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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Response to the Shooting at First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, TX

Church Security and Soft Targets
Pastoral Response to the Texas Church Shooting, 11-5-17
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Tuesday, November 7, 2017

            Terrorist events (see Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernardino shooting), mass shootings (see Orlando night club, see Las Vegas country music concert), racially motivated violence (see Charlottesville), and other deadly interruptions into the flow of normal life have occurred with alarming frequency in the last 7-10 years.  We Americans haven’t yet caught our breath from the unthinkable attack in Las Vegas, and we learn of Sutherland Springs, Texas.  We learn that we love the people of that small community because the First Baptist Church (FBC) there was shot up on a Sunday morning, the sanctuary full.
            For me, a church pastor, this hits close to home.  I have raced through, in my own mind, how our church would react if a shooter entered.  I have played the scenario out repeatedly.  Truthfully, I don’t know what I would do because I am not prepared for that.
            On a Sunday morning, I am prepared to preach.  I am prepared to meet the people of the church.  Some need encouragement, and if I can, I give it.  Some need a welcome and a hug.  I certainly can and do give that.  Some are leaders in the church and we need to confer about what’s going on Sunday morning or what’s going on at other points in church life.  These are the things on my mind on a Sunday morning.
            I hope, my heart and mind are prepared to encounter God.  I pray that we – myself and all in the church – come expecting to see God act among us.  Over and over the disciples who walked with Jesus every day found themselves surprised by his displays of power as he commanded demons and the demons obeyed and angry, storming waves on the sea cowered before him.  They found themselves scandalized when they saw Jesus love people society had pushed to the margins.  These disciples saw it every day with Jesus and still got surprised.  I hope we’re open enough and worshiping with enough eager anticipation that we see it when God send surprises of love and provision and hope to us.
            What we’re not doing is preparing how to respond to a crazed, murderous shooter (or bomber) (or vehicle operator).  And I don’t we should.  I think our call and our responsibility is to God.  We need to be looking for God when the church gathers.
            My heart goes out to First Baptist Church Sutherland.  That church, like ours, is small.  So many were killed and so many more were critically injured or traumatized, and the community is so small, that that specific church may not recover.  The pastor has got to be devastated.  I don’t know if I could continue in ministry if a shooter killed a bunch of our people, and I survived.  We pastors feel a certain responsibility for all who enter.  God has entrusted the worshipers into our care. 
            The other time, recently, I felt such a burden for a church was the Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, when Dylann Roof shot up their prayer meeting in June, 2015.  On that occasion, I preached a sermon about how churches should exist in a time of random, unpredictable, deadly violence.  The text of that message is here
            One of the things I stressed in that message is that the deadly shooting happened when the church was doing “what churches do.”  They were in a prayer meeting, and they welcomed Dylann Roof, a dangerous person, into their fold.  They didn’t know he was dangerous.  We never do.  We know we are called to welcome people – people with mental illness, people will deep-seeded anger, and people who are themselves badly broken.  As we are church, the body of Christ, we welcome the lost.  That’s what we do.
            FBC Sutherland was different than Emmanual AME Church in that they never had the chance to welcome Devin Kelly.  He came in shooting, killing.  He may have destroyed that church.  God allows human beings agency – the freedom to make moral choices.  Part of being made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) is we have free will.  But too often, we use our freedom for evil.  God allows this because without this freedom, we would no longer be human.  Atheists will see and evil event and use it as an opportunity to attack the church, but they don’t understand the bigger picture.  God has created a world in which human beings and God are in a relationship of love and trust.  God doesn’t force the relationship.  But God is active in it and God is active in the world. 
The mark of the person walking in close relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, is how that person responds in crisis.  Tragedy hits all people – Christ followers and non-Christians alike.  God is seen in how his church represents his love and hope in the face of tragedy.  On Sundays, we in the church, pastors and worshipers, whether long-time members or first-time attendees, have the same invitation.  We are invited into the presence of God.  That’s what we’re seeking and preparing for, not a shooting.
I wrote in 2015 the following after the mass murder in Charleston:
We as a community of faith have to tell the alternate story – the grace story.  … We have to be the story of hope.  We do this by opening our doors and ourselves to the lost and hurting people in the world.  Yes, churches are soft targets because broken people need a soft place to land.  Hurting people need to meet Jesus in an atmosphere of love. 

By being a safe place, a soft target, we risk everything.  Dylann Roof could walk in here.  Or someone without a gun but with a dangerous agenda could attempt to infiltrate our community.  Our commitment to being a people who welcome all leaves us open to such risks.  But we embrace that because God has given us a particular mission.  God calls us to live a story in which people of different backgrounds are brothers and sisters who embrace each other in the love of Jesus.  God calls us to stand in the midst of the violence, throw open our doors, and say to the world, “Come in, you’ll be loved here.  You’ll be valued here.  You have a place here.  In the heart of God, in God’s Kingdom, you have a home.

In coming days, it will become harder for us to tell this story and live this mission.  But we will do it no matter the cost because God enables us as God calls us.  And we will do it with great joy because God’s story is a grace story and a joy story.  The hope for the world is in the telling and living of that story.  Now is the time.

Those words still ring true.  I know some churches are talking about having armed security.  I suspect there may be people in our church family who are armed when they come to church on Sunday morning.  My own preference would be for us to post signs that say “No firearms on the premises are permitted.”  My desire for this is not a comment on gun ownership as a political issue.  I offer no comment on that issue in this essay.  The action of posting a “No firearms permitted” sign would be a statement about where our focus is.  Our focus is on meeting the Holy Spirit of God in this place. 
This action wouldn’t slowdown someone like Dylann Roof or Devin Kelly.  But it would be a reminder to all our people that we put our trust in God.  The people of FBC Sutherland Springs put their trust in God too.  I don’t know why they died.  I don’t know why Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:58-59), but John died a natural death (John 21:23).  I don’t know why most churches have pleasant Sundays but on November 5, tragedy his Sutherland Springs. 

But I know this.  We who follow Christ cannot let tragedy tell us who we are to be or how we are to live.  Tragedy doesn’t get to be the boss.  Racism doesn’t get to dictate to us.  Terror doesn’t the first word, the last word, or any word.  We churches are communities of Christ followers.  We are the body of Christ.  We’ll voluntarily exist as soft targets because we want to be safe places for broken people who need a soft landing.  

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