You Can’t Close the Church
I saw today that more than 1,200 pastors in California have signed a petition signaling their intent to “resume corporate worship” by the end of this month ignoring warnings by health officials and in disregard of California’s stay at home order. This is being reported as a debate about when Churches can “reopen.” Sadly, I think that may be an accurate representation.
I am going to leave aside whether or not any State’s stay-at-home order is an appropriate response to the Covid outbreak. I’m skipping the debate about whether it is constitutional or even whether the restrictions as they apply to religious groups are appropriate, fair, reasonable, or anything else.
I’m just going to quickly (for me) address something that bugs me about this debate.
The government has not closed churches. They lack the authority or ability to do so. They have simply temporarily suspended the large gatherings that are tragically the most distinctive aspect of modern Christian life. The fact that many view this as having “closed” church speaks volumes about a disappointing reality of modern Christianity.
Gathering with other Christians to spend time together and worship together can be both powerful and important. I do not subscribe to the idea that it is a theological mandate, but I recognize that it can be wonderfully beneficial. That said, I also believe corporate worship has become an idol for many. It is something often placed as paramount, consuming an enormously disproportionate amount of many churches’ resources and attention. So much in fact that when corporate gatherings are taken away, one could rightly consider the church “closed.”
Personally, I believe that the church (in Christian terms) is simply meant to describe the accumulation of followers of Jesus as they seek to continue the work He began to be an expression of love between God and humanity. The government can not “close” that. But Christians who have chosen to view “church” as a specific grouping of people whose primary activity is a weekly gathering to repeat certain specific rituals are now suffering from the government taking away the primary function of “their” church.
That’s sad to me. The church is here to love and help and connect. None of that requires a “no matter the cost” weekly physical gathering. Personally, I’d be happy to see the doors of church buildings remain closed for as long as it might take for more Christians to find a way to express their faith that goes beyond meeting with other people who think like them.
We don’t need to reopen churches. We need Christians to believe that church is not a building or a gathering. Then perhaps Christians could focus less energy on getting to sing their favorite songs together and more trying to figure out how to help those in need. The church is a collective movement that may be needed now more than any other time in my lifetime. Only Christians can decide to close that. I hope we don’t.