Are Churches Essential?

It depends on who you ask.  Many would say “Of course!”  Others might disagree.  That would include the state of California.  On Thursday, March 19, 2020, the governor of California issued the country’s first executive order for all citizens to stay at home, other than walks near home, unless you work for or shop at an essential business.  What is an essential business in California?  Lots of things, it turns out, including the work of doctors, nurses and other health care workers, of course; food industry workers; veterinarians; mortuary workers; home improvement stores; marijuana growers and dispensaries; liquor stores; fast food outlets; but what about pastors and churches?

16, #16. Clergy for essential support and faith-based services that are provided through streaming or other technologies that support physical distancing and state public health guidelines. (California Dept. of Public Health)

In other words, you can have religion electronically, but not in person.  I understand – we’re in a pandemic; we don’t want to get sick or make anyone else sick; we have to keep people as safe as possible.  So we immediately gave up all in-person worship services, classes, groups & programs (including Easter!), closed the church property, and asked staff to work from home.

In California you can go to Walmart, Costco, the grocery store, and Home Depot, but you can’t go to church!  You can go to a bakery and buy bagels and cinnamon bread, and go to the liquor store, but you can’t receive unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine in communion from a church or a pastor.  You can go see a psychiatrist or psychologist, but you can’t go see a pastor or have them come see you.  A pizza delivery boy is considered essential and can come to your door; a pastor cannot.

The arguments are that “essential” stores and providers are necessary to keep people healthy and functioning (and provide tax revenues!); but aren’t churches and pastors necessary to keep people healthy and functioning?  Studies say so.  Can’t churches and pastors just re-tool and do everything online or by phone?  Not as well as in person.  When someone is suicidal, when a marriage is coming apart, when someone is at death’s door, a phone call isn’t the same as personal care.  And while we’re making do, worshiping through a TV isn’t the same as worshiping in person; it is a substitute when necessary.  Otherwise, we could get rid of all the churches and just watch on TV (don’t suggest that).

If considered essential, I could wear PPE; I could be tested for antibodies.  But because I’m not, I was not able to marry 2 members at Lighthouse (they had to go to Las Vegas instead).  I was not able to visit a dying member or now do his funeral for a few family members (we’re still waiting).  I am not able to go take communion and pray with a member with Stage 4 cancer, who is all alone in a nursing facility, unable to be visited by his own family.  Unlike many others, my work is not considered essential.

Some churches have written letters to the governor pleading for him to reconsider the value of churches and pastors to Californians; some are suing him over infringement of their first amendment rights of religion, expression, and assembly. One attorney said: “If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions.” (Harmeet K. Dhillon, chief exec. of the Center for American Liberty).

Some states are starting to allow churches to reopen with safety guidelines; some never closed them.  Our state is expected to be one of the last to allow churches to re-open, in Phase 3, no dates given.  It’s hard to plan.  What about VBS?  CIY?  The Youth Mission Trip?  The YMCA Pool Party?  Beach Day?  Mother’s Day?  Father’s Day?  Our annual 4th of July Freedom services?  All postponed or cancelled. How long until California re-opens our “non-essential” churches, even with required safety measures?  How many churches will go under in the meantime?

Are Churches Essential?  Jesus thought so.  He gave His life for the church, which He calls His body, He is the head of the church, and one day He will come to take her home as His spotless bride (Ephesians 5:23-27).

Do you think church is essential?  Then: 1) Pray for your church & pastors; 2) Support your church with your tithes during the shutdown (we still have a staff, mortgage, utilities, missions, and reopening plans to support); 3) Make your voice known; and 4) Re-join us in worship as soon as it is safe to do so (if you are able).  We need your support!  Like the church, it really is essential.

Mike Openshaw, Electronic Minister