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More Than Lip Service: Is the Church Essential Work?

By Maria French

What makes the church more than a self-help option?  In the name of ‘essential work,’ what are the categories of community the church provides for its congregants that are integrally Christian?

I don’t ask these questions because I know the answers. 

I ask them because I think they must be asked and deeply considered. 

If you are keeping up on the news across the U.S. when it comes to church openings (or non-openings) you will find that many pastors have fought against the continued government mandates not to assemble for the purposes of worship.  There has been outrage, citing infringement on their first amendment rights, calling for churches to be seen as essential work as well as an invoking of mental health statistics among church goers who no longer have the comfort and community of their in-person Sunday gatherings.

There has been a distinct ‘us vs. them’ narrative when it comes to churches re-opening and American politics.  Which is interesting since some branches of Christianity like to often invoke god and country sentiments and narratives.  But it would seem when it comes to what is developing as an argument concerning ‘religious freedoms’ the government interfering and/or limiting with church gatherings is not welcome.  

I have to ask, why?

What is the point of going to church?

Why is this meeting place so important?

I am not as simple as to believe that in person connection is easily substituted for a virtual one, but why fight so hard to assemble amid a global health crisis?  

There have been many reasons cited, calling for the immediate re-opening of churches since the beginning of pandemic:

  • Depression and anxiety among congregants
  • Meeting in a church building as opposed to rioting in the streets
  • Adamant statements about serving god vs. gov’t or political leaders
  • Persistent thought that praying and singing in a building creates a better or more authentic worship experience
  • The holiness or sacredness of a particular place

the list goes on…

Part of me wonders about the anxiety of the pastor/leader when it comes to tithes, offerings and giving, their own influence and power dynamic within the congregation and the emotions one feels when they are gathered together in a building for a collective goal, purpose and experience.  Like going to a concert, show, or even a museum. 

There are things that happen to us, neurologically, viscerally, emotionally and mentally, when we are gathering with the collective purpose of change and transformation around a common goal and/or interest. 

But my question is what makes this integrally Christian, and what makes in person gathering integral to Christianity, or at least the Christian experience?

As churches plan to re-open their buildings (and lots already have) we have to ask the question, what makes this gathering more than lip service to a self-help option, in which belief in the supernatural is a variable easily changed out by any variety of subject that would also qualify as a guiding narrative, philosophy, epistemology?  

What is it that makes this gathering not only transformative for the individual but the community that individual is a part of on a regular basis? 

What are the fears that are driving the re-openings and what are the fears that virtual and decentralized church are provoking for church leaders and pastors?

What lives in the Christian imagination with such stature that it arrests notions of permanent and ongoing innovation?

There is this sense of going through the motions without really interrogating the motions.  We get caught up in this vortex of movement that doesn’t actually have mobility.

The perception of what happens inside a church building often closes off the imagination to migrating towards something that is, indeed, buildingless.  Something that is perhaps an emerging expression of what it means to assemble post-COVID and ultimately post-church.

The conversation among some pastors in the U.S. reads like sanctimonious clamor, at times.  With a misplaced vigilance for a flock that is growing more theologically and communally migrant. 

My fear is that human nexus is not the standard for decision making here.  But rather a sense of nostalgia and a lack of human creativity and ingenuity among church leaders.  

To be clear, I am not against assembling together, nor am I against gathering together in a designated church building.  But when the building becomes a controversy and a distraction from the real work of transformation and re-creation, it becomes a painstakingly superfluous representation of a shift not seen, not accounted for and not considered.  

The answers aren’t easy, but the questions must be asked. 

In a time where ‘essential’ work is up for interpretation and the church is vying for such a category, attention must be paid to what exactly is being delivered that is of essential nature.  

What is the church providing that is essential?

And what, if anything, makes a building essential to such essential work?

Observe your world.

Be mindful of it.

Walk with theological humility. 

And don’t be a clanging symbol.

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