“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”1
These opening words from Psalm 91 paint a beautiful image of protection and safety in the presence of our Lord. If we “dwell” and “rest” with our God, we don’t need to be afraid. This is our promise. But, there are times when the realities of our society break into this peace with acts of hate, injustice, and violence. It is part of the broken world we live in while we wait for Christ to return.
Brokenness is all around us. Fear is often associated with gun violence, which has become an issue far too prevalent in our country. It is a frequent topic in our daily news, it dominates our political dialogue, and even our children have become part of its reality. At the Christian school where I teach, safety precautions are evident: the doors are locked throughout the day, teachers are trained to deal with active shooters, and children learn about and participate in intruder drills at an appropriate level for their age. I have had several conversations with my students about being safe in various situations. It invites children—and adults—to ask, “Are we safe in our homes or at school? What about at church?”
As the Safe Church Coordinator at my church, I often think about church safety. Depending on the information you read, statistics on church violence vary. Some say it has increased rapidly while others say it is relatively rare. Whichever statistics we read, we don’t want it to happen in our churches! I know that some members of my church are concerned about safety during our worship services. We have a Safe Church Policy, but there is more to church safety than performing background checks and following responsible protocols.
We want our church communities to be places of joy, acceptance, and peace. At the same time, we need to realize that our churches reflect the society we live in—they include broken relationships, hurt feelings, and anger. Our congregations are made up of people struggling in their marriages, dealing with abuse or mental illness, and experiencing feelings of rejection, mistrust, and hopelessness. These are the main causes of church violence. What can we do? Attending to the hurting people in your church can make your church a safer place.
The question that I, and many others, have been asking lately is this: How do we make our churches warm, inviting, and welcoming to all who want to attend our worship services and take part in our programs while creating a safe environment for everyone? Should we encourage churchgoers to take their weapons to church along with their Bibles? Do we lock all the doors? Do we hire trained security officers to guard our church and its premises? Or do we forget about these extreme measures and simply trust our God to protect us from all forms of evil? The phrase, “do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Bible. Perhaps we need to remember this command as we participate in our faith forming activities at our places of worship.
Of course, there is no easy answer, but I believe that it is an act of love to consider the safety of those around us. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, feeling safe is a basic need for human survival. When we feel safe, we try new experiences, build new relationships, trust others, and find value in ourselves. Providing a safe home environment is essential for nurturing a healthy family. It also makes sense that providing a safe church environment makes it possible to nurture faith in our family of God.
Finding the balance in a church between welcoming everyone and protecting all worshippers can be tricky, but it can be done out of love with honesty, respect, and common sense. To begin with, recognize that church safety is an issue your church needs to address—even if you live in a “safe” community. Encourage your church leaders to discuss this matter, considering how to respond to various situations—whether it’s sudden violent storms, abuse within the church, or unexpected intruders. Encourage them to make a plan for various situations. Do they need to enlist the help of professionals in providing training and support? Your local law enforcement is a good place to start, but there are several reliable websites dealing with this issue, too. Insurance companies can also offer advice.
In thinking about church safety, consider some of the most vulnerable members in your congregation—your children. Does your church provide safe spaces for them to worship, learn, and be cared for? If not, what could be done to provide this protection? Offering safety protocols about who can pick up children, securing certain doors, and ensuring that volunteers who teach and care for children are properly trained can go a long way in keeping your youngest members safe. What about the elderly? How would they be cared for in an unanticipated situation?
Communicating with your church members openly and clearly is essential to help everyone understand the expectations you have for unforeseen situations. Letting your congregation know what changes you may be making and the reasons for these changes creates honest dialogue as you navigate church safety for everyone. Responding to unexpected situations doesn’t have to be scary or exhaust a church’s budget. Common sense, simple protocols, and honesty with church members can still allow for a welcoming, accepting, and rich worship environment while providing security for everyone.
Finding a balance between faith formation activities and safety requires wisdom and discernment, but it doesn’t mean we have to be afraid. We can rest in God’s promises. Being prepared is a tangible way to show love for all of God’s people in our church family.