When the Sanctuary is No Longer Safe

sanctuary (n.)
early 14c., “building set apart for holy worship,” from Anglo-French sentuarie, Old French saintuaire “sacred relic, holy thing; reliquary, sanctuary,” from Late Latin sanctuarium “a sacred place, shrine” (especially the Hebrew Holy of Holies; see sanctum), also “a private room,” from Latin sanctus “holy” (see saint (n.)).

Since the time of Constantine and by medieval Church law, fugitives or debtors enjoyed immunity from arrest in certain churches, hence transferred sense of “immunity from punishment” (late 14c.). Exceptions were made in England in cases of treason and sacrilege. General (non-ecclesiastical) sense of “place of refuge or protection” is attested from 1560s; as “land set aside for wild plants or animals to breed and live” it is recorded from 1879.1

There is no doubt that the murder of nine people praying and studying at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston SC, will have us going several different directions emotionally over the coming weeks. Sadness, rage, questions, weeping. Was it a hate crime? Most certainly only hate drives these sort of premeditated actions. Was it based on skin color, beliefs, politics, mental illness or some sort of  a combination of all of these?

With all of these questions swirling, one that immediately comes to my mind is, “Are our churches no longer safe places?” The opening quote from etymonline.com, gives a brief history to our understanding of where the term sanctuary comes from and why so many churches have called their main worship room a sanctuary. Many have opted to move away from such language, but the term was born out of a sense that our church buildings were safe places; churches were places of refuge.

This of course is not the first church shooting and unfortunately it will not be the last. The many that have happened in the last decade have prompted churches and their leadership to consider how to make their buildings safer. Many have installed cameras (one of the features that I has helped capture the alleged Charleston murderer) and many have also established safety and security teams. This is a practice I believe is necessary no matter the size of the church. But, of course, nothing is fail safe. So what do we as church leaders do when all the safety and security measures have been put in place?

Let me suggest a few things:

1. Be loving, but wise. Our tendency when someone new walks in who doesn’t “look like us” is to maybe be a bit skittish or put off. We should extend grace and mercy, but at the same time we should not put all suspicions aside if we are truly concerned. One way to accomplish this is for those on a safety and security team to have a protocol for greeting those who might be perceived as a threat. This might seem ridiculous, but time and time again, we have seen that there is and continues to be a downgrading of respect for places of worship as safe places.

2. Teach your people to be loving and wise as well. It’s one thing for us as leaders to be informed and seeking to apply what I stated in my first suggestion; we need to encourage our people in the same way.

3. Be a light to your community. We cannot always prevent what happens to us, but we can exemplify Christ’s love to a lost and hurting world. Will we be hated for proclaiming truth? The answer to that is found in another question, “Are we followers of Jesus?” Jesus said in John 15:18ff, that the world will hate us because they have hated him. If we are followers of him, it is guaranteed. However, we are to seek to lovingly call people to repentance and the cost may be persecution or our lives.

There is no easy answer to safety and security in our places of worship, but Biblical Wisdom and Biblical Love must be a part of the solution.

Let us continue to pray for Charleston. 

Accessed June 18, 2015, 8:35a.m. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sanctuary


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