2020 has introduced us to new vocabulary of words and phrases. Asymptomatic. Exponential spread. Social distancing. Non-pharmaceutical intervention. Contact tracing. Anosmia.* We also have been reintroduced to old words in new packages. Sometimes the new package disorients us and makes us wonder if we ever really knew what the word meant. One of these words is “essential.” I’m sure I used to know what the word meant. Now, I’m no longer sure.
One of our problems is that we use the word without defining its domain. Some things are essential in a global sense, oxygen, food, shelter, etc. But “essential” is also very often a relative term. What is deemed essential or non-essential by you is not necessarily essential or non-essential for me. Our leaders have recently attempted to use the word in the global sense. “Our society and our very lives depend on these people and these companies in order to survive.” As the months have gone on, however, it’s become hard to look at their decisions as anything other than arbitrary.** Walmart, they’ve decided, is essential. The local restaurant down the street is not. Why? The restaurant is certainly essential to those who work there, those who rely on that business to pay their rent and buy their groceries and get their children Christmas presents. As a person who believes that healthy institutions are essential to the health of a community, that local restaurant down the street might also be much more essential to you than you realize. It’s certainly more essential than the McDonalds or even (gasp) the Chick-fil-a.
There is also just a whiff of classism involved in the use of the term essential. I am a member of the Zoomocracy, and therefore, non-essential. My wife who is a nurse is obviously essential. So is my friend who builds houses and my other friend who works in a factory making shingles. My brother-in-law who works in transportation is also essential. Essential has become a euphemism meaning “you have to go to work so I can stay home and stay safe.” The Zoomocracy shifted the burden of the pandemic onto the working class (who are generally less healthy and more at risk), and used the word “essential” to justify an unjust policy. Maybe the best example of our confusion is the 17-year-old girl who brings you your groceries at Walmart. Unfortunately, her school is not essential. Because of science, she is safe at her job but unsafe at school. Oh well, that just gives her more opportunity to comingle with hundreds of strangers every day as an essential worker.
Pardon me if I have grown a bit confused about what essential means. When doctors say that protesting is essential, when politicians say that celebrating elections is essential, and when leaders publicly flout their own essential rules, but ordinary folk celebrating Thanksgiving with family are irresponsible and selfish, it’s not just confusing. It’s actually maddening. I know I should be better than my cynicism, but I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone.
Are churches essential?
That brings us to churches. No hard feelings if you want to stop reading at this point, but the main reason I wanted to write this post was to examine whether or not meeting in person as a church is essential. It started, like too many things in my life, with a tweet.
Some context. First, I was in a foul mood at the time because my beloved Cubs had just decided to trade away their 2021 season for a few magic beans. Second, I had just seen this tweet:
I know nothing about John Pavlovitz except that he has nearly 300 thousand followers on Twitter and apparently feels comfortable dictating to churches (especially the really nasty ones populated by Republicans) what it means to love their neighbor.
Was my tweet flippant? Perhaps. It was a tweet after all. It also has the important trait of being true. Pavlovitz is just one of many I’ve noticed – some of whom are leaders in churches and many others who seem to have minimal connection to any church at all – downplaying the importance of churches meeting in person. My response was simple. Tell people loud enough and consistently enough over 10 months that going to church is not essential, tell them over and over that the best way to love their neighbor is to simply stay home and eventually people are going to believe you. It’s easy to establish habits. It’s harder to break them once they’ve been established. Leaders who talk this way should probably be mindful of the habits they are encouraging in their people. Leaders who told their people that it was best for them to stay away week after week, month after month, over a year (you’re crazy if you don’t assume many churches will still be closed in March), shouldn’t be surprised when they finally reopen their doors and discover that there are few people clamoring to get back in.
I believe, without apology, that meeting in-person is essential. By that, I mean that in-person gathering is essential for flourishing disciples. Without it, we are seriously deficient. It is certainly no less essential than any of the other activities that we have been getting back to. I got a lot of good feedback and pushback for my tweet. A lot of friends (and a few strangers) brought up some valid and helpful questions.
First, I’m not being legalistic. Do I really need to say that you are not made righteous by perfect attendance at church? I’m not even being legalistic about the type of in-person gathering. Personally, I think that large corporate gatherings are essential for our formation, but I can understand those who say that small group gatherings are just as, if not more essential. “Going to church” is not just about large, corporate gatherings.
Second, I’m not offering a judgment on individual Christians who have yet to rejoin corporate gatherings. I understand that the decision is complicated and often very personal. My comments are exclusively about those who would minimize or downplay the importance of gathering. To be perfectly honest though, if you are a person who is still hesitant about going back to church I would encourage you to go back sooner rather than later especially if you are young and in good health. You might be amazed by how much you’ve missed it and how much you’ve needed it.
Third, I’m not saying that closing churches was necessarily a bad thing. In March, when we thought the fatality rate was close to 3 or 4 percent, closing churches was right and responsible. Church leadership had to make tough, agonizing decisions on the fly with little knowledge. They should have our respect and support, but the notion that we shouldn’t reopen church until “everyone is safe” is, frankly, cowardly and absurd. I know some of you won’t like to hear that. You’ll think I’m being flippant again. I promise you I’m not. I’ve seen the disease up close and personal. I know how scary it is, but I just can’t reconcile my faith with a worldview that says we should only gather when it is completely safe. I mean, we have brothers and sisters who brave imprisonment and death every time they gather, but they do it anyway. Because it is essential.
