“Death Day” …Those are the words that Terry J. Sedlacek had written in his Day Planner for Sunday, March 8, 2009. It was just a normal Sunday service at the First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois—normal until one church member noticed a man walking down the aisle during the sermon. For a fleeting moment the church member sensed that things “seemed out of place”. Then it happened. Nobody was prepared for the events that occurred during the next three or four terrifying seconds. The pastor, Rev. Fred Winters, interrupted his own sermon and politely said to the man in the aisle, “Good morning. What can I do for you?” That is when the gunman started shooting. Sedlacek’s first shot tore into the pastor’s Bible and sprayed shredded paper around like confetti. Then Pastor Winters ran across the platform and jumped a few feet down to the floor level. The gunman followed him, got very close and continued to shoot. A total of four bullets were fired—one ripping through the pastor’s heart. Fortunately, the assailant’s gun jammed (he had 30 more rounds of ammunition with him) and parishioners tackled and held him down until police arrived. Pastor Winters fell to the floor and bled to death. Looking back, many good people wondered if there was anything they could have done to prevent this tragic loss.
Then, it happened again on June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Strom Roof sat in the prayer/Bible study meeting for about an hour and then proceeded to murder nine innocent victims with his handgun . . . and then . . . it happened again in 2017 at First Baptist Church in Southerland Springs Texas where 26 people were killed—and it will happen again, and again, and again. My heart aches for every survivor.
Could a shooting incident occur in our church? What would you do next Sunday morning if this happened here? What could you do? Often the quick, Christian answer is: “We will trust the Lord to give us wisdom…He is sovereign…safety is of the Lord…He will protect us…” Perhaps we should ask the unprepared survivors of other church shootings about that speedy answer. Make no mistake—God is sovereign, and safety is of the Lord. We do trust in Him. However, we still lock our doors at night, keep fire extinguishers handy, use our seatbelts, and watch our kids closely at the playground. We still train leaders to use Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation and provide instructions on how to use the Automatic External Defibrillator. We screen, train, supervise, and monitor our church workers to protect children and teens from abuse. So, if we do all these things, why should we not also have a plan to protect ourselves from violence in church? We do have a plan, and here’s why: God’s sovereignty does not cancel our responsibility. We are responsible to do our best to protect our flock from violent aggressors. Though we cannot foresee every potential incident that might occur (let alone formulate a perfectly planned response for every scenario), we can try; we can do something, and we will.
The Bible says: “A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself…” (Prov. 22:3) But how do we hide in church? What can we do? The Hebrew word for prudence is a root word with two connotations: a positive one (prudence) and a negative one (shrewdness). The Greek terms…used in the LXX and in the New Testament mean “ready to do anything”.[i] What is the bottom line application for us? We must make ourselves as ready as we possibly can to do everything we possibly can to stop (or minimize) violence in our church. But how?
Should we post armed guards at all our entrances? Should we perform airport-like body scans on all visitors who enter? Certainly, we will not post a silly sign that says “GUN-FREE ZONE”. That would unwisely notify a potential aggressor that he can enter our building and confidently commit mass murder with little or no resistance. So, what should we do to protect ourselves?
Our first level of security involves locking certain doors at specific times—even while our building is occupied. It involves surveillance of our parking lot. It involves watching all entrances before and during church services; it includes assigning alert ushers to entrance lobbies during services and programs. We also assign certain individuals to sit at strategic places in our auditorium. These people are self-controlled, decisive individuals who are not afraid to stand between an assailant and innocent people. They are discrete, gentle protectors who have the ability to use strong, abrupt physical force if that kind of force is needed. They are trained to use wisdom and restraint, and to utilize physical contact or other methods only as a last resort. Their goal is to protect innocent people; they walk softly and carry a big hymnbook.
What about the use of weapons and other defensive and offensive tools? Some churches have the financial means to hire security personnel or off-duty police officers. We do not have that luxury, but fortunately we do have police officers who regularly attend our church. Sadly, some churches encourage anyone with a “GOD-GUNS-GUTS” license plate on his rusty pickup truck to bring weapons to worship—we don’t. Of course, we have no objections to law-abiding citizens being personally prepared (and equipped) for violent incidents. However, we hope and pray that those same citizens have participated in extensive training, diligent practice, and have made a thorough study of scenarios where lethal force or defensive tactics are not only legally justified, but also reasonably safe. We hope that they know when to use various levels of force—if any force at all; and we hope that they are aware of the gargantuan legal costs that follow even legitimate uses of lethal or defensive tools.
Along with our hopes and prayers, we have fears. We fear that untrained, unskilled people (who are not emotionally, physically, or mentally prepared to act wisely in emergency situations) will pretend to be Matt Dillon and proceed to “shoot up Dodge City” when a threat arises. Unfortunately, many Second Amendment supporters are not aware of the difference between casually shooting beer cans off a fence and maintaining accuracy and safety in a combat situation where bullets are speeding back in their direction. Many patriots are unaware of the fact that the same adrenaline that gives a man super-strength in an emergency will also greatly diminish his normal, target-practicing accuracy. Increased amounts of adrenaline make a man stronger—but they also make him shakier! Shooting at a red bullseye at the target range is different than getting off an accurate shot or two in a time of sudden panic and fright. Bullets go through (or past) bad people and hit good people. So, while we are pleased if there are well-trained individuals in our midst who are ready to act, we are fearful of people who are ready and eager to act, but who are woefully ignorant of their own physical, mental, and emotional limitations. Wearing a Second Amendment belt buckle and packing heat do not automatically make a person an asset to church security.
So, what is a reasonable approach to maximizing our safety? Caution and decisiveness are the orders of the day. If we ever experience an attack by an active shooter we will dial 9-1-1—of course! Our local police should certainly know what to do when they arrive, but here’s the problem: they can’t arrive on scene until they arrive on scene—and when they do arrive, they do not automatically know who (or where) the bad guy is. Someone accurately quipped that “9-1-1 is the ‘government dial-a-prayer number’” because 3 to 10 minutes can elapse before trained and equipped law enforcement officers show up—even though the average gunfight or knife attack lasts only a few seconds. The same thought is concisely stated this way: “When seconds count, the cops are just minutes away.” So, in light of these harsh realities, we will do whatever is necessary to protect innocent lives. An active shooter in our midst will have only a short time before his plan is abruptly neutralized.
So, what is the bottom line for us? How do we function in the light of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility? Our procedures are not secretive, nor are they blatantly obvious—but they are positively intentional. We want folks who attend our services to be safe; we want them to come to church, worship, and then go home with no concerns about their physical safety. They are the sheep; individuals on our security team are the sheep dogs. The sheep come to graze in this pasture; our well-trained and prayerful sheep dogs constantly sniff the perimeters to detect and cancel the plans of any wolf that might be lurking near us. Our sheep dogs are watchful, and they are ready. That’s the way we do things.
Indeed, God is sovereign; safety is of the Lord, and our trust is in Him—and by God’s grace, we will use the brains that He gave us. We will do our best to stay on target for the glory of God and the safety of our church family. We will do our best to be “ready to do anything” (Proverbs 13:16).
[i] Harris, R. Laird ; Harris, Robert Laird ; Archer, Gleason Leonard ; Waltke, Bruce K.: Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. electronic ed. Chicago : Moody Press, 1999, c1980, S. 697