Ever since the world went on COVID-19 lockdown and stay-at-home orders were issued, the terms “essential” and “non-essential” have loomed large in our discourse. Businesses and services deemed “essential” were kept open: supermarkets, hardware stores, gas stations, pet stores, laundromats, and so forth. Many others, deemed “non-essential,” were ordered closed until further notice: gyms, movie theaters, casinos, retail stores, sports stadiums, and concert venues. Churches fell in this latter category.
The vast majority of churches obliged and canceled their services, understanding the logic of large in-person gatherings posing high risks for virus transmission. Most have waited to get the government’s green light to begin gathering again, which is happening more and more across the United States.
Though the reasoning for church closure makes sense (for various reasons church gatherings do pose heightened risk for virus transmission), what do we make of the fact that few people contested the labeling of church gatherings as “non-essential”? I’m not talking strictly about the wisdom of COVID-19 containment strategies here, but more broadly about the perceived value of local churches in society. Even as we respect government guidelines and think prudently about reopening our churches, it’s worth considering how the casually applied term “non-essential” diminishes the stature of the church’s place in the world.
Church as Nice to Have (But In No Way Necessary)
When I saw my governor’s announcement that church gatherings won’t resume until stage three of California’s reopening plan, I was sad—not because I disputed the high risk such gatherings pose, but because it underscored how low-priority churchgoing has become in contemporary Western culture.
In California, churches are in the same reopening category as nail salons, gyms, and movie theaters—“nice to have” luxuries we can presumably live without for a prolonged season. Churches are lumped in with entertainment options—good for people who like that sort of thing, but by no means essential for human and societal flourishing, and certainly not worth the potential health risk. It’s telling that our society has decided we cannot live without “essentials” like liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, and golf courses, but we can live without physical church gatherings.
It’s telling that our society has decided we cannot live without ‘essentials’ like liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, and golf courses, but we can live without physical church gatherings.
Do we realize how revolutionary this is in the scheme of history? Mere decades ago, the role of churchgoing in society was so central in day-to-day life, so fundamental to the well-being of both individuals and communities, that it would be unthinkable to relegate church gatherings to “non-essential” status.
That we have come to see embodied church gatherings as “non-essential” speaks to a few dynamics that the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create but has exposed. These dynamics were not imposed by some external, anti-Christian bogeyman; in many cases they are dynamics perpetuated by Christians themselves.
Faith as Privatized Consumer Commodity
We shouldn’t be surprised that churchgoing is perceived as a superfluous matter of preference on par with consumer habits like moviegoing and sports fandom. For decades now we’ve conceived of church not so much as something before which we are accountable, and through which our Christian identity is realized, but as an optional enhancement to our own personally curated spiritual path.
Even though Scripture makes clear the church (ekklesia) occupies a central place in God’s eternal plan (e.g. Eph. 3:7–12), our anemic ecclesiology often relegates church to a decidedly non-essential place. If church is just a nice-to-have part of our self-styled spiritual journey—but only insofar as it enhances rather than undermines our expressive individualism—then of course it’s something we can go without for prolonged periods. Church is not essential, we assume, because Christianity is just as easily practiced solo at home. Give me a Bible, some inspiring worship music, and maybe a few spiritual podcasts, and I’m good. Do we really need church to be spiritually healthy?
Both conservatives and progressives tend to hold this ‘privatized personal spirituality’ view of faith, though for different reasons.
Both conservatives and progressives tend to hold this “privatized personal spirituality” view of faith, though for different reasons. Conservatives put the emphasis on “personal” because they value self-sovereignty and the individual’s power to determine for themselves what it looks like to hold and express faith. Progressives put the emphasis on “privatized” because they prefer religion to be cordoned off from public life and policy. (Indeed, when it comes to faith, “safer at home” is a policy some progressives would love to see permanently adopted.)
But when faith is relegated to a privatized, personal, consumeristic realm, everyone loses. Personal spirituality becomes an incoherent mess when it has weak ties to a robust church community. Society at large suffers when local churches aren’t fully functioning. Among other things, churches serve critical needs in their communities (food banks, homeless assistance, educational support, orphan care, counseling, among much else) and contribute to the mental and spiritual health of the larger population.
Would the World Notice If Churches Never Reopened?
I’m not suggesting churches should defy government directives, deeming themselves “essential” even if authorities say otherwise. To do so would only inflame existing culture wars in unhelpful ways. Plus, shouldn’t we show we are essential rather than just saying we are?
Still, this pandemic—and the “non-essential” status of the church within it—should be a wakeup call for us. Does the world miss churches when they are taken away? Do Christians themselves feel a gaping hole in their faith when the local church is missing, recognizing that the ekklesia is God’s idea (Matt. 16:18–19) and a central part of his mission? How can the church reclaim a position in society that is perceived by everyone—believers and nonbelievers alike—as more “essential” than not?
How can the church reclaim a position in society that is perceived by everyone—believers and nonbelievers alike—as more ‘essential’ than not?
At the very least, I hope this season reminds us of the glorious and incomparable gift that is the gathered body of Christ. As Megan Hill writes in her excellent new book, A Place to Belong, “In the unassuming gathering of the local church, we fellowship with Christ himself. Dear Christian, we have no greater privilege.”
I also hope this season shows us that privatized, consumeristic spirituality is not enough. Not for individuals and not for society. We need more than just “me and Jesus” faith that has little bearing on the world and gives us little incentive to leave the house. We need faith that is rooted in strong, serving, multiplying local church communities—the sort of faith that makes such a difference in its tangible presence that everyone notices, and laments, its absence.