Is Church an Essential Service?
In marketing, “disruption” is a good thing. It’s about finding the gap to create a new service – or a new need. Disruption lets you lead the audience in a new direction.
Well, 2020 has certainly been a disruption in church service! It has forced us to re-think how we “do church,” and I have to say, our community adapted commendably since the March CDC mandates.
On the national level, however, many people in America were not only disappointed that the lockdown was extended past Easter, but anxious to get back to worshipping in their churches. In Georgia, they held drive-in church, following social distance guidelines, despite the Governor’s edict that banned religious gatherings of any kind. Unlike hospitals, grocery and hardware stores, gas stations and Uber drivers, churches have not been considered “essential services.” We won’t die, our toilets won’t explode, we won’t miss out on our favorite restaurant dish if we don’t go to church. (Okay, I’m tipping my hand at how random I feel the definition of “essential” has been designated.)
But it’s a good question to think about individually. Is church service essential to me?
Let’s consider some arguments for and against:
The early church was persecuted by Jews and Romans alike, so met secretly at people’s houses. “Services” consisted of kitchen table dinner discussions, scouring Scripture, singing, and lots of praiseful prayer for guidance. Sounds like the early days of Adventists! The purpose of meeting was to compare notes, share their experiences, “encourage one another and build one another up” towards spiritual growth. Generally, new converts studied for three years then were full-dunked-baptized (naked) and given a literal and spiritual new robe. The Church wouldn’t have sermons and Communions (or, Eucharists) until Peter got things better organized for the purpose of global evangelism. By the 2nd century AD, we see the Eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving” or “gratitude”) established as a major ritual—although scholars still debate whether or not Christ meant it to be institutionalized or not. By then, Bishops had the power to absolve sins via possession by the holy spirit. Therefore, for many Catholics, church would a very real and essential service for absolving sins through priestly confession and receiving God’s grace through the sacrament of the Eucharist alone—save for the fact that on March 20 this year, the Pope permitted Bishops to make “general absolution” to groups of people, rather than hear individual confessions, for the sake of quarantine.
Until then, one could say that the ritual of church is essential. At least for Catholics.
Protestant Christianity has almost no ritual, unless one counts the habit of weekly attendance. Unlike Catholicism, there’s nothing about attendance that will necessarily save a person, so hardly “essential.” Communion is more of a holiday sermon with really good props. Baptisms are like graduation ceremonies, which can be postponed. Absolution is between us and God, no priest required. Many of us simply go to church to hear (hopefully) a good sermon, sing some hymns, drop a few bucks in the offering plate, maybe hit a potluck, and, if we’re very honest, mostly to see and be seen. And we’ve figured out how to do all of that online. At best, having a habit of remembering the Sabbath day is a useful refresher in ethics (my friend likens Catholic Mass to “dusting off” her heart). And there’s something about getting out of your pajamas to go to a physical building that makes the commitment meaningful, especially when your church is 20 minutes away. Online services are too easily put off or shrugged off (even if they’re as fantastic as ours definitely are). So habit could be an argument for the necessity of church only because habits are easily broken if not kept up.
But not everyone gets refreshed by church. Some complain that organized religion no longer resembles that original uplifting environment; worse, judgmental scorn, hypocricies and crimes within the church (Catholic and Protestant) have erroded their faith. They don’t see good role models or mentors, so they’d rather not attend. It’s a shame that people should ever have these experiences, and a shame that people lose sight of the “support group” that church can be. Like any addiction group, one doesn’t attend with the expectation that the members have all conquered their “sins,” but that it’s an ongoing day-by-day improvement, and that they encourage each other to do better.
Some argue that good fellowship is the main reason to go to church, but it doesn’t require an actual building. This is supported by Christ claiming that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Nevermind the fact that contextually, He was actually giving the last word on resolving squabbles – deal with it together, and bring Me in on it so your hearts are in the right place.) I think people lay all importance on the “two or three gathered” and forget the last part of Who will be among them. How many of us come to church to find Jesus?
And if Jesus isn’t in the building, then, truly the church is non-essential.
During the 1918 flu epidemic, worshippers flaunted the quarantine because church was seen as a spiritual and physical shelter. Now we say, “yes but science…” Is there shelter in our church? Is it naive or is it strong to think so? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew that God is so powerful, He could save them from a furnace. Their faith in God gave them the conviction to add, “But even if He choses not to save us, we’re still loyal to Him.” They definitely weren’t about to test God and jump in, but they were okay with putting their lives in God’s hands when they were about to be pushed. The body is as grass. Obedience to God superceded everything else.
I’d like to leave you with one last thought—in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, we are to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread…” The word “daily” in Greek is Epiousios, better translated as “super-essential for existance,” making this line more akin to a request for manna in a desert, and bringing to mind the many times Christ refers to Himself as “the bread of life.” If Christ gave us any instructions, it was to pray for daily spiritual food, with or without a building, with or without a preacher or other believers. Because when it comes down to it, our spiritual life is only between us and God. And it is super essential.
This isn’t a board decision or a question of leadership. I believe that this time in history is calling each one of us to re-think our paths and our hearts. We’ve been given time to decide how we’re serving God or if we expect Him to serve us. What would our church look like if Jesus was gathered with us? What would happen if we marketed ourselves as that city on a hill known, not for building churches, but for building up souls?
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:26-28