The government called on the people of the nation to stop all non-essential social contact.
And yes, it was right that churches complied. And yes, it is right to want to help healthcare services cope and save lives. And yes, for the time being we don’t need to get into all the debates about the different models for the spread of the virus, or the relative merits of different lockdown strategies (all important issues, but not our issues here).
Nevertheless, it should really bother us that the gathering of the Church for public worship and the proclamation of the gospel should be regarded as ‘non-essential social contact.
In the progression of lockdown severity, churches were told to stop before pubs and cafes were told to shut. Now that we’re shuffling our way tentatively out of lockdown, re-opening churches seems to be way down the list of priorities. We need to get the economy going again, get the shops to re-open, the schools to take the kids back, business to get moving once more. But the churches can open around the same time as we begin to contemplate re-opening the hairdressers (no offence to hairdressers intended). Church is a social activity, a religious club, or at best something some people do for a bit of ‘self-care.’
But the Church is the embassy of Christ on earth, the outpost of his kingdom, the temple of the living God. When the Church gathers for worship, heaven and earth join in anticipation of the day when they will be forever united. The church guards and proclaims the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the hope of all the world. At a time of national crisis, a life-threatening pandemic, as all sorts of certainties are questioned and frailties are exposed, the worship of God and the proclamation of the gospel is more important than repairing the damage wrought by your home haircut. As one person has put it, ‘the Church is the spiritual ER of the nation.’
It’s no surprise that our government should not recognise this, of course. Why would they, or anyone else who doesn’t share our convictions? Rather, it should bother us because, what if our perceived irrelevance is in part due to our practical irrelevance? Are we treated as part of the leisure industry because that is what effectively we have become? Have churches become religious clubs, readily accepting the small corner of life that secularism has allotted us?
This should bother us, not because the Church thrives on the applause of the surrounding culture, but because maybe this is the fruit of having craved exactly that sort of approval. Have we dialled down what it is that makes us different and the sharper edges of what it is we have to say to the world around us? Have we told ourselves that we need to be liked in order to be heard, and in the process we have become not worth listening to, non-essential?
Or maybe this is a reflection back of how we ourselves have regarded church and in particular the gathering of the Church for worship? Maybe we christians have seen church as ‘non-essential social contact’ for quite some time?
These are days when we should be longing and praying for God to grant that we can gather once again, in public and in person. When that comes, how will we prize the house of God and the worship of his Name more dearly? How will we worship and pray and live and speak so that we have something to say to the world around us, something essential?