Locked in, shut down, confined to our homes, consuming too much TV while eating comfort food and longing for fresh air and time away from the children. It is enough to make us crazy and finally understand what “cabin fever” is really like. But then again, this is not exactly how its playing out. People go out. They may not go down to the bar or out to eat at a restaurant, but people still go out. They go out for what are deemed essential services, places that stay open amid a pandemic.
Turns out there are a lot of essential services out there. Hospitals of course and skilled nursing facilities. But there are also auto shops, lumber yards and hardware stores (thank God for Ace Hardware). And there are the strangely morphing grocery stores, with limited hours and social distancing spacers in the lines. So, I cannot go to the gym or get a haircut, but I can hunt for that scarce prize of a carton of eggs or a pack of toilet paper amid the other shoppers loving every minute away from their homes.
Which brings me to the real question I am pondering, how essential is the Church? Is the gathering of the people of God at a particular time and place an essential service? Does it provide something crucial to society, something necessary, even in the face of a pandemic? Or is it non-essential? Is it something that can be set aside, not willingly of course, but akin to a haircut or getting to the gym? Is it a luxury which is not crucial for society, so it is regrettably placed on hold, at least for a while? After all, God has blessed us with such incredible tools of modern technology. We can broadcast our service over the web with ease. We can stream them live and interact via screens. Should that not be enough? Is it enough?
I am not someone who does not see the power of using the world-wide web to get the message out there, to share ideas and engage with people around the world. I have been the editor of this blog since its beginning. I am one of the co-hosts of a world-famous podcast, Ringside with the Preachermen. I am the editor of the site Craft of Preaching which is fully backed by the good work done at 1517.org with an insanely rich collection of online material to help drive the Gospel forward. In fact, they host the podcast You are Forgiven which regularly features my sermons. I have benefitted from all this and others have as well, but we have always had the conviction that as great as these things are, as helpful and powerful as they can be, they were not church.
We had hoped that at best these tools might lead someone to a church, might enhance church or help a church but they, in themselves, are not church. But now I wonder: Will church be viewed differently after all this? Was it inevitable anyway and this pandemic just hurried it along? I am not sure.
I do know this, for many, churches quickly became a non-essential service. They would risk the grocery store and the hardware store but not church. After all, they can just as easily get all that online, right?