I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

Psalm 122:1

Now that we are, for better or worse, temporarily but intentionally shuttering certain businesses, activities, and institutions, and I have my fingers crossed that the civil liberties taken from the American citizenry will be handed back to us as freely and quickly as they were taken, we find ourselves categorizing certain kinds of activity as “essential” and others as “non-essential.”

The concept of essential is simple enough: In this particular pandemic, the value of certain activities continuing outweighs the progress made against the coronavirus if they were stopped. The societal value of getting your hair cut and colored is less than the value of spreading COVID-19 to everyone at the salon, so let’s just all suck it up and deal with being and looking at uglier people for a while. In our purest moments, we admit that good looks are a luxury, not a necessity. On the other hand, if we, in the name of public health, quarantine the guys who feed the gerbils running the wheels at the electric company, we’ll quickly discover the tragedy of thousands dead from COVID-19 is a picnic compared to the catastrophe of world in blackout. You think life is hard now.

A hierarchy of essential is emerging. Doctors – essential. Theaters – not essential. Grocery delivery trucks – essential. Elective surgery – not essential. Dismembering the inconvenient unborn – essential. Liquor stores – essential. Eggs over easy, bacon, and white toast, served with a smile every Wednesday morning by Lois, my favorite waitress, who hasn’t bothered to take my order for a year because she already knows what I want – not essential. Lois and I, not to mention the café owner, might disagree.

Churches are now wrestling to find their place in this hierarchy – how essential are they? This is the question I want to explore for a little bit.

It seems like decades ago already, but as I recall the first major social casualties of the coronavirus were live entertainments – March Madness, the NBA season, the NHL season, then Baseball. And that makes sense in a scenario in which assembled people make the problem we’re fighting worse. So even school sports got the axe, and now the only balls flying anywhere these days are some crazy rebel kids playing horse in a shut-down city park somewhere. But let’s face it – sports aren’t technically essential for the survival of the general populace. We’ll die of a lot of other things before we die of canceled soccer games.

Chickens, the saying goes, come home to roost. For two centuries, if I read Nathan Hatch’s excellent book The Democratization of American Christianity correctly, we might say while the American church has been wed to the Lord Jesus, she has carried on a not-so-secret affair with an attractive suitor named Popularity, whose charm lies in his ability to immediately meet her self-esteem needs. Every woman wants to be told she’s pretty, after all.

The church wants to succeed (who doesn’t?), and no doubt really wants to please Jesus, but let’s face it – believing by faith that Jesus is pleased when we obey him, regardless of our public opinion poll numbers, is not at all the same as believing Jesus is pleased with us because “all men speak well of us.” 

We often fall to the temptation to indiscriminately interpret all numerical or financial success as God’s approval. But the astute observer does well to interpret the crowds gathered to hear Spurgeon one way, and the crowds who gather to hear Osteen another, and I have no qualms about saying Jesus interprets them differently too.

At any rate, wherever and whenever the church has claimed God’s approval by appealing to visible metrics rather than pointing to faithful submission, fidelity, and obedience to her Husband, she risks becoming a religious-themed entertainment venue, for nothing draws crowds and money (ie. success) like entertainment, which is conveniently designed to do exactly that. The applause of men is tangible, immediate, and powerful (John 5:44, 12:43); the disdain or applause of Christ is concealed until a future time. “Lord, when did we do those things you hated? Lord, when did we do those things you loved?” 

Lord, when did church become non-essential?

It’s no wonder our communities have slowly taken to using Sundays for basketball tournaments and football practice, not least because precious few players are absent when an activity lands on the Lord’s Day. Of course we’ll make sure the kids are there. No, coach, it’s not a problem. If the church, like the NFL, is another form of non-essential entertainment, one option among a thousand other just-as-viable ones, then the competition for those hours should be fair. I’m a free-market guy, and if church and school are both going to compete for the same hours in the same marketplace, let the best product at the best price win.

We must begin to understand the assembly of the saints is of a fundamentally different kind than the assembly of hockey fans. Christians ought to believe their souls without gathered worship will suffer costlier harm than Johnny’s pitching arm without Sunday practice, or that absence from the regular assembly of the saints is costlier than whatever profit is made in the shop or at the office, even at time-and-a-half, and the church should believe it is not under pressure to out-entertain the rest of the world for one hour a week.  We believe a man’s daily bread is essential to this life, but also that he shall not live by bread alone, because God’s words are essential for this life and the one to come. And we believe those words come to us in a special, irreplaceable way when the church gathers.

The church can never expect a secular state or culture to deem it essential at any level or for any reason, beyond its humanitarian outreach work (and we should do those). How could we expect a secular state, which we’ve (rightly) insisted keep out of religion, to somehow conclude worshiping Jesus is an essential activity, apart from which society as a whole is worse off?[1] And why would we expect a secularized culture to deem worship essential? If everyone agreed it was essential, they’d be doing it too. If they even thought it was fun, they’d join in.

Maybe if we made it more entertaining.

We should, of course, insist that our freedom to worship according to the dictates of conscience is essential. We might even insist that worship is an essential part of being human (because it is), that therefore losing our religion is in some way losing our humanity (it is), and that the state has a proper interest in our being as human as possible (it does). 

We’ll have to work through what the “dictates of conscience” are, which includes how we handle unexpected interruptions in our normal essential activities. There is, after all, a time element to essential. Eating is essential, but not fifteen minutes after polishing off the Easter ham. It’s like the law of diminishing returns in reverse: A satisfied man refuses ice cream, while a man in a besieged city eats his shoes. Missing a week of worship is not the same as missing a month or a year.

An ox may only be left in the ditch long enough to round up a shovel, some rope, and a tow-ox, because even Jesus thinks it’s more essential to free the ox than it is to observe the fourth commandment. On other hand, if we don’t build a fence around the ditch and find we are making a career out of unditching our oxen, that won’t fly either. Our ox is in the covid-ditch; at what point can we say it’s out enough to leave so we may attend to the other essential affairs of life, which have become increasingly essential by virtue of being ignored so long?

Is assembled, corporate worship essential, and if so, how essential, and why? Put another way, what harm do Christians incur by not engaging in it? Besides, we have our pastors preach to a cell-phone and an empty room on Facebook Live. Isn’t that sufficient?

These are essential questions, and I leave them for another day.

[1] Christians have for almost two millennia argued to the state that “good Christians make good citizens.” Madison’s famous observation and the logic undergirding it is worth remembering: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” As a nation’s citizens abandon the governance of morality and religion they must inevitably and necessarily become subjects.