Fourth, I’m not completely opposed to online church. We probably need to think about the ways that technology creates different kinds of disciples, but I’ll hold that for another post. I do believe that online worship has some value however. It can be an effective way to reach people who might otherwise be disinclined to come to a church building. But, in my opinion, online church should be a bridge and never a destination. Again, I have much more to say on this point but not right now.
Why is going to church essential?
One person on Twitter asked the critical question. Bluntly she asked, “Essential for what?” How and why is gathering essential? One other person felt fit to remind me of the Sunday school point that the church is not the building anyway.*** So why not gather around our individual computer screens? The person who asked this question conceded that gathering might be essential again in the future, just not right now. Fine. But here I am getting tripped up by that word again. I have a hard time believing that circumstances dictate what is essential. If something isn’t essential now, it won’t be essential in the future. Oh, that doesn’t mean that I have to go to church every Sunday. It doesn’t even mean that we shouldn’t temporarily stop meeting in a pandemic (see above). But those circumstances don’t change whether or not gathering is essential for a Christian. Eating food is essential for my well being, but that doesn’t mean I must eat every meal. It just means that eventually I’m going to have to find some food.
So why is gathering essential? My friend Doug texted me a question today. “What from Acts 2:42 can people legitimately do online?” Good question. Acts 2:42-47 shows us the church in its infancy. It shows us what those first believers intuitively began to do. I’ll quote the whole section:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
In answering Doug’s question, the one thing that stands out is listening to the apostles’ teaching.**** The internet (and all media) is quite good at content delivery, and if that is all we expect out of “going to church” then I suppose online church will be just fine. We can turn on our screens, get our weekly dose of “apostles’ teaching” and get on with our lives. To be fair, this is the mindset that too many people bring with them to the building as well. Going to church is largely about content delivery. But that’s not what I see in these first believers. To them, the church wasn’t just about learning stuff (although it definitely included that). Church was a full body experience! They worshipped a God who thought so highly of our embodied condition that he took on flesh and dwelled among us. How can our communities be anything other than embodied fellowships? And they celebrated that incarnation by eating together, which very likely included the practice of taking the Lord’s Supper. We can eat a meal alone, I suppose, but it is the presence of others that turn a meal from a sad, private affair into a party. I would argue that a meal only has meaning when there are other people present. To my knowledge, the idea of taking the Lord’s Supper alone and isolated from community is a foreign concept in the history of the Church.
In addition to content delivery, online media can be quite good at connecting people. Connection is one of the great promises of our digital age. But these believers weren’t merely experiencing connection, they were experiencing communion (fellowship, koinonia). You can only experience communion in the presence of other people. This is why so many people have grown to hate Zoom so much. Sure, it connects us, but something essential is missing. (Never forget that the word “virtual” means “not quite the real thing.”) On computer screens, we don’t have real communion with our fellow human beings. We are disembodied. That’s not the church I see in Acts 2. For them, it wasn’t so much about whether or not it was essential to “go to church.” For them, it was about whether or not they ever left church.
Incidentally, I asked a very similar question to a group of students in the middle of the pandemic last April. Like me, they saw the value in online church, but they also recognized its limitations. One student in particular made this great point. Online media encourages individualism and consumerism. I am always in the driver’s seat. I get to choose where I go online and what I do when I get there. She pointed out that this is a far cry from the church. Mutual submission is a challenge when leaving a church is just one click away. Dying to the self is a challenge when my only connection to other people is through a computer screen. The type of spurring on described in Hebrews 10 is a challenge in a loosely connected network of people who may not even live in the same physical location. Even something as basic as hearing each other in worship is muted by our computers (Eph. 5:19). The computer reminds us that although we may see people on the screen, we are nevertheless alone. You see, machines weren’t designed for church, so what they do is mold the church into their own image.
There’s more I want to say, but it’s late, and I no longer trust the coherence of my own thoughts. Besides this post is already long enough. I’ll close by simply saying, physical gathering for worship isn’t only essential; it’s awesome. What I mean is, we shouldn’t think of gathering as only necessary, we should think of it as good. It isn’t essential in the way a grocery store is essential. It’s essential in the way that good music, fine food, or a long talk with a good friend is essential. It’s essential in the manner of things that don’t just make life possible but make life meaningful.
*That’s the word for the total loss of smell, in case you haven’t heard that one yet.
**I know. I know. BUT THE SCIENCE. Our leaders have been hiding behind the shield of “listen to science” for much too long. Too often, there is very little science that justifies their judgments about what is essential versus non-essential. For instance, San Francisco recently rescinded an order to shut down playgrounds after it became clear that they couldn’t respond to public pressure demanding data for their decision. Taking it one step further, in the spring the state of Michigan tried to dictate not only what stores were essential but what items in the stores were essential. They went so far as to demand stores not sell certain items to the public. There was no data to support their judgment that it was safe to purchase potato chips but dangerous to purchase seeds for your garden. It was completely arbitrary and ridiculous are eroded public trust.
***I actually think this is overstated. It is a poverty in our Protestantism that places and spaces don’t matter more than they do. We generally have a problem with sacredness which definitely reveals itself in debates like this one.
****Maybe prayer, but remembering that prayer was unlikely to be a private affair for these believers, I hesitate to include it.