In late September, an armed man walked into Burnette Chapel in Antioch, Tennessee, about 25 miles away from my own congregation, and killed one woman and injured six. This month, at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a gunman killed twenty-six. In the wake of shootings at concerts and schools and shopping malls, the veneer of safety and peace around Sunday mornings at church was shattered.
Many church-goers around the country are understandably anxious and afraid. Pastoring a church slightly smaller than First Baptist, Sutherland Springs, it isn’t hard to imagine an equally catastrophic result should someone target my congregation. As a woman clergyperson in a religiously conservative area, as a public figure whose opinions are published on the internet, and as the author of a book on reproductive rights, it is not far-fetched to think that an unhinged individual might make me or my congregation the subject of his rage, particularly based on the e-mails and social media messages from fellow Christians that I received in the wake of the publication of my book.
Certainly, each church will have to decide what works for them, their values, their tolerance for risk, and their physical plant. Just as we take precautions in preventing the sexual exploitation of minors, we must take other security precautions. After all, Jesus tells us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” But we also must weigh our security precautions against the other values that we profess as Christians, particularly hospitality and welcoming the stranger.
In the wake of wall-to-wall media coverage of horrible atrocities like mass shootings, I worry that we will let our fear and anxiety trump our Christian vocation, turning our churches into bunkers for those already present. As many of us bemoan dwindling attendance, how welcoming is it to newcomers to be greeted by skeptical ushers, locked doors, or people with weapons patrolling the parking lot? In the interest of safety and security, we risk giving up the mission and ministry of the church to welcome the downtrodden and the stranger, for by doing so, we may be entertaining angels.
For people who profess that God has triumphed over death and the grave through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we sure act like death is the worst possible thing. While I wouldn’t recommend courting death or acting recklessly, there are certain risks to living according to our faith. So if you’re looking for a safe religion, I don’t recommend Christianity. Jesus himself ended up crucified at the hands of the Roman Empire and told us to follow him. Rarely in my life has following Christ and obeying the urges of the Holy Spirit led to safety and security as defined by the world.
In the wake of horrible tragedies, we fall prey to our fear and anxiety at the expense of rationality and our faith. We’re much more likely to perish in a car accident than a mass shooting, but most of us still get in our cars day after day. Mass shootings are terrible, and we should strive to prevent them in our broader society without losing sight of other kinds of violence that are much more prevalent.
Decisions about safety and security in the church are not easy or one-size-fits-all, but they should be made out of discernment and conversation, not a knee-jerk response to news reports. Some local police departments are happy to discuss options and strategies with church leadership in order to balance being open and welcoming with keeping children and other church-goers safe. We must be careful not to make an idol out of safety to the point where we forsake the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must ensure that our hearts are not hardened to the stranger, the outcast, and those who show up to the church looking “different.” Our world needs the example of the church, that fear can be overcome with love.