Like many, my heart broke Sunday with the news of another mass shooting. The fact that this tragedy occurred at a church, in a small town, and may be related to a domestic dispute, reminded me of conversations I had recently with pastors while speaking in a rural part of the U.S. It was a region that’s been deeply affected by globalization, automation, and the decline of manufacturing. Unemployment is high along with drug and alcohol abuse.
As I often do when speaking in an unfamiliar culture, I asked a few pastors what challenges they faced in their churches and communities. Some spoke about the opioid epidemic, and others mentioned the exodus of millennials from the church. More than one gave me a surprising answer I’d previously only heard from pastors in urban areas plagued by gangs—guns. One pastor, with decades of experience in a small town, offered some perspective.
“Over the last 10 years,” he said, “the number of guns in our community has exploded. We’re a rural town. People have always had hunting rifles and shotguns, but now everyone has handguns and they carry them everywhere. Even to church.” He warned me before speaking that at least 80 percent of the congregation would be “packing” during my sermon.
“How does that affect your ministry?” I asked him.
He explained that when combined with high unemployment and rampant drug and alcohol abuse, the addition of guns has been devastating. Suicide rates are climbing, he said, not just because people are struggling more with depression, but because suicide attempts are more often successful with a firearm. “In the past I used to get a chance to counsel someone after they tried to kill themselves. Not anymore.”
The pastor said the presence of so many guns has almost completely shut down his church’s ministry to the most vulnerable in the community. Domestic violence is rampant throughout the region—another byproduct of poverty and substance abuse. So many women are abused, he said, that years earlier churches came together to create a hotline to protect them. When feeling threatened, women called a phone number linked to a network of pastors and church elders. One or more would arrive at the woman’s house to intervene, rescue her, or stay with her husband until he sobered up.
“Now,” the pastor said, “with everyone carrying guns we can’t get pastors and elders to sign up for the program. No one wants to walk into a house with a raging guy with a gun.” He said even local police are more reluctant to intervene.
“What about deterrence?” I asked. “If everyone has a gun, doesn’t that make these men think twice about shooting?”
“Think twice?” the pastor said. “They’re so messed up on booze and pills, they’re not thinking at all.” He went on to lament the way his ministry has been derailed. “Something’s wrong when good men in the church can’t even protect women and children.”
I came away from my time in that small town wondering if I had seen the future of ministry in America. Now, with the terrible scenes coming from First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, we may all be seeing the future of ministry in America.
I recognize the gun issue provokes strong opinions as the conversation has shifted in recent years from one of public safety to one of partisan identity for many Americans. My own engagement with the issue has been frustrating and unfruitful. So, rather than debating policies let’s stick with undisputed facts and consider what ministry looks like in this new reality.
FACT 1: America has a lot of guns. According to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there are 357 million guns in the United States. That’s 40 million more guns than people, and this statistic does not account for illegal guns. Average monthly gun sales have more than doubled since 2008 when Obama, widely seen as a pro-gun control president, was elected. Even advocates of stricter laws have failed to propose a realistic solution to the avalanche of weapons already in circulation. This genie won’t go back in the bottle without a fight.
FACT 2: Americans fear losing their guns. A poll conducted by Pew in 2000 found that a strong majority of Americans (66%) believed it was more important to restrict gun ownership than to protect the rights of gun owners. Today, the trend is reversed with the majority (52%) now saying protecting gun owners is more important than enacting stricter gun control. In other words, today more Americans fear the government than fear guns.
FACT 3: America’s gun laws are becoming more relaxed. Although more people fear government restrictions of their guns, since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 about two dozen states have taken actions to loosen gun restrictions. A Harvard research paper published last year concluded that between 1989 and 2014, after mass shootings gun laws were more likely to be loosened than tightened. There is a strategic effort to desensitize Americans to guns through laws permitting them in more public spaces, and it’s working.
FACT 4: Americans have accepted gun violence as normal. Gun sales, as well as share prices of firearm manufactures and retailers, usually rise immediately after widely-reported acts of gun violence. The common view has been that new government regulations are likely after massacres, so the public rushes to purchase guns before any restrictions are enacted.
This week, however, following the church shooting in Texas there has been no spike in gun stock prices. Market analysts believe Congress’ unwillingness to pass any new gun laws following hundreds of recent mass shootings indicates the country has settled into a broad acceptance of gun violence. After a few days of cable news coverage and the outcries of a few liberal politicians, both pro- and anti-gun advocates know nothing will change. Therefore, Americans no longer feel the urgency to purchase new firearms immediately after a mass shooting. We have accepted Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and First Baptist Sutherland Springs as the new normal in America.
However you may feel about these facts, we need to ask what the proliferation of guns means for ministry in the United States. If a shepherd’s first calling is to protect the flock, how are we to respond to the presence of guns in our churches and communities? Armed guards in church? Metal detectors at the door? How do we welcome strangers as Christ commands if we have to worry about lunatics with semiautomatic weapons attacking innocent worshippers?
And does our responsibility end at the church parking lot? We may turn our church buildings into fortresses, but what about protecting our people in homes, schools, offices, and in public spaces? What about the rising suicide rates facilitated by guns among teens and young adults? What about the women who face violence at home from their boyfriends or husbands? Do we have a Christian responsibility to seek their protection as well? Does Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) mean advocating for a society in which everyone is required to own a gun as the NRA would like? Somehow, I don’t think universal conceal-carry is what “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” looks like.
I don’t have any helpful answers to these questions. I wasn’t trained in seminary to minister in this kind of setting. The fact that these questions even need to be addressed breaks my heart, just as my heart is broken for the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. My heart is broken for the pastors I spoke to earlier this year who feel powerless to protect women and kids in abusive homes. And my heart is broken for our whole country as righteous anger over gun violence settles into idolatrous apathy. When will the madness stop? For those who want to say this is a mental health issue, I agree. But let’s not merely look at the mental health of those who commit mass shootings, but at the collective mental health of the society that allows it to continue. God, help us.