll have a plan in place to make sure we can deal with that.”
He concluded: “We want to make sure people are safe, and they feel safe when they come to church on Sunday.”
Security protocol can certainly be helpful in either deterring an attack or limiting the lethality of the attack. However, all security protocols have a limit. There is no perfect solution.
How church security can “make sure” that people are safe is less doable than making people feel safe. Armed officers can make people feel safe. But do they guarantee that they will be safe?
Even making worshippers feel safe often requires violence—sword against sword. But this defeats the entire principle that churches are considered sacred—a place of protection and worship.
Getting back to the question raised at the Charleston church shooting: Why, God? Even more pointedly, what does God say about this? What is His answer?
Depending on where you look in the Bible for God’s answer, you can find support for either option: faith or firearms. The Old Testament is bursting with examples of violence and warfare. People point to the old adage “an eye for an eye” (Lev. 24:20) to summarize this approach. On the other hand, there is the non-violent “turn the other cheek” teaching from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:39).
But how exactly do these principles protect innocent victims?
Other hard questions: Where do you stand? Is your religion grounded in the Old Testament or the New Testament? Does it matter? Is there even a difference?
The essential question is even more basic: Where do I put my trust—in firearms or in God?
For those who read the Bible, the answer is there. It is profound yet plain—yet most cannot grasp it. But before jumping to conclusions, read our informative booklet Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven? for powerful evidence that the Bible is God’s inspired word.