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.