"How can we be safe?" asked a minister I interviewed after Sunday's mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.
With the death toll at 26, countless church leaders — all eager to protect their flocks — are posing the same question.
Just six weeks ago, a separate mass shooting at a church — this one at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn. — raised the church security issue, as I pointed out in a GetReligion post:
Sadly, in America in 2017, a mass shooting in which one person dies is not going to dominate the news cycle for long. Such tragedies have become too common. Even then, I noticed a national Associated Press piece just today on houses of worship addressing security in the wake of the Tennessee shooting.
Two years ago, church security made a bunch of headlines after nine people were killed at a Wednesday night Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. I remember writing a front-page story for The Christian Chronicle with the headline "God, guns and keeping churches safe."
And no, the issue of church safety didn't start with Emanuel.
Sadly, here we go again.
Given the magnitude of Sunday's tragedy, church security is an obvious must-cover story for journalists across the nation. Already, some major news organizations are doing so, including Time magazine.
Time's award-winning religion correspondent, Elizabeth Dias, reports that the Trump administration may ramp up security training for houses of worship after the Texas shooting.
A key question: Should churches allow members to arm themselves?
From Dias' story:
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas who preached at Trump’s inaugural private church service in January, says his staff has worked with DHS to complete a safety assessment several months ago. “Large churches like mine have done this, but smaller churches are less likely to do this under the mistaken assumption that they are not as big of a target as we are,” Jeffress says. “Frankly, they may be a bigger target.”
Jeffress’ church of 13,000 members has paid security officers at every service, both uniformed and plain-clothed, as well as volunteer security team. His church no longer allows worshippers to carry backpacks of any kind. But it does still allow them to carry arms.
“It would be unthinkable in a state like Texas not to allow it,” Jeffress says. “We think that is safer.”
I can attest to First Baptist Dallas' security team: They approached me while I was interviewing members at the church for a Religion News Service story on Jeffress earlier this year. Fortunately, I had permission from a media relations official to be on the premises.
Elsewhere, the Washington Post reports that the Texas church massacre has stirred a push for armed guards and — yes — gun-packing parishioners:
Some state and federal officials have since amplified calls for greater security measures in houses of worship as faith leaders, particularly throughout Texas, say churches are increasingly vulnerable.
“We are living in dangerous days,” Southern Baptist pastor Jack Graham said on Twitter. Graham, who serves as an evangelical adviser to President Trump, noted that “it is important that every church no matter how large or small have a security procedure.”
Graham said his Plano megachurch is preparing to “host and train church leaders for security training.”
Christianity Today, meanwhile, talked to church security expert Carl Chinn:
He advises all churches to train and enlist a security team, with at least one person stationed outside the church and one person in the building to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.
Earlier this year, Texas passed a law making it easier for houses of worship to enlist volunteer security guards—a policy proposed in response to the Charleston shooting. Prior to the law, which went into effect September 1, churches had to seek licensure from the state for their guards or risk fines.
Chinn said many churches may remain unaware of the policy, and many small churches lack security personnel.
“This news makes me realize how much I wish those of us teaching churches to get ready were wrong,” Chinn told CT. “When I first heard [the news] today, I wanted nothing more than to later hear it was a false report. But it is true, and there are more coming.”
Given mass shooting after mass shooting in America, I am curious to know if most churches — particularly smaller ones such as the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs — have taken steps to improve security in recent years.
That seems like an easy — and obvious — question for reporters in cities across the U.S. to ask.