There may be some sparsely populated pews in American churches this weekend following last Sunday’s church massacre in Texas.
Pastors in different parts of the country are hearing from church members worried that the fate of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs — where a gunman murdered 26 and injured 20 — may befall their own congregations.
“I’ve definitely been having more conversations with parishioners through phone calls, emails and people who have just come by the office just to say what happened in Texas could happen anywhere,” said Barrett Owen, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Va.
Owen said he replies that safety policies are in place and updates have been underway since the deadly church shooting near Nashville, Tenn., in September.
The attack at First Baptist in Sutherland, Owen said, “has generated fear and awareness. What I definitely want people to know is that fear does not win.”
Ideas on how to defeat that fear have spanned this week from more calls for gun control to the arming of churchgoers — and just about everything in between.
There also are voices calling for a balance between practical and spiritual responses. And there are few better situated to guide congregations to that balance than their own pastors, and ministers in general.
“We as pastors need to speak into those worldwide, national and local situations in a spiritual way because people are looking for some practical way their faith can help them,” said Alan Rudnick, a writer on cultural and religious trends and executive minister at DeWitt Community Church in Syracuse, N.Y.
Rudnick, who is a Baptist minister, has been outspoken online and in the media since the Nov. 5 church killings in Sutherland Springs. He posted a blog Monday urging conversations actively communicate about security measures. On Wednesday he appeared on local television warning against letting fear trump faith.
The challenge churches face is maintaining freedom of worship while providing general security against shootings, fires and other emergencies, Rudnick said.
“In our churches we need to be speaking about how to balance between the need for security without locking down our doors and having metal detectors,” he said.
Many ministers have taken to social media to ask those very questions and to express their own concerns for personal and congregational safety.
“The immediate reaction was on Facebook, where lay people were beginning to question and wonder if they were going to attend church or if they were going to talk to their pastor about locking the doors or posting ‘no guns’ signs on the door,” Rudnick said. “They wanted to know what their churches were going to do the following Sunday.”
The key is being practical and faithful, he said.
DeWitt Community Church has reviewed its existing safety policies and has invited police to visit the campus to discuss enhancements and to answer questions.
“It’s to live by faith and not fear, and to not let fear govern our actions,” Rudnick said.
But fear has been the emotion de jure since Sutherland Springs, especially in Texas where heated debates over church safety and firearm rights have consumed politicians and clergy alike.
Fox News reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton predicted more church shootings. He also expressed gratitude for state concealed carry laws that enable worshipers to arm themselves.
“And so … there’s always the opportunity that gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people,” he told the network.
“Something is woefully wrong when elected officials wring their hands and suggest we can only stay safe by bringing arsenals to church,” Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, told the Dallas Morning News. He also said Paxton should apologize.
“Texans deserve more from their chief law enforcement official than inaction and willful ignorance. The answer to horrific gun violence is not more of the same. Lord knows we have already had plenty of that,” he told the newspaper.
But there are clergy who buy into the Paxton’s suggestion to arm church members. One of them is pastor Robert Jeffress at First Baptist Church in Dallas, who told Fox & Friends so many of his members are armed that a shooter wouldn’t last long in his church.
That viewpoint is a classic fear-driven response, Rudnick said.
“They are trying to provide a source of comfort in a way that’s very simplistic,” he said.
In addition to taking practical steps — like working with authorities to develop effective policies — it’s equally important for individuals to take a faith perspective on these troubling trends in society, Owen said.
“Fear is something we need to pay attention to, but when we gather together to worship, we are doing it in spite of fear for something more perfect and beautiful.”