Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Are Churches Essential?

There is a debate going on among American Christians about whether or not churches are “essential.” It was prompted by the president’s announcement over Memorial Day weekend that churches were indeed essential and should be allowed to open their doors for physical in-person worship services in all fifty states “this weekend.”

Then the president promptly went to Virginia to play golf on Sunday morning instead of going to church. I guess church worship is not essential for him, at least not as essential as a round of golf. I do not begrudge the president a bit of recreation. He works hard and deserves a break. But his announcement would have carried much more weight if he practiced what he preached.

Back to the question at hand. Are churches essential? Well, that depends. I am an every-Sunday church-goer, but I have gotten along just fine these last couple of months without stepping through the doors of a church building. I have worshiped with my church via the internet every Sunday morning and have been very inspired by the services.

Of course I miss being in church and look forward to the day I can return. But it is not essential to my spiritual life to do so while an “invisible enemy” (as the president described COVID-19 this weekend) stalks our land killing thousands of people. Protecting the lives of the most vulnerable Americans is more essential. Keeping the church doors closed for a little longer is the best way for the church to fulfill the divine command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The way I see it, keeping people safe is the godliest thing that the church can do at this time. By remaining closed temporarily the church is demonstrating its willingness to sacrifice its own welfare for the good of others. That is what the gospel is about. Perhaps this pandemic is a test to see if the churches also practice what they preach.

What about the issue of religious liberty? That seems to be the rallying cry of protesters who are insisting that churches be allowed to “open.” As a Baptist I am a life-long champion of religious liberty, but I don’t see this as the issue during this pandemic. I see no orchestrated campaign by godless Democrats or the Deep State to take away our right to worship, using the pandemic as a convenient excuse to do so. That sounds like a conspiracy theory.

Instead I see governors and mayors trying to keep their people safe by restraining people from assembling in large numbers, especially indoors where the coronavirus is most easily transmitted. Furthermore church attenders tend to be significantly older than the general population, which makes congregating even more dangerous for them.

If there is a conspiracy going on, I would guess that the call to reopen churches is an attempt by godless conservatives to kill off as many Christians – and Jews and Muslims - as possible as quickly as possible. At the same time these devious conspirators have somehow convinced Christians that they are doing them a favor by urging them to enter closed buildings and spew out virus-filled saliva droplets while singing and preaching loudly. Very crafty! Of course I don’t really believe there is such a conservative conspiracy, just as I don’t believe that power-hungry, anti-religious liberals want to outlaw Christian worship.

Once again, are churches essential? Not in the way the president has proclaimed. All the Christians I know can get by for a few more weeks or months without singing hymns and taking communion together. Neither is it financially essential for churches to meet in person. If money is the reason, all the congregants have to do is mail their offerings or give online.

But in a deeper sense church is essential to me spiritually. It is essential that I be part of a community of faith and not go it alone, like so many of my “spiritual but not religious” contemporaries. I need to be physically part of a church. But until that day arrives I would rather be part of a church that is willing to sacrifice itself in order to save the lives of fellow Americans. That is the least that Christians can do to serve our God and our country.

1 comment:

happi said...

Thank you Marshall for a clear and sensible essay. As Social Animals we humans are energized by being with our fellow humans whether at a football game or Church service. The great difficulty of the isolation that combating the Pandemic has forced upon us is the separation from our fellow humans - family, friends, acquaintances, strangers. We long for it and look forward to the return of the society we knew. Albert Schweitzer said, "All religion is based on a sense of community and a sense of awe. Zoom, phone and other means help but the gathering with our fellow humans to praise the Lord and pray for our wishes,is sorely missed. In both our religious and ordinary social contact we gather strength and this is sorely missed. But it is a cost of defeating this disease. A cost that is a difficult but necessary sacrifice. But our God is everywhere. God is part of our daily existence. Always available. Always present for us to gaze at with awe. The wonder of God will fill our lives wheneever and wherever we choose to take advantage of the opportunity always present. The social aspects of worship are comforting. The spiritual aspects, the incomprehensible idea of God and our relationship with Him is the foundation and root of our spiritual lives. We need no building. God doesn't live there though He lives among us as we gather to worship. Wherever we are, whenever we choose, as the Psalmist says, "Be still, and know that I am God". Thanks again Marshall, ffor pointing out so well that religion is not a building. Happi