Strangers in the small church
Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and [a]the alien who is in your [b]town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law." Deuteronomy 31:12
The people of FBC Sutherland Springs gathered yesterday for church just like they had for decades and decades. By now you know how the story ended. In a terrible, tragic, act of evil that is beyond words a man walked into the church and killed over 20 people there to worship. Those who died ranged in age from 5 to 72. It’s the deadliest mass shooting at a church in history. It’s crazy that there is even a category for “mass shootings at a church.”
If you go to FBC Sutherland Springs Youtube page you can watch the services over the past several weeks. The church looks just like dozens of churches that I have been over the years. Churches this size make up the majority of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the majority of churches in America. Chances are that most people who will read this have spent time in a church like this.
At most of the churches in my community, it's not uncommon to have groups of under 100 in attendance at services, and on services other than Sunday morning it can be significantly lower. When a stranger walks into a church of that size, everyone notices. Not because of race or gender, but because there is someone new there! Anyone who is not a "usual" stands out in small group, no matter if we are meeting in the sanctuary, downstairs in the basement, or somewhere else, you cannot help but notice someone new.
The tragedy at Sutherland Springs should be sobering to all who work for, lead in, or even attend a church. There are three ways that we can respond when we hear this news.
1. We can be foolish
The fact that there is such a category of “mass shootings at a church” means that we must pay attention. Any church that thinks “that will never happen here” is burying their head in the sand. Every church, regardless of size, must think about how they can secure their building during services, be aware of their surroundings, and be as safe as they can be. It’s a sad fact that in todays world we must think about these things as churches, but it is still true. Every leadership team at a church, whether it’s an elder board, a deacon body, or just the regular Wednesday night crowd, must be having discussions about these things.
2. We can be fearful
In light of the shooting, many have urged churches to re evaluate their security procedures, to train responders, to look out for "suspicious people.” We need to do those things, at leas in part. It’s easy to become fearful in the world we live in, always looking over our shoulder, always suspicious of every person that walks through the door. A church that lives in fear will not be able to live out it’s calling to share the love of Christ with everyone. A fearful church will be afraid that letting anyone in will put them at risk of being hurt. That feeling is not completely untrue, of course. The events of the past few years show that it might happen in any church. But to close the completely close the church except for those you know is contrary to the gospel. The very nature and mission of a church is for it to be welcoming and opening to anyone who walks through the door.
3. We can be faithful
We must be wise about our surroundings, and we can’t bury our head in the sand. But we must be faithful to what God has called us to do. The church is the wisdom of God made manifest in the world, and by it’s nature it is to show the world the heart of God. Just as Jesus put himself at risk by coming to earth, so the church should risk by going out into the world. The very nature of a church is even to put itself at risk in order to accomplish it's mission: loving our neighbor as ourselves.
My church sits right on a major highway, and we regularlyget people passing through town on way to somewhere else. As the only church on Main Street, it’s not uncommon to get visitors who we might never see again. It even happened yesterday during our morning service. I remember one particular event, a large (very large) cowboy of a man walked in to our Wednesday night service after we had already served meal and were about to start Bible study. In our small community we at least seem to know “of” everyone. But this man was a complete stranger. I noticed some people were shifting uncomfortably and watching him closely as he sat down for bible study. He stayed for the lesson in our small group of twenty or so, and afterwards we talked. I heard his story, of passing through from Alabama to Wisconsin to Texas looking for work. I gave him some meal money, prayed with him, and he moved on. When he walked in our service I had no idea his purpose or mission in coming, but we did what Christ command us to do:welcome him in the name of the Lord. This doesn’t make our church special, it makes it normal. This scene or one like it played out in thousands of churches across the country yesterday, and each one was an expression of God’s wisdom in the world.
We must use wisdom and take precautions in ourchurches. But when a stranger comes in your church, we have no other option but to welcome them. It’s what God commands of us. We must not stop there though, we must love them as ourselves, and work to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all who will listen.