All churches have water fountains: A dangerous age in which to pray (1993)

The water fountain is at one end of our church's foyer, conveniently located near the rooms where the choir and clergy prepare for worship. 

It's a modern chrome model with a push-bar control on the front to make it easier to use. Week after week, parishioners help small children use the water foundation. At some point -- usually about 4 or 5 years of age -- children can get drinks on their own. 

Little kids like to go get drinks of water. It's a sign that they're getting bigger. It gives them a chance to move around during long worship services. They can get away from the adults for a few seconds and run and yell and play and act like children. 

All churches have water fountains. 

The leaders at Christ Church in Denver will never look at ours the same, after what happened on March 17. 

It was a Wednesday night and two boys went to get drinks of water during a prayer service. They had a race back to the foyer nursery, but only one made it. Within minutes, his parents and other church members were looking for the 4-year-old. It was too late. 

Some believe the kidnapper knew the church layout. At the least, this person seemed to have visited enough to know the patterns of our meetings and services. 

This was a statistical miracle: a tragic case with a happy ending. The next day, while parishioners prayed and police searched, little Michael Chandler was found safe and physically sound -- abandoned on a rural highway. 

Under the glare of television lights, our tears of fear became tears of joy. Now church members will have to deal with our anger as we face the future. 

It's hard to pray when you're afraid to close your eyes. 

A friend of mine looked at the water fountain, while others celebrated Michael's release. "I'm not sure I'm read for this," he said. "Have we really reached the point where people have to think twice about letting their child walk the length of the church foyer to get a drink of water? Has it really come to that?"

All churches have water fountains. 

Welcome to the '90s. What happened to our church could have happened in the facilities of any religious group in this city, state and nation. 

To prepare for a threat, people first must perceive that the threat exists. That is a bitter truth, especially in churches. Concerns about security -- along with agonizing issues of accountability and confidentiality -- are not going to go away on their own. 

Religious groups are having to take precautionary steps that would have appalled previous generations -- asking tough background questions about staff and volunteers in children's ministries, hiring part-time security guards during services and taking out insurance policies to cover potential lawsuits. 

More clergy are suffering from burnout as people turn to the church for counseling and help with personal problems. Too often, this can lead to headlines about sexual abuse of parishioners or clergy taking advantage of children. 

More questions: Should women's groups allow discussions of abuse? How should clergy handle someone who report's incest? Should the youth pastor ever be allowed to work alone? And, yes, is it safe for a child to go the water fountain alone? Is it even safe for an adult -- one adult, without a second to verify his or her actions -- to take a child to get a drink of water? 

Welcome to the '90s. Only dead or dying churches will escape such issues. 

Growing congregations are trying to help people face this troubled age. Thus, they are like magnets that attract new people, issues and, yes, problems. It's a biblical truth that must be kept alive at the heart of church life: Sinners must have places to seek help and forgiveness. 

It will be hard for religious groups to welcome people with open arms, while simultaneously trying to maintain security. It's hard to say this: More people may have to stand guard, so that other can kneel in safety.

Terry Mattingly teaches media and popular culture at Denver Seminary. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.