Whether we want to admit it or not, Sutherland Springs changes things

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Bruce Gordon, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church outside of Sylvester in South Georgia, will meet with his deacons this Sunday. He fully expects the topic of security to come up.

The meeting had been scheduled even before an evil act in Sutherland Springs, TX changed the landscape for rural congregations like Gordon’s, surrounded by farmland and a few homes seven miles from town. At around 11:20 a.m. Sunday morning the it-can’t-happen-here mirage evaporated. It came as the shooter – whose name won’t be used here – attacked the Texas congregation with an assault rifle and magazines capable of holding 400 rounds, continuing to do so for seven horrifying minutes.

Gordon won’t go into specifics, but assures that if an attacker approached Antioch’s building “he’d be met with opposition pretty quick.” The staunch supporter of the Second Amendment defends the rights of gun owners and advocates a perspective that reflects the current reality.

“It’s certainly brought security to the forefront,” says Gordon, a bivocational minister who is also a financial advisor. “We’re going to talk about how we can be more security-minded on our grounds and aware. I expect there will be a lot of conversations like that going on in church business meetings.”

Larger churches can hire off-duty police officers and draw from a bigger membership pool for security teams, but smaller congregations have to find other ways to ensure their safety. More people in the parking lot during services. Knowing some members are carrying weapons on their person while in the pews. These are some of the steps typically taken.

“We’re not going to be at church in a worried, uncertain state of mind,” asserts Gordon. “We’re going to worship and trust the Lord just like we did before [the First Baptist Sutherland shooting] happened. I’m not going to let that guy rob me of the joy of going to church.”

Gordon, like many other pastors, points to deeper reasons for the recent rash of shootings.

“We need to pay attention to warning flags [in people]. If there’s a domestic violence situation happening, for example, let us know. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. Tell somebody.”

Lines of defense

Today, churches encounter a new set of questions regarding security. They want to welcome the stranger. However, they have a responsibility to keep the men, women, and children within their walls safe. From church to church, the line floats on what’s appropriate.

One Georgia pastor who asked to not be identified explained how doors leading into the church building remain unlocked up to the beginning of Sunday School. The reason, he said, was to allow easier access of members – particularly older ones – getting to class depending on its location in the building.

“During Sunday School we lock all the doors except the front,” he explained. “Then, when I begin preaching the front door is locked as well.”

At that point a member inside near the front door identifies any latecomers and lets them in. Anyone he deems questionable may not get through.

It sounds harsh, but most churches this size know the attendees. Late visitors aren’t immediately turned away. The member near the door, though, has license for discretion in the matter.

And if someone wanting to cause harm makes his way into the church, the line of defense hasn’t ended. This particular pastor admitted he keeps a gun strapped to his ankle while at the pulpit.

“My people know and they don’t mind,” he said. “Some have even told me they’re glad I [have it].”

A concern about apathy

One director of missions, who also asked to remain unidentified, expressed frustration with what he sees as a lack of urgency among some pastors. In the past he’s presented training opportunities for church leadership in security with only one pastor expressing interest.

One more contacted him about it this week, but by and large he witnesses too much apathy.

“I’m afraid there are many pastors who don’t take it seriously. Many got mad at one meeting where we suggested they look at having guns around the premises,” he said.

“We’re not saying everyone needs to bring guns and that’s what it’s all about,” he added. “There’s more to it. But we can’t sit back any longer. Churches have to employ training.”

Like many pastors, Neal Brown of Heritage Point Baptist in Ringgold attributes the rise in violence to more than advances in weaponry. The problem goes deeper.

“Fifty years ago people respected the House of God,” he opined. “But today, we live in a different culture and society. The church isn’t respected.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t make sure my people were protected,” said Brown, who would only add that a shooter “would encounter opposition.”

For 18 of his 25 years at Heritage Point, Brown has served as a chaplain for the Ft. Oglethorpe Police and Fire departments. That role has given him an even greater view of society’s need for the gospel.

“We live in a sin-sick culture. It speaks to our need for revival and spiritual awakening while dealing with the lostness in our country,” he testified.

What Georgia law says about churches and guns

Georgia state law leaves the issues of gun possession in houses of worship up to those groups. A white paper provided by Georgia Baptist Mission Board Public Affairs explains in greater detail the options for churches. In addition, churches can find out the ramifications whatever path it determines best regarding the issue of gun possession.

Section 16-11-127(b)(4) of the Georgia Code addresses the issue directly. Offenders can be charged of unauthorized possession “in a place of worship, unless the governing body or authority of the place of worship permits the carrying of weapons or long guns by license holders.” In other words, it’s up to the church.

The white paper also explains the two options to churches:

  1. Where the church wants to permit license holders to carry weapons. In this situation “the governing body or authority” of the church must take action to permit license holders to carry weapons in the church. (A suggested wording for the motion appears later in the document.)
  2. Where the church does not want to permit license holders to carry weapons. In this situation the church is not required to take any action. The law prohibits weapons in a place of worship unless the church’s governing body or authority permits it. Thus, if a church does not “opt in” or vote to permit weapons on its property, then weapons are not allowed.

Making a choice

It’s premature to expect rural congregations to choose to opt in on allowing guns in their churches. Doing so means everyone – guests included – can have a sidearm if they’re licensed. That’s not a scenario church leaders want. On the other hand, taking the official position of no guns in church makes you a soft target.

The degree of solutions vary as much as the number of churches themselves. Pastors, understandably, are mute on whether or not they’re aware of trusted members packing. What they do know is people have a right to worship without fear.

As Sutherland Springs taught them, there are real wolves out there wanting to harm the sheep. While churches are called to be innocent as doves, never have many pastors felt the urgency to be as wise as serpents. 

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