Is the Church an “Essential Service”?

It’s now been several weeks since most churches have gathered in person. The last Sunday our church met was March 8, almost a full month ago. Like many states and cities around the country, our local “Stay Home” regulations distinguish between “essential” and “non-essential” services. In many places now, you can buy groceries and take your dog to the vet, but you can’t attend church.

In response, some Christians are clamoring for church gatherings to be deemed an “essential service.” They feel insulted that our meetings for worship and fellowship have been categorized as “non-essential.”

As believers, we know we’re called to swim upstream, with values that press against the current of society. Jesus warned that the world would hate us, and his apostles trained us to expect hostility.

But far too often, we overplay the persecution card, seeing a Nebuchadnezzar behind every law and a Pilate behind every regulation.

When we choose this thin-skinned path, the effects aren’t pretty. We become militant and trigger-happy, easily offended by The Big Bad Culture. Every perceived slight receives a prophetic denouncement, and every religious inconvenience is demonized as a conspiracy theory designed to silence the gospel and trample the truth.

As much as comfortable Christians in the West love to claim persecution in order to dramatize our lives and convince ourselves we’re faithfully following Jesus, the reality in this situation is far different.

Churches aren’t being sidelined or insulted or anything close to “persecuted.” Believers across America aren’t staying home and connecting online because society hates Christians but because societies around the world have enough sense to hate disease and death, two of the devilish heads Christ came to crush.

And if Christ came to bear our sorrows, can’t we at least share the reasonable concerns of a world staring into a global crisis without the gospel hope we enjoy?

Christians demanding that church gatherings be deemed an “essential service” must remember that the church is first an essential servant. The preserving power of Christ ensures that we the body will outlast every trial, which frees us to be flexible in our “essential service” to our neighbors.

The church of Jesus Christ is the most mobile, agile, and flexible organism on the planet. Despite our hyper-preferential approach to church, we can operate in megachurches or house churches, in theaters or living rooms, in liberty or underground, in a Kenyan hut or a Bedouin tent. Christianity has thrived in the bright lights of revival tours and in the shadows of the Coliseum, in warehouses and elementary schools, in strip malls and now Zoom calls.

I’m not saying every way of being together is equal. I’m not saying that every imaginable size or setting can fully accomplish all God’s purposes for his gathered church. I’m just saying that the church of Jesus Christ is built for storms, because it’s founded on a rock.

Sometimes we get so used to being “against” society that we forget to be for it. But in the letter we call First Peter, a manual for exiles, there’s one exhortation Peter threads a dozen times through the book: “do good.”

The church is called to gather, of course, and “all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). Only the most immature believers neglect their spiritual families by attending church sporadically, and our lengthening disruption is already stirring up a fresh hunger to worship again in person. But this isn’t our only calling. We’re also called “to submit to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to slander no one, to avoid fighting, to be kind, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1–2).

The work of staying home is a good work, and the authorities making these calls deserve our prayer, submission, and respect, not our slander. Kindness, not chaos, is our best response, and the church should already be well-trained in “showing perfect courtesy toward all people.”

Even if the worst happened one day, and the government actually did prohibit American Christians from meeting, not due to legitimate temporary health concerns but actual religious oppression, our calling would be clear. What would we do?

We would appeal with conviction and clarity, we would show the full respect due our appointed leaders, we would cheerfully trust God with the outcome, we would obey God rather than men, we would gather in the wisest ways we could find, we would worship in all the ways God’s assigned, and we would accept the necessary consequences, counting ourselves “blessed” as Jesus taught. We would do what so many before us have done, and done well.

But that’s not our situation, so that’s not today’s calling. Today’s calling is to honor God by remaining scattered, displaying the inseparable unity and creative fellowship of God’s Spirit across the healthy distances temporarily required by love.

Even when we’re labeled a “non-essential service,” we know the truth, and this truth can set us free: we are an essential servant, displaying the kindness and care of God as an army of cheerful benefactors putting our neighbors’ needs before our own.

Official regulations may keep calling our gatherings “non-essential” in coming weeks, but there’s no need to whip ourselves into a frenzy about it. God was with Noah in the ark, with Abram in tents, with Joseph in prison, with Moses in the desert, with David in his cave, with Jonah in the deep, with Jeremiah underground, with Daniel and his lions, with Esther in Susa, with Peter in prison, with Paul under house arrest, and with John exiled on the island of Patmos.

God was with them, and he’ll be with us. The church will gather again, and it will be glorious.

But until that day, we serve a Savior who fasted forty days in the desert and triumphed over all the devil’s temptations. We follow a great physician who banished fevers and healed the sick and brought his kingdom to bear on our broken bodies. And we worship a risen Lord whose own three days of confinement weren’t the bitter end but the brilliant beginning.

He’s gone before us through this desert, so he knows his church won’t just survive but flourish. And that’s because he knows that his church doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.