Could it happen here? How churches are preparing for a mass shooting

Barry Young, vice president of Church Security Ministries at Strategos, demonstrates using a tactical pen for self-defense on Marc Anderson of Kalamazoo, Mich., at an intruder awareness and response training Nov. 11, 2017, at Prairie Baptist Church in Scotts, Mich. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Barry Young, vice president of Church Security Ministries at Strategos, demonstrates identifying himself as part of a church security team while keeping a gun trained on a hypothetical attacker at an intruder awareness and response training Nov. 11, 2017, at Prairie Baptist Church in Scotts, Mich. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

SCOTTS, Mich. (RNS) — Did they know how many rounds a gunman fired into First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?

Did they know how many little boys and girls he killed?

Did they know there was a second violent church attack that same day in Fresno, Calif.?

Barry Young’s voice rose as he led an “intruder awareness and response training” for church personnel Saturday (Nov. 11) at Prairie Baptist Church in Scotts, Mich.

“What happened in Texas isn’t new. It’s just larger than normal,” said Young, the vice president of church security ministries at Grandview, Mo.-based Strategos International, a Christian company that teaches people at schools, churches and other institutions how to deal with a violent, armed intruder.

“We’ve got to get church leaders’ heads out of the sand.”

RELATED: The glue that kept Sutherland Springs together before and after the shootings

It was the weekend after the deadliest church shooting in American history, after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged viewers on Fox News, “We need people in church — professional security or at least arming some of the parishioners or congregation — so they can respond when something like this happens again.”

As church leaders across the country considered how to respond — to comfort their congregations but also to make them feel safe — nearly 80 people from churches across Michigan, Indiana and Illinois gathered at Prairie Baptist for the training presented by Strategos, the largest church security training ministry in the world, according to Young.

Strategos has trained more than 20,000 church leaders since 2007. But since the most recent Texas church shooting, Young said he’s been overwhelmed with requests and is filling up his schedule so quickly that one Boston church will have to wait a year for its training.

Saturday’s training was peppered with horrific details from the Texas church shooting, alarming statistics and Bible verses delivered in a call-and-response cadence familiar to many churchgoers.

“I wish it was 1950 … but it’s 2017, and the American church has to change,” Young said.

His voice jumped another decibel: “I said the American church has to change. How many people have to die before the American church changes?”

Prairie Baptist Church

Prairie Baptist Church is pictured Nov. 11, 2017, in Scotts, Mich. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Prairie Baptist Church planned the event at least six months ago to boost the skills of its security team and to help other churches in the area do the same, Associate Pastor John Woullard said. When it came to the timing — a week after the Texas church shooting — Woullard said, “God just had that all worked out.”

Prairie Baptist, housed in a long, low building covered in tan siding, sees about 200 people on a Sunday morning, the associate pastor said. That’s about the average size for a church in the United States, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The church has had a security team for about three years, after Woullard went to a similar training and, he said, “my eyes were opened to how much is going on in the world and how little we know what’s going on in our building during a service.”

“It made my eyebrows go up.”

RELATED: 15 years after 9/11, are congregations prepared for disasters?

Prairie Baptist’s security team has about 10 members who rotate serving on a Sunday, he said. One person is positioned to greet people at the front door, which is kept locked. Someone is in every part of the building every few minutes to check on Sunday school classes and to make sure everyone is safe.

Several are armed.

Prairie Baptist Church Associate Pastor John Woullard helps barricade a door at an intruder awareness and response training Nov. 11, 2017, at the church in Scotts, Mich. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

On Saturday, Richard Wise, head of Prairie Baptist’s security team, greeted visitors warmly at the door with a firm handshake. He was wearing an earpiece and a cheery blue button-down shirt with the church’s logo, and both he and Woullard were carrying concealed weapons, according to Wise.

Churches are considered “gun-free zones” in Michigan, but gun owners can carry their weapons with a pastor’s permission, Woullard said. And a Michigan Senate committee approved bills last week that would give blanket permission to carry concealed weapons in churches and other gun-free zones.

The Bible says, ‘Redeeming the time for the days are evil.’ We have to be diligent and understand the times we live in,” Woullard said.

The associate pastor pointed to the biblical Book of Nehemiah, in which the people carried a tool in one hand and a sword in the other as they rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem. He offered as an example the Founding Fathers, who could not have won the Revolutionary War without weapons.

