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Cowering churches show they really are ‘non-essential’

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Every day churches remain locked down while waiting for government permission to open their doors, they are solidifying the burgeoning secular belief that worship and Christian gatherings are not essential services.

Many people consider church services to be nothing more than Sunday morning coffee klatches; as non-essential as sports games and getting a haircut. I just wish some pastors wouldn’t feel that way, too.

Rather than roll over in submission to irrational, unneeded, unnecessary edicts by the worldly kings, it would be nice to see churches stand up for their God-given and unalienable rights – the rights for which hundreds of thousands of Americans died to ensure or preserve.

Specifically, the rights outlined in the First Amendment — freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble — are considered ordained by God and available to all people.

I was really disappointed to get an email from my church last week announcing that the doors won’t likely open for at least another month.

I want to believe the pastor’s rationale, but it doesn’t make much sense, especially considering the state of affairs the country is in right now and the illness numbers used to justify continued lockdowns.

The pastor outlined three principles that guided his thinking as to the proper timeline to reopen the buildings and allow common people back on campus.

1. The “church” is not a building

The pastor reminded the congregation that it was centuries after Jesus’ death before the early church met in buildings specially designed for worship services.

I get that, and truly appreciate it. But, this is 2021, not 221 A.D.

The early church also did not have a cadre of well-paid people serving as full-time professional pastors, teachers, worship leaders and support staff on its payroll.

It also makes no sense for churches that built multi-million dollar facilities to lock them down well past the need for any preventative measures that may have prompted a pastor’s original decision. “Flatten the curve” has morphed into “fan the fear.”

As of May 28 – after three months of lockdowns – there are a total of 8,379 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maricopa County with a population of 4,485,000 people. That means the infection rate remains 0.0018%. Nationally, the infection rate is 0.00496%, and it only counts people sick enough to seek medical care to be tested in the first place.

So significantly fewer people are infected in Maricopa County than the national average

The pastor noted the early church “worshiped God, evangelized, discipled new believers, baptized, taught, healed the sick, and cared for the poor for centuries without church buildings.”

Again, I get that and wholeheartedly agree. Yet, this same church has cancelled all small group meetings, even those gathering in other people’s homes.

It is impossible to baptize people without physical contact, nor can you lay hands on the sick to bring healing.  Yes, people can still be taught online, but where is that happening?

It isn’t, outside of a regular weekly sermon.  I understand some small groups are meeting online, but mine isn’t. Like most other groups, all church activity here stops from May to September. You know, just like Jesus and his disciples did every summer.

2. The church is called to love one another.

Yes, indeed. Jesus called us to do just that. In fact, he said people will recognize Christians for their love. But, how does cowering at home symbolize love?

If the church loved everyone, then certainly it would want to keep them safe. But, church buildings never shut down for flu. Nor did they shut down for SARS, MERS, AIDS or the other illnesses the media wanted us to be fearful about.

“I want to remind you why we closed our buildings in the first place,” the pastor wrote in an email. “It was because we are mindful of Jesus’ second Great Commandment where He said, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself!’”

How ironic. I would think that if the church really loved people, it would want them to develop strong, natural antibodies to any illnesses that may attack their systems. Unfortunately, we’re giving preferential treatment to specific groups, not everyone.

“The church must not just show love for the young and healthy, or those with strong immune systems. We are called to love everyone – the elderly, the immunocompromised, and people with underlying health conditions that would put them at risk if they caught COVID-19,” he wrote.

Pastor, I assure you that anyone who is immunocompromised or with underlying health conditions is very, very likely to stay home and not venture out to attend a live church service, if it was available. Nor are the people who live with someone who is so high risk that they might catch an illness.

What the church has done to protect a very small number of people worked to shut out the vast majority of people who need the church more today than they ever have.

Yes, the elderly, immunocompromised and people with underlying health conditions are important.

But, so are the millions of people in the county who lost their jobs and need hope – or a hug.

So are the tens of thousands of parents who are at their breaking points and desperate for a 90-minute reprieve to attend a church service while their kids are in Sunday school.

So are the people who live alone and have been forced into even more isolation to they point they are growing depressed and contemplating suicide.

So are the people suffering from addictions who, because of the stress of all that is happening around them, are falling back into bad habits because they have nothing else to do to occupy their time or caring people to surround them in love.

