With megachurches come mega crowds, mega money, and increasingly, mega security concerns.
The crowdsanywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 worshippers each weekendcan be an attractive target for a deranged shooter. Overflowing offering plates are tempting to thieves, and well-known preachers can become high-profile targets.
Sunday's shootings at New Life Church in Colorado Springs and a missionary training facility in Arvada, Colo. which left five people dead, including a gunmanreflect the security nightmares facing some of the country's largest churches. Many of those churches now employ armed guards to protect human, financial and physical "assets."
Brady Boyd, the senior pastor at New Life Church, said an armed guard "probably saved over 100 lives" when she shot and killed the gunman just inside the doors of the Colorado church.
"That's the reality of our world," he told reporters Monday. "I don't think any of us grew up in churches where that was a reality, but today it is."
Boyd said the volunteer guard was put in position after the church heard about the shootings in Arvada. The church has about 15 or 20 guards, some armed, and the guard who killed the gunman used her personal weapon, he said.
Violent crimes remain extremely rare at U.S. churches. Eric Spacek, a senior church risk manager for the GuideOne Center for Risk Management in West Des Moines, Iowa, said crime accounts for just 5 percent of all claims filed by the 40,000 churches insured by GuideOne.
Still, the growth of megachurches has spawned an entire industry devoted to protecting and securing crowds that can be larger than some towns or shopping malls.
Scott Thumma, a megachurch expert at Hartford Seminary and author of Beyond Megachurch Myths, said financial security is just one concern at a typical megachurch, where offerings can reach an annual average of $6 million.
"Think about it," he said. "That's $115,000 a week in income. Are you going to trust moving that much money around to folks without guns?"
At the Potter's House in Dallas, where Bishop T.D. Jakes draws an average 15,000 worshippers on Sundays, the church employs plainclothes and uniformed security guards, said Sean Smith, director of Classic Security, which contracts with the church.
"We're not trying to get an army of men out there armed with guns," Smith said, "but we want to take practical and measured responses for any threats that may come to our doorstep."
Increasingly, that means packing heat, if necessary, said John Ross, who directs security at Dallas' Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, which draws nearly 8,000 every Sunday.
"You can use your hands, you can go tactical, but these days, that's not the way people roll," said Ross, a former ATF agent. "You have to match force with force."
Some church crime is relatively routinethefts, vandalism and unfortunately, child abuse. Sometimes, warring parents will take their domestic dispute to church playgrounds, or thieves eye parked cars for break-ins.
Some churches try to take it in stride. Rick Warren, the California megachurch pastor and Purpose Driven Life author, has an all-volunteer security team headed by a former Secret Service agent.
"We don't worry about that," he said Monday. "We do have security volunteers in our church. We don't have any paid (security), but every one of them are off-duty law enforcement."
In the case of most random shootingsa deranged gunman looking to make a statementsome observers said there is only so much churches can do. Dave Travis, the managing director of Leadership Network, a Dallas-based megachurch think tank, noted that the mother of Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1974 as she sat at the church organ.
"The security threat of a crazed personthere's just no way to totally prepare for that," he said.
The celebrity status of some mega-church pastors is another concern.
"Some of these top pastors have become celebrities, and they carry with them the same crazy people who would attack Madonna or the Beatles, and religion is one of the things to which unstable people are attracted," said Hartford's Thumma.
Still, churches' open-door atmospheres frown on the use of some precautions, such as metal detectors or pat-downs. People seek churches for comfort and healing, not to undergo a background check, said Dale Annis, director of Church Security Services, a consulting firm in Bakersfield, Calif.
"If you're trying to win converts," he said, "you don't want it to be so fortified that you're going into Fort Apache."
It's not just the big churches where security is a concern. At Annis' 600-member Olive Drive Church, a 16-person security team is trained in CPR and First Aid. A golf cart roams the parking lot to deter break-ins, and Annis carries a firearmjust in case.
"Churches are really easy pickings if you think about it," he said. "You've got several hundred people, all in one place with their heads down and their eyes closed. I tell my security team to pray with their eyes open."
(David Finnigan contributed to this report from Los Angeles.)
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Liveblog coverage of the shootings includes:
Security Guard Describes Shooting | "It was me, the gunman, and God," security guard says.
Gunman's family asks for forgiveness as YWAM explains relationships | Murray "was briefly a student" at training center but did not complete program.
Gunman "Hated Christians," Kicked out of YWAM | Man killed four at training center and megachurch.
Reports Draw Connections Between Victims, Shooter | Sisters in New Life shooting were heavily involved with Youth With a Mission.
Five killed in New Life Church, YWAM center attacks | Police think two separate shootings may be related.
Leadership published a police officer's advice on how to prevent, or react to, a gunman at church.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more