And he pointed to the shooting the weekend before at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which ended when a neighbor fired back at the attacker with his own gun.

Church security

In his opening prayer Saturday, Wise made clear they weren’t just there to talk about guns.

“When we talk about church security, it’s not talking about packing a gun or carrying a gun,” he prayed. “It’s about being prepared for every possible thing that we can think of, Lord. It’s just protecting the flock — it’s protecting what you have blessed us with in the ministry.”

Inside the church, decorated with Bible verses, patriotic sentiments and a portrait of George Washington, Young shared a number of statistics taken from the statistics on deadly force collected by church security consultant Carl Chinn: Since 1999, there have been more than 1,500 violent church attacks in America, and church violence has gone up 2,380 percent, Young said.

Chinn’s statistics, however, have been called into question and include the many violent deaths on church property that are suicides.

RELATED: Russell Moore: Southern Baptists feel the horror ‘more viscerally’

Last year alone, there were 246 violent church attacks, Young said. On Nov. 5, there were two. He poked the media for failing to report the story.

“The media sometimes doesn’t tell the truth,” Young said to laughs, “and so most people don’t know that there was a violent church attack last Sunday at the exact same time” as the shooting in Texas.

In addition to the shooting in Sutherland Springs, which killed more than two dozen people, Manuel Garcia fatally shot his estranged wife, Martha Garcia, and her new boyfriend outside St. Alphonsus Church in Fresno, Calif., before killing himself later that day at his home, according to The Washington Post, one of several news outlets that reported the crime.

RELATED: After fires, killings, black churches debate the best ways to protect themselves

And yet, while airports, public schools and other institutions have changed how they handle security in this era of mass shootings, the church has not, he said.

Because it can take police four to nine minutes to respond to a call for help, he said, “We want to give you a comprehensive plan from the parking lot to the pulpit that includes Band-Aids to bullets to close the four- to nine-minute window.”

Barry Young, vice president of Church Security Ministries at Strategos, walks participants through parking lot safety at an intruder awareness and response training Nov. 11, 2017, at Prairie Baptist Church in Scotts, Mich. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Young advocated for three layers of church security: a parking lot team, greeters and ushers, and a security team. He shared three foundations of church security — “look out,” “get out” and “take out.” He walked attendees through a lockdown, confronting somebody coming down the aisle at a church, and using a tactical pen — a writing instrument and weapon in one — for self-defense.

As he demonstrated how to shoot beneath a vehicle and described what direction vehicles should be parked in relation to a building, a white-tailed deer bobbed across one of the surrounding fields.

Marc Anderson of Kalamazoo, Mich., and his sister-in-law Anneliese Langs, a police officer who lives in Climax, Mich., came to the training at the suggestion of their pastor at Fellowship Baptist Church in Battle Creek, Mich. Their pastor also happens to be Langs’ father. She began discussing the idea of a security team with him after the church shooting earlier this year outside Nashville, Tenn., she said.

Fellowship Baptist averages about 60 people each Sunday, and Anderson, who works for an aviation company in Battle Creek, already was thinking how he could scale what he’d learned for a smaller church and who might be interested in joining a security team.

He’s encountered pushback to the idea, especially the idea of guns in church, including from his dad, who also is a pastor.

“It doesn’t seem to make much sense,” he said. “As a pastor, you’re responsible for the people that come. … I don’t think there’s anything wrong with protecting the people that go there. You want them to feel safe.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.


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  • Matthew 10:6 – English Standard Version

    “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

  • An explanation as to those incidents. There was an earlier article this week that was largely poo-poo’d (sp?

    Of particular note “In 2016, 8 of the 11 domestic abusers who were involved in deadly incidents were affiliated with a ministry; three were in leadership at those ministries. Every one of those domestic abuse killers in 2016 was a male.”

  • No, Doc, comparing Ben’s posts and yours, you are clearly the more hateful person. Spiteful too, just like that god you’ve made for yourself.

  • Again, that’s your story about me, in order to satisfy your beliefs about anyone who does not think as you do.

    We are told repeatedly by BBC’s about the power of prayer. This would be the perfect place to demonstrate it. But all this demonstrates is that you don’t really believe your own rhetoric, and that prayer is just another prop to your “faith”, where you claim to be doing something, but you’re not.

