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.
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.