We are so focused on protecting the physically weak that we fully ignore those who are mentally compromised.

3. Church ministry must continue whether or not we continue to meet in a building.

The pastor noted how members of the congregation get phone calls from members of the pastoral staff during this lockdown. In the past 90 days, I received one call and a text message.

There is no church directory so I could reach out to people to check on their status. Only the professionals are allowed to do that.

“Despite our church buildings’ closure, we have not stopped ministry to our church, our community, or our world,” the pastor wrote.

Really? Who is providing these vital services?

I thought it might be nice to help with the church’s food and clothing bank. However, the church is not accepting new volunteers. Nor are they accepting clothing donations – all with the intention of “curtailing the spread and significance of coronavirus.”

So, who is providing childcare so parents can work from home?

Who is delivering food to “the elderly, the immunocompromised, and people with underlying health conditions?”

According to its website, the church provides free food to approximately 250 families local households every week. That’s notable and should be applauded.

Yet, while there are 8,379 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county prompting the lockdown, there were 445,500 people unemployed in the state at the end of April.

Since 62 percent of the state’s population is found in Maricopa County, we can assume there are at least 274,497 people currently unemployed in Maricopa County. With that in mind, 250 people getting help from a church of well more than 5,000 families seems mighty small.

Yet, instead of stepping up to serve these needy people, the church remains locked down.

The forgotten commands

Rather than reminding people that they should “love each other” by remaining physically isolated from everyone else, here are a few other Bible verses church leaders might consider as they “look for the right timeline to gather back together physically on our campus:”

“Be strong and courageous,” which is mentioned 13 times.

“Do not fear,” which is mentioned 17 times.

Or the admonition to not give up meeting together found in Hebrews 10:25. Sorry pastors, one-way video lectures delivered over computers, smart phones or TV does not qualify as “meeting together.”

Does anyone remember Jesus’ words that those who believe in him will not be hurt if they ingest deadly poisons (Mark 16:15-18) or Paul’s example of shaking off a poisonous viper that latched on to his hand (Acts 28:3-5)? Is not a virus a potentially deadly poison?

According to National Geographic, “An estimated 10 nonillion (10 to the 31st power) individual viruses exist on our planet—enough to assign one to every star in the universe 100 million times over.”

But, I have enough faith in a big God who will protect his people through this coronavirus panic, just like he does when we are driving cars, flying in planes and facing the poisonous insects and snakes that make Arizona home.

Churches are needed now!

Why do I sense “the church” was created for a time just like this to provide hope, help and compassion to all people, not just those who are “elderly, the immunocompromised, or with underlying health conditions?”

Because the church really was designed for these times in order to stand in stark contrast of the fearful, worried world.

The reason we have such spiritually week Christians today is as Dorothy Sayers noted years ago when she wrote, “We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

We display pictures of Jesus in church and talk about him all the time. But, do we really trust the Lion of Judah to protect us?

I read stories about churches opening up around the country and even going to court to enforce their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom to practice their religious services.

I like their God!  In fact, I’m envious of those churches.

Sadly, the members of my megachurch in the Phoenix area will have to wait until mid-June at the earliest before they get permission to act like a church empowered by the Holy Spirit and protected by a living God.

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Greg Gerber

A native of Wisconsin who moved to Arizona in 2009, Greg Gerber is a DODO -- Dad of Daughters Only -- to three grown daughters. He worked as a journalist for many years before pursuing a career as a faith-based writer, author, coach and speaker. Greg is the author of Pornocide: How Lust is Killing Your Faith, Stealing Your Joy and Destroying Your Life.

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2 Comments

  1. Greg,
    I totally agree with you. Churches should have stayed open. But churches bowed to the pressure of closing down. The church I attend open today June 7th for people who did not have internet. Next Sunday everyone can attend. There are some restrictions in place. The church I attend is requiring everyone too wear masks. I will probably stay home until they get rid of the mask requirements. When I wear a mask too mow lawns I have a hard time breathing. The church I attend if the nursery is closed I am not sure what my wife and I will do with our 2 year old grandson. We take our 2 year old grandson too church.

    1. I feel your frustration, Jeff. I have a hard time with masks as well. I’ll be staying home until all this blows over. It gives me even more time to spend with Jesus. Without childcare, church services will certainly be more challenging for parents and participants alike.

      GREG GERBER

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