    It’s all about god’s wonderful plan, isn’t it? The one where he and you watch your family being murdered by a madman with a gun.

    As they said in WWI, “praise the lord and pass the ammunition.” That works, and that’s what they are doing. The saddest part is, at least from the perspective of this godless gay liberal atheist humanist who thinks that guns have little place in a civilized society, is that Good And True Christians (TM) like you defend the mindset that makes people in churches arm themselves. You generate fear, you exploit fear, and you demand that people be afraid. And then you are shocked, shocked I tell you, that they’re afraid.

    I’m shocked that you don’t actually believe your own story. Like Roy Moore, you undermine the faith of your fellow believers with every word and action, and then get angry at godLessgay liberal atheist me for pointing it out.

  • Be afraid, be very afraid. Isn’t that what Jesus said? Let fear drive you to change your life so as to avoid any chance that you might be harmed. Isn’t that the way the Saints lived? Fear the stranger; keep them out. Isn’t that what the Bible teaches.
    “Last year alone, there were 246 violent church attacks,” The National Safety Council puts the lifetime risk of dying in a mass shooting (anywhere) at around 1 in 110,154–about the same as dying from a dog attack or legal execution. The life time risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash is 1 in 113 and from heart disease or cancer is 1 in 7.
    But then some churches will jump on any bandwagon that passes by if it will get them some media attention.

  • No, it’s my story about you, ’cause you are working a little too hard to prove it.

    It’s understood that atheists don’t believe in God or prayer. Okay. But what doesn’t work, is your willingness to exploit unthinkable tragedies to mockingly attack prayer or attack God. The church folks at Charleston and Sutherland went right back to their prayer practices after the most tragic event of their lives. But all you can do is twist the knife on them, mocking their faith and their praying.

    If a gunman suddenly shows up at Kansas City Oasis (the atheistic church in KC) and kills half the assembly, I’m not going to post any suggestions of “Oooh, it looks like their belief system didn’t pan out.” I’ll continue attacking atheism, sure, but their tragedy won’t be my springboard. (Besides, the Bible says that “time and chance happen to all of us.” Tomorrow it COULD be your fellow atheists.)

  • No, I’m not mocking their faith. Again, that is your story about me. I notice you didn’t bother to address my actual points.

    The comment was actually about your faith in guns guns guns guns guns guns guns.

  • Hmm. That’s an interesting reply; it hadn’t occurred to me that Reason’s attack on me partially implicated you as well.

    Anyway, you pounced on him good, so here’s my upvote!

  • Well sure, Ben. I criticized you for mocking their faith (and in this case their prayers). But I don’t like mile-long posts, so I left off the gun issue.

    So here’s my position. Demonized guys are now comfortable walking right into church and murdering people wholesale. Men, women, babies, grannies.

    So “church security” doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, or prayer doesn’t work, or Christians lack faith. It just means God says to be prudent in the face of potential danger (Prov. 22:3), that’s all.

    Many churches already have security folks. The only question is whether they should carry firearms. I don’t have any opinion on that; that’s on them and God. However, most black churches can’t afford to hire a team of off-duty police or security guards. Might have to … improvise.

    Those that choose armed security, may point to verses like 1 Chron. 9: 21-24, or Nehemiah 4:10-23. Me, I’ve never had a gun, but I have had to help patrol the church parking lot at night in an unsafe neighborhood (it’s still unsafe, btw.) So I can see both sides of that issue.

    Besides, those pretty little Lars Grizzly Big-Boar 50-BMG’s can shave a mustache off a mosquito at a zillion yards! What’s not to like, dude?

  • Besides, those pretty little Lars Grizzly Big-Boar 50-BMG’s can shave a mustache off a mosquito at a zillion yards! What’s not to like, dude?”
    Thanks for proving my point. Guns. guns Guns. Guns. Guns. Armed ot the teeth and oyu’re still not safe.
    I’m not mocking their faith. They are. You are. I’m just pointing out what they are doing.
    If I have time later today, I will actually respond to what you have to say.

  • You brought “hate” into this. Prayer does not change anything, it only changes you, like meditation, chanting, reciting positive messages, etc. Ben was questioning prayer. I spent over a year in the jungles of Vietnam back in the sixties, and I saw people get blown away while praying. They could not have been praying for that.

