What if the church is a place where lives are transformed from the inside out, where people make decisions to follow Christ, and find not only find community, but actual real and powerful solutions to their failing marriage, their chronic mental illnesses, their abject loneliness, their anger and fear and judgment and pain?
I will never forget the birth of our first child. We were excited, nervous, anxious, and of course, overjoyed with great anticipation. When my wife woke me up at six in the morning reporting her first signs of labor, our feelings amplified as we waited and worked toward that first precious moment – when we would get to see and hold the miraculous results of all that had been taking place in my wife’s body for nine long months.
As the day progressed, however, complications began to develop. As the hospital shifts changed, the fresh eyes and minds that came with the nurses now on duty confirmed what we had been noticing – something was wrong. We later found out that my wife had not one but two infections that developed the day before, causing unnatural labor that could put our little one’s life in danger. As the labor progressed towards delivery, our daughter was showing more and more signs of distress. It became urgent that we get her out. It was “essential.”
Essential – a term defined by Webster as something that is “absolutely necessary or extremely important.” For our daughter, it was a matter of life and death!
During the pandemic, a crucial question has come up. What does our society consider “essential”? What are the things, the places, the people that are “absolutely necessary”?
One area where the definition of what is “essential” has been hotly debated is in the church. Some churches have boldly stated, “Yes, we ARE essential.” One of the most notable examples is John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. Grace Community Church believes that their congregation meeting is so essential that they have sued the state government, arguing that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment guarantees them their essential status. They are arguing that “this is an area where the government cannot infringe on our freedom to meet and worship.”
Other churches have decided that being open right now is not essential, even saying that the best way to express their love for each other and their communities is by staying closed.
So…who is right? Does it matter? Well, yes, it does matter. Why? Because it says a very strong something about what we believe the Christian church’s role to be in our society, particularly in the U.S. Liquor stores are open, casinos, restaurants, and so on. Is what they have to offer human beings more “essential” than what the church offers?
The answer depends on how we answer this question, “What is the church, and what is it for? What does the church offer people that might just be on par with an “essential” bottle of whiskey? They both provide what could be considered comfort, escape, a renewed, and maybe more hopeful perspective on life. They both might even offer community and connection. But if this is all the church stands for, then it might seem more practical, safe, and cheaper to buy a bottle of whisky than to give an offering or tithe.
But what if the church offers more than just a comfortable escape from life? What if the church is a place where lives are reshaped from the inside out and where people make choices that will determine their eternal destiny. What if churches are places of hope where people not only find community, but actual real and powerful solutions for their failing marriage, their chronic mental illnesses, their abject loneliness, their anger, addictions, fear, judgment, and pain? What if this is where they find the emotional healing they’ve been trying to find in that bottle of whiskey, one-night stands, and jobs and relationships they’ve drifted in and out of for years? What if they find a renewed sense of morality, goodness, kindness, forgiveness, peace, love, hope, and joy? What if the church is where they find physical healing for their hopeless medical condition, their cancer, their debilitating diabetes or arthritis, or even just their everyday aches and pains? What if they discovered that, at church, instead of contracting Covid, they can be healed?
If churches don’t do these things, then maybe it’s best that they keep their doors closed, after all, there are plenty of other large gatherings and churches are no more essential than the local bar. Maybe they’re no more essential than the protests that offer moments that promise social reform. And when the Covid shutdowns are over, they probably still wouldn’t be essential.
But what if the church is a place of healing – a place where people connect with God and each other? I believe these things can happen in the church and do happen in the church. If, in fact, they do happen in the church, especially during this time we should absolutely begin shouting “YES AND AMEN”, the church IS essential. We might even say that it is a matter of life and death.
Randall Goulard is a devoted father, husband, pastor, and lover of Jesus and his kingdom. He and his family currently live in Richmond, VA where Randall serves at several different ministries training and equipping worship leaders to fulfill their calling to proclaim the goodness of God and the power of Christ.
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