Is Corporate Worship “Essential”? Some Biblical Considerations for the Church’s Response.
Essential services are a hot topic right now, as everyone wonders whether their place of employment or job description qualifies as “essential” under COVID-19 restrictions. Essential services include the obvious: nurses and doctors, fire fighters, grocery stores, child protective services, police officers. But they extend far beyond that, even including liquor and recreational cannabis stores. The result is that some businesses with hundreds of employees continue to operate with minimal oversight, while others have closed despite there being measures they could easily take to mitigate risk.
Churches are not on the list of essential services, and as such are expected to abide by the limitations given to other public events and social gatherings. This includes restrictions on worship services as well as other services offered by churches, such as pastoral visits. In Canada, at the time of writing, restrictions range widely from province to province. In British Columbia gatherings of 50 are still okay, while the limit is no more than 5 in Ontario and just 2 in Quebec and Nova Scotia.
The public good and social benefit of weekly church services
These restrictions have had a significant impact on the way we worship. Government measures taken against COVID-19 have significantly disrupted communities while stoking isolation, fear, and judgment of others. The church is not immune to this disruption. We know that worship is essential, but is physically gathering together for corporate worship also essential?
The church is much more than a community, and many of the benefits of gathering together in worship are exactly what Canadians need as they navigate this time of pandemic. As Canadian missionary Ken Wieske says, “Christian corporate worship is a meeting of heaven and earth, time and eternity. It is immediately after explaining this that the apostle Paul commands us not to neglect the assembly. Why? Because it is the closest experience of eternal glory this side of eternity. God speaks his life-giving Word to us; the Spirit works and strengthens faith by the Word preached and the Word made visible in the sacraments.”
Corporate worship reminds us of God’s love and care and calms our fear. Church is a place to find peace and to find meaning in hardship, to make sense of the misery we see around us. All churches also include music and singing. The songs of the church cover the full range of emotions: joy, angst, fear, anger, love. Churches give space, in word and song, to express ourselves well. This is so necessary during times of panic and fear.
Carl Trueman explains: “Death is inevitable, which is why each of us finds it so terrifying. In this situation it is the task of the church to mug people with reality before reality itself comes calling. Yet that note seems to have been signally absent from the public profile of the church in recent weeks. Efforts to fight the virus are important; but so is the church’s task of preparing us for death.”
One pastor told us that people who suffer mental health challenges are grounded by regular, weekly, in-person worship. We are in the midst of legitimate concerns about increasing mental health issues related to the fear and loneliness of prolonged isolation, and how this impact will outlast COVID-19 as a possible echo pandemic. In a world where loneliness is an epidemic of its own, churches provide connection and support. The mental health benefits of weekly corporate worship are real and measurable.
Churches also use services as a time to collect an offering to support their members and others, a pressing need as tens of thousands of people lose their jobs and struggle to make ends meet. Church communities know the needs of their members and can offer direct and immediate support, something the civil government cannot do. Collections are also often directed toward local programs that depend on donations to meet needs in the community.
The social, mental and spiritual benefits of church services should not be quickly overlooked. Even the unbelieving policy-maker should take note.
Submission to governing authorities – especially in times of pandemic
ARPA Canada does not advocate flouting the law – this is not a time for civil disobedience – but we believe the church can and ought to gently and carefully push back on more draconian measures.
Christians in Canada have mostly taken government recommendations against large gatherings in stride, moving to smaller services, online streaming, and virtual small group meetings. This compliance is part of the church’s calling to love our neighbours and obey the civil government. We love and pray for our country and our neighbours, and we do not take lightly the decisions our leaders must make during this difficult time. This shows appropriate respect and submission to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17).
Yet it is okay to express concern when the government restricts our ability to assemble freely in worship. Never in our history has the government banned gatherings of more than 5 people, as Ontario has done, or 10 people, as in Manitoba – this was not even done during the height of the Spanish flu which killed 20 million people in 1918-1919! It is okay to ask whether these measures are reasonable or helpful.
Limiting the spread of COVID-19 does justify some measures that impact how we gather for worship. But categorizing church services as non-essential is the wrong approach. Church services should not, on account of their possible size, be lumped in with things like concerts and sporting events and cancelled without consideration for reasonable accommodation. Such a one-size-fits-all approach denigrates corporate worship to the level of a hockey game.
We want to make sure our government and fellow Canadians know that Christians don’t see prayer (corporate or individual) as an alternative to prudent action; we fold our hands and wash our hands. But the gospel is the most pressing need for our world, and corporate worship is a key opportunity for the gospel to be preached.
Recommendations for civil leaders as we move forward
Gathering in a packed church building at this time does not show love for our neighbour, and does not bring glory to God. It shows disregard for government recommendations, and a lack of care for the vulnerable. But simple measures – physical spacing, hand sanitizing, propping doors open, keeping the nursery closed, not passing collection bags and so on – will substantially minimize the risk of spreading the virus.
ARPA Canada suggests expressing your sense of loss at the shutdown of your church to your local provincial representative. As restrictions are eased, we need to know that churches will be at the top of the list. Feel free to mention some of the points above about the social and spiritual benefits of church, and ask for reasonable measures to be taken:
- Allow churches to gather in smaller numbers, provided they maintain high standards of hygiene: perhaps up to 50 people to assemble for worship, or perhaps make the number based on a certain portion of the building’s capacity. This approach mitigates risk of contagion.
- Note that, before the civil government was instituting draconian physical distancing measures, most churches were already implementing creative measures to ensure physical distancing, cancelling church functions and nurseries, implementing hands-free donations, doing thorough cleaning after services, and live-streaming services while urging symptomatic, post-travel and vulnerable members to stay home. We have no reason to believe this won’t continue.
- Churches should be a top priority for re-opening as restrictions are eased. The services offered by church leaders, such as pastoral visits to homes and hospitals, should be allowed to continue with appropriate precautions taken.
- We are concerned about other special church services too, in particular, funerals and weddings and baptisms. Un-mourned deaths and uncelebrated marriages and births are socially damaging. These are massive moments in life, and a civil government, in an effort to protect life, should not unnecessarily stifle life well lived more than is necessary.
- Civil leaders should be clear in their language that restricting worship services is an extreme measure not taken lightly, and that churches offer a benefit to society as a whole. Politicians should be careful to not single out churches in a negative way.
Where two or three are gathered
We know that, regardless of the size of our gathering, God hears our prayers and graces us with His presence. We also know that he calls us to community, to worship in unity with other believers. A livestream is a pale imitation of a face-to-face worship service. As pastor Ken said, “It’s like having Thanksgiving dinner as a family, with each person locked in separate rooms of the house, while a portion of turkey and fixings is sent to us and we chat over Facetime to each other. Sure, it’s better than nothing. But it’s not even close to the real thing!”
We need to take the precautions around COVID-19 seriously. This is an opportunity to love our fellow Canadians well and wisely. This includes staying home as much as possible, eagerly and selflessly helping others, and displaying a peace that transcends human understanding, that God may be recognized and glorified through us (Philippians 4:7; Matthew 5:16).
Yet it is also right to mourn the loss of corporate worship, the missed experience of the sacraments, and the disruption of the communion of saints. It is right and good to respectfully ask our governments for answers, timelines, and exceptions, and to explain why gathering to worship Almighty God is imperative. Through this unsettling time we encourage you to stay home, but stay politically engaged and, more crucially, stay spiritually active and alert.
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