It’s safe to say we are in uncharted waters when it comes to our national response to Covid-19. The most recent historical comparison is the Spanish Flu, but it took place before we were born and in an age that in many ways was closer to Shakespeare than to us. We are working our way through the implications of so many things, and one of those is the role of the gathered church in a time of pandemic.
Liberty University, contrary to almost every other educational institution, invited their students back under modified rules. Several pastors have been in the news for refusing to cancel their public services. As far as churches go, there are two lines of reasoning. 1) Those who see compliance to be a violation of the Scriptural mandate to gather, and therefore don’t care what local authorities are saying. 2) Those who say that they are in compliance based on the number of people present and the precautions that they are taking, such as maintaining proper distancing and having all people wash hands before and after their gatherings. (A possible 3rd would be those who claim to have spiritual power to protect their people against the virus, but I tend to regulate these folks to the “charlattan” wing of Christendom.)
Part of the problem that we are dealing with is the “essential” designation. A porous quarantine is upon us, inviting some legitimate dispute regarding why some businesses are considered essential and others are not. On the one hand, if the quarantine were to be harsher and be enforced with martial law, I would be one of those writing that the free citizens of our country should not be treated like hostile enemies. So I appreciate that there is a spirit of cooperation, rather than a spirit of authoritarianism. Nevertheless, since many religious facilities could find a way to hold services while ensuring proper distancing, it seems capricious to remove this option for churches while letting several thousand people a day pass within inches of each other at their local Wal-mart.
To further complicate the issue, this whole situation is not going to end like a basketball game: buzzer goes off…high scoring team wins! The nature of a pandemic means that even when people start back to work, and to travel, and to gather for religious meetings, there will be an ongoing risk of passing the virus to others. Until there is a reliable vaccine, or at least reliable testing (including antibody testing), I don’t see a scenario where we aren’t being warned to keep social distancing so that we don’t have a second wave. Which means that the risks of a church gathering are going to be with us for a long time. What makes those risks acceptable in June but not in April? If we are going to be mitigating risks for the foreseeable future, why not start now?
Maybe there are good answers to these questions. Faster testing may help. A flattened curve may help. Therapeutic treatments may help. Right now there are more questions than answers, but I think I can at least take a shot at answering the Title Question: Is the church essential? Let me give you my 2 part answer:
Part 1: Yes, the church is essential. The great work of Jesus Christ is to build His church (Matt 16). It is essential that the church resist powers of spiritual darkness. It is essential that the church be salt and light to the world. It is essential that the church be the hands and feet and voice of Christ. It is essential that we reach the marginalized. We need the church more than we need Walmart. And this is evidenced by the fact that every society that attempted to live without the Church was awful. Truly terrible. It turns out that godless people act godlessly. It turns our that it’s better to worship a false god than no god. It turns out that even bad religion is better than what happened when we imagined life with no heaven or hell. So yes, we need the church. Mic dropped.
Part 2: The church can still be the church without gathering…for a season. Right now I see churches reaching out to those in need. I see families gathered around their screens to listen to their pastor preach on Sunday mornings. I hear the prayers of saints who genuinely ache to be with each other. I watch pastors care for their flocks through phone calls, cloud meetings, and from six feet away. I have seen that there is genuine spiritual life in the hearts of believers today. The church is incredibly resilient. A week of not meeting can’t kill it. A month of not meeting can’t extinguish it. Even decades of oppression will only fuel that fire of love for Christ.
And this is very important.
But there will come a day when the church demands to gather. Christ is at the center of our lives and our passion flows to him: our bodies will eventually follow. There is an eschatological reality fastened in eternity and its picture will be reflected on earth by every generation of Christ followers. Church is essential, and gathering is essential to the church.
But for the the moment I am content to wait. I sympathize with those who are continuing to gather, but I am not convinced. Instead, I am believing that God has closed the doors of buildings so that He can open the hearts of people. I pray for those infected and hurting. And I long for the church to do what it does best: gather in the name of Jesus Christ. May that day come soon!