Church Violence Is On a Sharp Increase: Some Guidelines For Keeping Your Church Safe

In April, 2012, in the same state in which Dylann Roof allegedly shot and killed nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a churchgoer in a church near Spartanburg, SC saved the lives of fellow worshipers after a man kicked in the door, while brandishing a shotgun. The Rev. Aaron Guyton held the armed intruder at gunpoint, while two other church members, Jesse Smith and Leland Powers, pinned him down to the floor until deputies arrived. Rev. Guyton recalls stepping onto a chair and climbing down a 3-foot bannister which enveloped the pulpit, at which point he was able to wrest the shotgun from the offender, Jesse Gates.

Referring to the deceptively deadly concept of gun-free zones during an online interview with Fox News’ Todd Starnes, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee commented that, “it sounds crass, but frankly the best way to stop a bad person with a gun is to have a good person with a weapon that is equal or superior to the one that he’s using.”

Erich Pratt, Gun Owners of America’s communications director, went further than that, suggesting that the church’s slain pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was partly to blame for the bloodshed due to the fact he had voted against a measure in the state senate that would have permitted the concealed carry of guns in churches. “One of the biggest problems at South Carolina church is that the potential victims were disarmed by law,” Erich writes. “In the Palmetto State, a concealed carry permit holder can carry in places of worship with permission from a church official. Unfortunately, the pastor was an anti-gun activist. As a state senator, the Pastor had voted against concealed carry.”

Jesus made no pretense that His followers would be sheltered from harm. Before sending his disciples forth to spread the Gospel, He delivered this directive:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:16

This would indicate that Christians should be caring and kind–as were the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church towards Dylann Roof–while also being alert, vigilant and discerning of strangers.

Jesus also emphasized to his disciples the importance of carrying a weapon.

“He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.'” – Luke 22:36

Matt Barber points out that in America almost every mass shooting in the last 75 years has taken place in a gun-free zone. He also quotes researcher John Lott who writes that, “with the exception of just two cases, all the mass public shootings since at least 1950 have occurred where guns are banned.”

According to Carl Chinn, who researches and compiles church violence statistics, in the past 16 years there have been 971 deadly force incidents (DFIs) in churches (homicides, abductions, domestic violence, etc), with a resultant 335 deaths since 1999. Church violence, however, has been on the increase every year. While there were 10 church-related DFIs In 1999, the occurrence of DFIs had soared to 176 by 2014.

What can be done to minimize the chances of your place of worship falling victim to a DFI? The following is a list of actions a congregation can take in order to prevent violent incidents:

  • Make the formation of a security ministry team a priority.
  • “Ideally, the team should consist of active and retired law enforcement personnel along with carefully selected and trained laypeople.”
  • Engage in reality-based training drills involving up to 20 members of the congregation. This assists in demonstrating how to make quick decisions, followed by swift action while in the midst of a perpetually changing, hostile environment. Additionally, it will help get the participants accustomed to performing under pressure.
  • “There is no legal immunity for religious activities, meaning that those that carry concealed must also be aware of and abide by the legal restrictions specific to that locale.”
  • If not already familiar, get to know the layout of the church. Also, find out what layers of security exist.
  • If carrying concealed is legal in your place of worship, it is advisable that you become acquainted with others, in the church, who carry a weapon. Together, you can come up with a strategy in the event of a violent attack.
  • The more planning and organization that can be undertaken, the better the likelihood of preventing or controlling an active shooter event.
  • “As a hedge to mitigate shooting the wrong individuals, some have organized their known firearms carriers and issued them brightly colored designators to be worn around the neck when a firearms incident is taking place.”
  • Consider seating arrangements in the sanctuary and in any other meeting areas.
  • Be aware of where the most direct escape routes are.
  • “What are your observation capabilities when the congregation is seated and standing? An attack may play out very differently if the congregation is focused in prayer or in the midst of a song.”
  • Be sure to secure children’s areas.
  • “During church activities, security ministry members should watch for suspicious behavior like people leaving at unexpected times, especially if they leave something behind they entered with, people wearing trench coats in hot weather, and people wandering in the parking lot”

Jim Welch, director of property and casualty at GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests following protocols instead of improvising in response to violence. Sticking to set protocols is recommended in order to prevent deaths and injuries. The following steps are recommended by Welch should a violent intruder enter a church:

  • Alert the entire security ministry team and the police.
  • Evacuate worshipers when possible and lock doors in areas that can be secured.
  • Have trained security personnel approach and incapacitate the intruder.

It is imperative that the congregation be aware that a plan is in place to address violent intruders. The congregation also needs to know what is expected of them during a violent confrontation. Security should not be the primary focus of any house of worship, but it is a critical element of tending a flock.