In the past month, much of the public discourse around our country regarding the economy has focused on what businesses and services are “essential” for our people, and thus must remain open in some way even during this time of pandemic. Some of those services are obvious – no one disputes that grocery stores, hospitals, gas stations, or emergency personnel are not essential. For many other businesses, there is debate as to how important they are in a time of crisis. Some are easy to decide. No, you don’t have to go see a movie right now. Others are more open to debate. Yes, McDonald’s serves food, but do you have to have the convenience of a Big Mac and fries right now?
What I want to explore in this article is the essential nature of public worship. For the nonbeliever, this is easy to decide. The church is nothing more than a social club for people who hold to antiquated and silly beliefs that poses a major health risk and can’t be allowed to meet during this time. For the unbeliever, the church is absolutely non-essential.
For Christians, this should be easy to decide as well. Public worship is absolutely essential, isn’t it!? If we care about the needs of our bodies to the degree that it would be unthinkable to close grocery stores and hospitals (and we should!), isn’t it all the more important that the food we need for our souls be made available?
In some ways, it should alarm us how quickly churches all around the country agreed to suspend all public worship. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to suggest that this was a wrong or sinful decision. Most churches, our own included, saw this as a necessary and temporary measure to help “flatten the curve” and prevent our health care system from becoming overwhelmed with a fast-spreading and deadly virus. What I am suggesting is that we need to ask ourselves if we view what Jesus offers us in His Gospel preached and Sacraments administered as even more essential than what we find in the aisles of the grocery store. To echo Matthew 10:28, do we fear the death of the body more than the death of the body and soul in hell?
Now, you might respond that churches do see themselves as essential but, like many other businesses and organizations, we can offer our essential service in a way that’s safer for the public. We have the internet! We can offer Livestream services!
Warren Buffet once said that you don’t know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out. That metaphor also has application to the church. This pandemic in some ways exposes the core of what we really believe about the church. Some churches and individuals believe that as long as we proclaim God’s Word, it doesn’t really matter how we do it. Usually this argument is approached from an appeal to God’s power. Who are we to say that God can’t work through “online church”?
I would humbly suggest to you that when it comes to the things of God, this attitude is like swimming naked. God’s Word and Sacraments are not for us to shape in a way that pleases us according to our fallen human reason. The important question when talking about public worship is not what God can or cannot do, but rather “What has Christ instituted?”
Jesus has instituted the public ministry of preaching and the administration of the Sacraments. In Matthew 28, Jesus commanded the eleven apostles to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. The early church devoted itself to the apostles’ doctrine, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (public worship! Acts 2:42). While it’s true that we can hear sermons online, we can’t receive Jesus’ body and blood online. No one can be baptized online. We can’t really say we aren’t gathering to encourage our fellow believers if we only ever meet online (Hebrews 10:25). Jesus instituted public worship to be a physical, corporate gathering so that together we may receive our common inheritance: the great gifts of Jesus in Word and Sacrament. Livestream services in several significant ways don’t meet the qualifications.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a benefit to having these services available! God indeed does work through His Word proclaimed in whatever medium it is proclaimed. I thank God that this pandemic came at a time when we have this technology and can continue to proclaim the Gospel in this way. All I am suggesting is that this cannot be a long-term alternative to public worship as Jesus instituted it. The church cannot live and thrive in this way like the body cannot live and thrive in a coma. This is life-support, not our regular spiritual nourishment.
Regular public worship in person is essential for the life of the church in the long-term. That is why Zion is moving to offer public worship services again. We have temporarily suspended them as a way to help protect our neighbors by slowing the spread of the virus and giving our healthcare system time to prepare. But this never was nor can be a long-term solution. The number of cases in Davison County has continued to remain very low, and as I write this not a single resident of Davison County has been hospitalized with this virus.
We understand that not everyone will agree with this decision. We understand too, that many of you have underlying health concerns and returning to worship may not be possible at this time for you. We support you in that decision. We will continue to make our services available to watch on our website, and we will also continue to have communion available by appointment. We also know that the public health situation can change in Mitchell, and we are prepared to adjust our plan going forward and forego public worship again for a time if prudent. We of course still plan to take as many common-sense precautions as we can when we are in worship together.
What we cannot do is pretend that the congregation of Christians around Jesus’ Word and Sacraments is an indifferent thing. It is essential. It is unthinkable to shut down the places where we must go to receive our daily bread. How much more essential then it is for us to have access to the bread of heaven, which sustains us not for this early life, but for eternal life.
Please continue to pray for our church, our community, our health care workers, our government officials, and your pastors and elders as together we look to Jesus to care for us in body and soul through this difficult time.