Lewisville Baptist Church only averages 195 in Sunday attendance, but the Winston-Salem area church still uses a safety patrol to check hallways and lock outside doors about 15 minutes after the service starts.
Members of a 25-man volunteer, security team are also on hand for two women’s Bible studies during the week and other meetings if requested. The group formed several years ago after a stranger wandered into Vacation Bible School and roamed the building.
All churches should be concerned about protecting worshipers on Sunday, says a Colorado-based security consultant who has twice visited North Carolina.
A member of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Carl Chinn was one of four security team responders the day an armed gunman killed two worshipers there in 2007.
Nationwide, since 1999 there have been nearly 300 attacks at churches and more than 200 deaths, Chinn said.
Violence struck North Carolina congregations five times last year, including a domestic violence dispute that led to a woman’s death at a church in Fuquay-Varina.
Chinn attributes the increase in violence and other crimes against churches to several factors, including an erosion of moral and family values and the perception that churches are “soft targets.”
“I discovered the same things there I see everywhere,” Chinn said of his visits to North Carolina. “Churches are beginning to understand the need, but there is often leadership resistance and fear based on financial, theological and other issues.”
However, Lewisville Baptist pastor Les Puryear said if those who oppose taking stricter security measures don’t face reality, they may be in for a rude awakening.
Not only does his church use safety patrols, it installed a steel side door and increased exterior lighting after a break-in last fall resulted in $14,000 worth of damage.
“It seems like crime has left the big city and come to the country,” said Puryear, whose town numbers less than 10,000.
“I don’t know of any church that can leave their doors open like they did in the 1950s and ’60s. If you do, you’re inviting vandalism.”
Other churches across the state are taking similar measures. Wilmington First Baptist Church instituted a screening system last year that started with staff members and expanded to volunteers.
As of April 1, no one can work with children or youth unless they have been through a background check. This screening is part of a comprehensive security plan still being implemented.
Minister of Administration Daryl Trexler said it was prompted by problems at churches across the region and its insurance carrier insisting First Baptist develop better security.
The next step is to form a team of current and retired law enforcement officers.
Once in place, they will walk the premises during Sunday School and church and deal with any disruptions. Those duties are currently handled by a pair of deacons.
Although striving to have more experienced people handling Sunday morning security, the Wilmington church doesn’t plan to arm its guards.
“We want to find a good medium,” Trexler said. “We never want to be a closed facility. We want to be a safe facility.”
During the week, First Baptist locks its doors and uses a card-key system to control access to the downtown church.
Visitors must ring a bell and announce their intentions over an intercom. While it doesn’t have video cameras, five miles away there is video equipment at its activity center, site of a half-day preschool program.
Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden takes stronger precautions on Sunday. The megachurch uses up to 11 off-duty sheriff’s deputies to direct traffic and provide security. They include an armed, plainclothes officer inside the sanctuary.
Five to seven laypersons are part of the security team, but only law enforcement personnel carry weapons, said Mike Breland, director of operations. Although it hasn’t faced any major disruptions lately, Biltmore recently asked a disgruntled volunteer to leave.
Although he threatened to disrupt children’s sports program, nothing happened, Breland said.
“I think it’s a product of our environment today,” Breland said of security awareness. “It’s very prudent for churches to do that.”
North Carolina Baptists’ largest congregation, Hickory Grove in Charlotte, has been using uniformed, off-duty officers for about a decade, according to Steve Adams, pastor of administration.
Burglar alarms, lighting and closed-circuit cameras are part of the security system that protects staff members — including teachers at its Christian school — during the week.
No matter what size the church, Adams said no one should ever think “it can’t happen here.”
“We had deacons in the parking lot at the church I went to back in the 1970s,” Adams said. “So it’s really been an issue for a number of years, if you think about it.”
Still, it has taken a long time for many churches to respond. For those who haven’t done anything, Trexler suggests they schedule a discussion.
“We are beginning to see the need for this to be addressed,” said the Wilmington minister. “We hate that we have to do it, but to not do it would be irresponsible.”
While budgetary restrictions are always a concern, practical steps don’t have to be expensive. One small church cut down on vandalism of cars by giving some members orange reflective vests and having them greet people in the parking lot.
How secure are your church and people?
As the world gets more crowded and less courteous; more frightening and less faithful; more lawless and less loving places where large crowds gather and buildings in which valuable equipment is used and stored become targets more often.
That specifically includes churches. Every week headlines announce another assault or embezzlement, more fires or senseless vandalism that costs thousands of dollars that otherwise could go to missions. To thieves, vandals, pedophiles and abusers those who fill the pews, pre-schools, playgrounds and classrooms of local churches are big, fat targets.
Churches are like a can of sardines for a cat, the lid peeled back and a treasure of opportunity packed inside for the taking That is why security is such a vital matter and why this issue of the Biblical Recorder dedicates several stories researched and written for us by Ken Walker, a writer in West Virginia who has done significant work for Baptist publications.