The statistics on mass shootings in the U.S. are heartbreaking. Regardless of where you stand on gun regulations, no one wants to continue to hear stories like the one out of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 innocent, church-going people were killed. Solutions will be hard to come by; yet, that shouldn’t stop us from engaging the problem and having the courage to make bold decisions so we’re not still having this conversation in 50-years.
There are many things to discuss on this topic, but I’m most interested in having an honest conversation about church security.
When we started a church in Somerville, MA, we had a “security team.” The church met (and still does) in an historic theater in the middle of Davis Square right off the Red Line T. The beauty of the location was that it made us part of the community, being present by meeting in a building the community used regularly. Of course, since it was such a public location, people often wandered into our church service assuming, as one would, that we were either a show or a movie.
Here are two quick examples of some interesting interactions we had with confused people:
1. The theater holds an annual horror movie marathon, which starts immediately after (simultaneously?) our Sunday service. So, one day some movie-goers found their way into one of our kids’ spaces, decked out in costume, which included realistic toy weapons.
2. During Christmas, the theater puts on the production, “Slutcracker,” which is exactly what you’re imagining right now. So, let’s just say that church was somewhat unique during December.
As you can see, it made sense to have a “security team.” One of my roles as the pastor, at least in my mind, was to ensure safety during church, particularly for the kids. Thus, a security team.
Of course, our security team was really just extended “greeting.” They welcomed everyone and answered questions. We didn’t train them to engage in violence, and they certainly didn’t carry a weapon.
Nonetheless, many other churches have chosen to have armed security personnel. In fact, the Church of God (Cleveland) recently released a video encouraging all its churches to ramp up security.
About 10-years ago I was on staff at a church that had somewhere around 1,000 weekly attenders. At some point, the church chose to have an armed police officer for Sundays. Now I was just one of the student pastors, but I felt compelled to at least say something. You see, for me, having an armed officer at church was (and is) antithetical to the Pentecostal message about the power of the Spirit.
Here are three excerpts from the actual letter I wrote to the church leadership about my concerns (circa 2008––remember, this was 25-year old Joel, so please be gracious when reading!):
1. “[Having] an officer with a gun as the deterrent to a crazed gunman doesn’t make sense. If someone wanted to come into our church and start shooting, their end game [isn’t to escape]. Plus, if someone stood up this Sunday and started shooting, our officer could not get in there in time, and even if they did, they could not ethically shoot because of all the innocent congregants that could be hit by a stray bullet.”
2. “Which brings me to my next problem, stereotyping. Our argument for having an armed officer is that we could catch someone before they started shooting. This is going to cause a massive chasm between ‘church people’ and ‘street people’.”
3. “There is something much deeper that is happening that I don’t want us to overlook as we make this decision. Each week we stand up in the pulpit and speak to the church about the power of God. We look at people whose lives are falling apart and we tell them of the love of Christ that overcomes. We tell them that while there seems to be no way, God always makes a way. We tell them that they are His children whom He loves, cares for, protects and sustains. We speak on love and how it overcomes all evil. Even [pastor] spoke a few weeks about how love has no fear. However, if we are not careful, we will completely be undermining all of that. What are we saying when we bring in an armed officer to protect us from an armed gunman? We are telling the congregation that we trust God’s protection for them but when it comes to ourselves, we trust a gun. We have put our trust in the very thing that we are fighting against. We are saying that the love of God and His power to protect is good but when someone threatens us with a gun, we are going to use that same weapon to fight [back]. This is one of the most unbelievably confusing things for me.”
No Easy Solutions
Do we trust God? More importantly, what in the world does it mean to trust God? Where’s the line? Assumedly we put on our seatbelt when driving, so does that mean we don’t trust God? We take precautions constantly, for goodness sake!
For me, the line is violence. Wearing a seatbelt is not confrontational and it doesn’t threaten others. In other words, by me wearing my seatbelt, I’m not being aggressive toward another person, who is created in God’s image and who is not my enemy.
We must remember that Pentecostalism was founded on pacifism, not as a political position but rather as the natural outcome of a theology that believes in the Spirit’s activity and presence in the world. From the beginning Pentecostals have pointed to Ephesians 6:12, which boldly declares that we do not fight against flesh and blood but against principalities and rulers of darkness.
Thus, when we fight against one another, we embody the darkness and we reject the Prince of Peace and the Spirit of Love.
By bringing guns into the church, we declare that our trust is in the saving grace of firearms. Further, we declare that while we like how the Holy Spirit ramps up our emotions in worship, when it comes to real concerns, we prefer the principalities and powers.
As I said in one of the final lines in my letter:
“We desire to see growth but I think it is hard to tell God to trust us with more people when we can’t even trust Him for His protection.”
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.