Darn! How dare I?
Nothing like a pandemic (or election year) to bring out some of the contradictions in what the church claims to be vs how it acts and how it talks about what is important to her. Thankfully this is not representative of the whole but it is serious enough and 2020 has highlighted a deep rooted hate and insecurity in the lives of many church leaders and those who follow them.
Is the church an essential service? There is one particular reason why this seems like an odd question to me.
When did the church become a service?
I must have missed the memo. Or maybe I’ve been away from pastoring for to long that I’ve forgotten what the church is. When did it become a place that you go to? Well, ok, that has been around for a long time and we’ve sort of let it slide. But it seems that now the whole notion of being able to gather in our buildings on Sunday’s has become a central piece of doctrine. Yet church leaders know, or should know, that a building is just a building and that the church is not defined by or contained within its meeting places.
I can understand why leaders might be a bit desperate to get people back into the building on Sundays. The fear of losing influence over the congregation, the fear of losing money and a difficulty adapting during these virtual times can be stress inducing.
Is the church an essential service? How can it be? The church is not a consumer product. It’s not like going to the movies and it’s not like going to the groceries or to the liquor store. It is simply, or at least is supposed to be, a community of people driven and energized by gospel (the gospel by the way is not a checklist of statements you say ‘yes’ to). I can understand how restrictions on gathering physically would have been difficult years and years ago. But today, with the ease of technology, it’s still possible to gather and encourage and teach and learn and serve. Am I suggesting that virtual gatherings are just as nice as in person gatherings? Of course not. Connecting with people in real physical presence is, over time, a much healthier way of building and sustaining relationships. Virtual meetings have their limits and they get old very quickly. I look forward just as much as anyone else to the day when we can simply be anywhere without having to stress about being to close, far enough, wearing a mask, disinfecting our hands and so on. I get it.
Yet, the church is not a service and therefore cannot be an essential one. It can be of service but it is not in and of itself a service. It can wait until the time is right to gather or gather in greater numbers. It doesn’t need to make a fuss about it. It certainly need not bring out the persecution card. The church is not being persecuted.
We can agree and disagree on whether governments are handling the pandemic the right way and on the possible ridiculousness of certain restrictions, but at the end of the day, the church is not being persecuted and the government isn’t saying, “oh good, we finally have an excuse to shut down churches.” Come on.
Can the church grow up a bit? We don’t need to imitate the ‘new Jesus’ (aka the soon to be ex-president of the US) and throw temper tantrums and make threats just because we don’t like the way things are playing out.
This can been a great time for the church to be known for what it is meant to be at the core. A community of people transformed by love and animated by grace. More on that at some other time.
For now though, as we continue to frustratingly navigate through this pandemic, rather than getting all worked up about what can or can’t go on in a building or over how many people are or should or could be allowed inside, why not simply BE. Be the church. Be the incarnation of love. Be the incarnation of grace where you are and with those you come across. There are many ways to do so but it requires taking our heads out of one particular body part and simply look around. Then, when people ask about what keeps you motivated and hopeful in difficult times, tell them.
2 thoughts on “The church is not an essential service”
Can I push back on this line of thinking a bit?
If all the world were a suburban middle class family context this would be plausible. The challenge that I’ve seen firsthand is that not everyone is in that particular living situation, and it makes in-person church “essential.”
What I mean, is that many of these people aren’t getting regular human interaction, and they depend upon the church community for exactly that… community. The alternatives for these basic human needs are not appealing as they involve activities that have been destructive in their lives previously. Beyond that, one of the proven ways over the centuries to relieve stress is through prayer, reading Scripture, singing (which does amazing things in the brain) and seeing and interacting with loved ones.
Further to that thought, when it comes to policy, there really does need to be some room to navigate the risks involved. Granted, as a society we need to be aware of how this virus spreads and can quickly overwhelm our healthcare system. But, we also need to recognize the human costs of these various policies, especially when they become mandatory and include fines.
We are in a delicate place, as the government in some of the provinces has demonstrated inconsistent values for various human activities. This has the side effect of undermining their credibility. And, credibility these days is in rare supply.
May I submit to you, that church gatherings are one of the most human things we do. Not all churches meet the need. But, they are generally the best at it.
Thank you for allowing me to comment. I’ve appreciated our friendship over the years and hope it will not only continue but deepen. Give my best to your family.
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Hey Andy! Yes, you can push back on anything I write/think/suggest. I’ll try to respond briefly. First, I’m not sure about the middle class family context vs those not in this particular context comparison. It seems vague. I think I know what you are highlighting but it seems there are many non-middle class non-suburban families that would fit in your suburban middle class family definition. I do agree with you that there are people, inside and outside of suburban context, who for various reasons are isolated and not getting regular human interaction.
I agree that in times like these there are those who are in “greater need” of community, although we all are. I also agree with you that meditation, in it’s various forms, does amazing things in the brain. Seeing and interacting with loved ones is of course fundamental.
Yes, the church is a relational community and for many perhaps the only relational network. Yes, being in community and in relationship with others is one of the most human things we do. Yes, the church is certainly, although not always, at the forefront of creating community but it is in many instances deficient in its ability to do so. Yes, it can and does provide community for those it is able to reach.
I’m 100% with you on the complexities of policies meant to curb the virus vs the need for wiggle room. Seeing all the various ways governments have been responding is a good indicator that this line is difficult to trace. I don’t claim to agree with the various restrictions and the forms they have taken. I can understand how in some ways the risk of gathering in social contexts (big or small) can be seen as riskier than going to the groceries. Yes, the human costs of all this over the long run (and it’s already been to long) is great. We are in a delicate place.
My main issue is when the church starts to cry “persecution” or to claim that the government is trying to shut it down. I would still push back on the idea that the Sunday (or equivalent) church gathering is essential. Yes I do agree that church gatherings can be moments of deep human relational experience. Perhaps we need church leaders to be more involved in collaborating with the government in finding suitable ways to care for people rather than cultivating an Us vs the government type of mentality.
Let’s not forget that the church, especially its gatherings, is only relevant to a small percentage of people. Therefore, there needs to be other ways.
Anyways, this sounds like an interesting conversation to be had over coffee! We’ve been meaning to connect for a while now.
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