Is Church Essential?
One thing that the Covid-19 crisis has done is to expose what we think really matters- what we have to have, and what we can do without. Haircuts may come in the second category- but toilet roll is probably in the first. One a more meaningful level, it this has been clear in the debates over how long lockdowns and social distancing should continue. On the one hand, some seem to think that saving lives by preventing the spread of the virus is the one thing that matters. On the other hand, some point out that preserving the economy from too much damage is just as important, if only because crippling economic damage may kill more people than the virus. Both sides have a good point; and both sides make the same mistake. The mistake is that both treat human beings as merely bodies, nothing more. The first concentrates solely on physical health, and the second on financial prosperity. Both of these should be important to Christians: we believe that God created a physical world and physical human bodies, and created them good. We also believe that wealth can be a blessing from God, and it is clear that economic damage will lead to poverty, and great suffering for millions of people, which Christians should care about. So both sides are right in there concerns; but wrong in what they ignore.
Christians will want to add that we are not only bodies, we are souls. Our needs are not only physical, they are social and spiritual, and prolonged isolation from others is likely to do terrible damage to our souls. Above all, there is one essential need that has been neglected: and that is our need for worship, and in particular our need to gather for worship. Most governments seem to have decided that worship is not something essential, and it seems to have a low priority on the list of things to be re-started, (to be fair, both the UK and German governments were commendably reluctant to limit basic freedoms such as the freedom of worship). Sadly, the Church of England has given the impression that it agrees, as churches have been closed even for private prayer, and services have moved online, (although gain, I am sure that this wasn’t intentional).
I have been one of those who have voiced concern at how civil liberties have been restricted, and churches treated as non-essential. So it was painful to see this on Facebook this morning, from a Chinese pastor in the US:
“Christians, before you criticize the government putting the church into non-essential business, ask yourself first did you do the same as a Christian? Did you treat the church as non-essential in your life? Did you skip services? Did you come 10 minutes late or perhaps 30 minutes late? Did you put church after your dream job, your big client meeting, your family road trip? Did you treat the worship service nothing more than a music concert or entertainment? Did you listen to sermons no different than self-help psychology? Don’t be silly, we as Christians have long treated church as non-essential, that’s why the world sees through our hypocrisy. No need to win a debate, win your souls.”.
That hits home to me, and to many of us. For years we have been treating church as a non-essential, something good, something that makes life better, but something that we could do without. Like a haircut, not like toilet paper.
But if we are souls, not just bodies, then the church is something that we cannot do without. We need to worship: unless we lift up our eyes from the dust, gaze at a God who is infinitely greater and more glorious than us, and dedicate our lives to him, then our souls will become small, shrivelled things. We need to worship through Jesus Christ: because the Bible says that he is the one way to God, the one mediator between God and humankind. Unless we worship God through Christ, our worship is not acceptable to God. We need to care not only about the immediate, physical future of ourselves and others, but about our long-term, eternal future; and the only way to secure that is to come to God through Jesus Christ. We need to worship God through Christ together, as a people, a family, the body of Christ. This is what God created us and called us to be and do. His grand purpose for all time was to be worshipped for ever by a people who would see and taste his glory and goodness in Christ. We are not only souls, we are embodied souls, who need to be physically together for worship. Sitting in front of a computer screen, watching a recording, or even a live-stream, will only ever be a sixth-rate substitute for gathered worship. When we gather to worship God through Jesus Christ, the quality and joy of our worship increase exponentially. Then we experience the purpose of our existence and the fulfilment of our souls, and we witness to the world that we belong to Christ.
So is church essential? Yes. A church building isn’t, but gathering as God’s people to worship is. I hope that this time out from gathered worship will teach us what really matters- that we can’t do without it.