  • It seems like the path to Mutually Assured Destruction is in frightening church-goers by convincing them they’re next, and then arming them to patrol their parking lots, parish halls, and sanctuaries. Sanctuaries! Do you really believe you are in imminent danger in church? Honestly, I would rather be shot dead than give myself over to a life of such fear that I’d have to walk around armed. I’ve been in and out of some nasty situations, some involving weapons handled by others, and am here to tell the tale. In not one would a weapon of my own have served any purpose but to make matters worse. PS: The data being used to highlight the danger of church going is highly suspect.

  • No, fail to you there, hateful (and maliciously word-twisting) Doc. I put your hatefulness level at very high, and Ben’s at none at all. My original statement remains accurate, as does this one; you are a very hateful person, and Ben is not hateful at all, which makes you more hateful than Ben.

  • Such “time and chance” demonstrate yet again that your “personal god” does not exist.

  • “I wish it was 1950 … but it’s 2017, and the American church has to change,” Young said.

    Aaaand that about sums up the fundamentalist position…ya know — back when women knew their place, blacks could not vote and gay people were routinely killed.

  • “I tried praying to God and praying to Joe Pesci..I got about the same results 50/50” — George Carlin

  • This seems more like an attempt by some company to fear monger churches into paying for their services.

  • eventually..there will be a shoot out over some minor church doctrine….mark my words (or matthew or luke them)

  • When it works, it’s “prayer is wonderful.” When it doesn’t work, “it’s God’s plan.”

    My own belief is “praise the lord and pass the ammunition.”

  • Thanks. Now he is absolutely sure that we both hate him, as well as faith, prayer, jEsus, Christianity, and Girl Scout cookies.

    It’s funny, when Christians of his sort say what they say, they claim it is merely disagreement, not hate. Even though it sounds like hate and has exactly the same repercussions as hate.

    When We disagree with them, then disagreement is hate, and hate of the worst sort, hate of the grinding-the-heads-of-kittens-under-your-jackboots variety.

    Sauce for those goose is never sauce for the propaganda.

    Thanks again for your clarification

  • PS: The data being used to highlight the danger of church going is highly suspect…
    but prophetable.

  • Okay, let’s talk about this. (Sorry for delay, had some other stuff.)
    First, of course, thank you for your service. I was too young to get drafted, but I have an uncle, a good man, who did get drafted, and later took a bullet to his stomach or thereabouts, (but survived.)

    Second, I didn’t bring any “hate” into this. How do I know that? Because as I told Ben, if a mass shooter walks into the Kansas City Oasis (the atheist church in KC) and kills half the congregation, I will NOT be posting any mocking, exploitative suggestions of “Oooh, looks like their belief system didn’t pan out.” Their personal tragic losses won’t be my tactical springboard from which to attack their faith or their insistence on prayer.

    I consider such tactics to entail hatred, (it’s like twisting the knife on the still-praying church-goers of Charleston and Sutherland).

  • Now, let’s talk to you too. (Again, sorry for delay).

    This ain’t no “P*ssing Contest of Hatred” to see who’s the most hateful around here. And even if you think I’m the winner of said contest, I have to ask: Who cares? I don’t do hatred, but I’m not gonna spend my life trying to convince you that I don’t. So believe what you will already.

    As I said to Peepsqueak, I do consider certain tactics to entail hatred. I didn’t say that Ben was a hateful person — he is probably so humane that I could get away with borrowing $200 of mad money right now if I asked him just right — but I will call you out, or Ben out, if I see certain approaches pop up more than once.
    That’s what happened here.

  • Dude, you are trying so hard to get all cute with your words.

    I’d call you out on that aspect as well, except that I’m trying to do the same thing.

  • It’s a classic fit – people who don’t assess risk are much more prone to fear the unlikely whether it be being shot or the existence of god(s).

  • For example – your much more likely to die in a car crash on the freeway rather than an airplane crash

  • He posted “Prayer doesn’t work?” and you posted– “So you hate prayer too? That’s a lotta hating for just one person!” You couched a legitimate question as “hate”

    We had clerics come to the field in Vietnam to bless us. I asked one cleric–
    Who is blessing God’s children on the other side while we are in their Country blowing their behinds off, while spraying cancer causing agents (agent orange) on their jungles and crops, poisoning their ground water and children??????? How would you answer that question?