Is Church an “Essential Service”?

Note: This is the first in a series of pieces providing a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

If a 70-year-old man receives a cancer diagnosis with a six-month prognosis, but could extend his life possibly two years by chemotherapy that would make his life extremely painful—is it moral for him to refuse treatment? What about a 50-year-old man, offered a ten-year extension of unpleasant life through such a harsh six-month medical treatment? How should the costs of medical treatment, and the burden on family, factor into his decision? Who is fit to decide such things?

In the midst of a situation in which a serious communicable disease is present in the population, should it be permissible to hold religious gatherings? What about funerals or weddings? Extreme unction (“last rites”) in the case of someone dying from a disease that could be transmitted to the priest?

Is it moral to celebrate the Eucharist in the midst of a pandemic? How risky for the celebrant and the participants must it be, in order to be deemed too great a risk? How should the risk of transmitting the disease to others beyond the consenting participants be factored into the ethical calculation? How might it be acceptable to modify the structure of the celebration in order to reduce health risk?

Is Corporate Worship a “Human Essential”?

In the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, governments were faced with a rapidly-spreading disease, which was possibly transmitted presymptomatically: before the person spreading the disease had any symptoms. In a situation where human contact had the potential to impose tremendous externalities on others, restrictions on contact and movement were imposed. Most people accepted these temporary measures as necessary, particularly while little was known about its severity and its spread.

Completely forbidding human contact, gatherings, and economic activities, also imposed significant cost. Thus, activities that were considered “essential” were permitted, often with restrictions. All agreed that medical and emergency workers should be considered as performing “essential” functions, as would those on whom food supplies depend. But the definitional question was rarely asked: essential to what? Is mere physical survival the “essence” of human endeavor? My poor upstairs neighbor, a professional tattoo artist who was put entirely out of work by the restrictions, laughed bitterly at his own plight, pointing out that tattoos are the least-essential personal service on earth for human flourishing—“even the brothels would re-open first,” was his sarcastic claim.[1]

What about so-called “religious activities”—is corporate worship an “essential function,” and how is it comparable to eating and medical care? The question itself demands a definition of the essence of human nature—a definition which, from a Christian point of view, must be grounded in the Word of God. Yet the temptation for the church in Europe (where I live and work) and North America (where I come from) is to accept not only modern science but modernity’s scientized, impoverished definition of humanity. Among the Christian traditions, Evangelical Protestantism, with its strong emphasis on the discursive, is susceptible in its own way to a bifurcation of body and soul, of private spirituality and action in the world, that in some cases undermines our human essence as possessing both material and immaterial aspects.

Total Technologizing of “Corporate” Worship

In March 2020, Lithuania went into a time of restrictions on movement, travel, and public gatherings—similar to restrictions in the rest of Europe and in the US. Like many other churches, our small congregation of about 40–50 here in Klaipėda decided to stream a “service” online, during our usual Sunday service time. The typical service elements included songs, Scripture readings from the lectionary, a sermon, and a time of prayer. For the most part, the streaming was one-way participation on Facebook Live: we in our homes could see the leaders of elements of the service (singing, preaching, reading), but they couldn’t see us. We could comment, including sharing prayer requests, and variously adding “Thanks be to God” and “the peace of Christ” at the appropriate moments in the service. Then some of us would meet on Zoom after the one-way streaming service for brief fellowship. I myself had the opportunity to preach in March, in translation, meeting at the church with only the music leader, the pastor, and a camera.

This arrangement kept us connected in some sense: in our house we sat with our kids for the live “service” in such a way that we could sing along with the laptop, read the scriptures, hear the sermon, and chime in at the prayer time. But we certainly felt keenly the lack of embodied presence with the local body of Christ. As the first Sunday of April approached, a new question emerged on the church Facebook group: should we celebrate the Lord’s Supper separately, simultaneously? At the last minute (i.e., Saturday morning) it was decided that we would try to do so. Each family was to acquire bread and grape juice or wine and to partake during the Facebook Live service at the appropriate time. At the time I was uneasy about it, but did not have a fully-formed conviction to offer to the discussion.

Theses

I would guess that most Christians would attribute some importance to corporate worship. But I argue that worship is an end in itself—knowing and experiencing the Triune God—and an important means of discipleship, by which we become more conformed to Christ’s image. By the standards of those outside the church, there will never be a justification for corporate worship that could supersede concerns for public safety, because society broadly does not have the categories to fully weigh the benefits of worship.

So on the one hand this series aims to inspire Christian leaders in making a fresh, winsome case for the importance of corporate worship, and how its benefits can be weighed against other concerns. On the other hand, I will also draw attention to some practices of technological mediation existing within evangelical churches before COVID-19, that have the potential to undermine the discipling effect of worship.

Back in 2019, I published an article focused on technological mediation of words and sacraments in worship, with examples from ancient Israel up to the 19th century, viewed through the analysis of media ecology.[2] This was of course before COVID-19 had upended our lives. In this new era, evangelical scholars and church leaders are conducting much more of our ministry and teaching mediated by technology than ever before.

In this series, I will offer some application of the arguments made in the 2019 essay, but also attempt to situate the dilemmas of the evangelical church during the pandemic within the broader conflict with modernity and secularity of our societies. I offer these main points:

  1. Christians, while accepting modernity’s insights into how the world works, must resist modernity’s totalizing claims to define the essence of human existence in materialist terms;
  2. Knowledge through ritual, including biblical corporate worship, is real knowledge that informs and transforms;
  3. Modern communication technology has been permitted to restructure worshipping communities by replacing unity and presence with mere simultaneity, to the detriment of worship’s discipling function—and this change was already well-underway before the COVID-19 pandemic;
  4. The pandemic presents an opportunity to reform (and re-form) our worship according to God’s Word. Certain essential aspects of worship cannot be facilitated (and are even undermined) by the use of mediating technology.

This time of COVID has forced many Christians (and people of other religions as well) to reconsider which beliefs and practices are essential for our faith. Even though belief is personal and individual, we structure our lives not just as individuals, but as part of families and communities. Contexts and structures contribute to the meanings of words and actions.

Moments of technological innovation have the power to restructure meanings of words and acts, by severing and combining in ways previously impossible or untenable. As the church, we must draw on Scripture, church history, and tradition to evaluate technologies, to recognize how they restructure our worship and our communal lives, to “lean into” some of those restructurings, and perhaps to resist when necessary.

Two caveats are important at the outset. First, none of my arguments are intended as a condemnation of those church leaders who in good conscience, up to and during the pandemic, attempted to use mediating technologies in the church while “keeping church, church,” as a friend put it. Though I am critical, I myself participated in mediated forms of worship that I would not wish to perpetuate. Second, at times I will criticize the logical extreme of certain practices—not always how they are in fact practiced by churches that are aware of the pitfalls and work to avoid them. The goal is to highlight these dangers at a time of rapid structural change in worship for many churches that may incorporate practices without considering long-term effects.

Measures adopted by local churches to temporarily enable communication apart from physical presence, if used uncritically or maintained beyond the crisis period, may unwittingly allow members partly satiate desire for biblical teaching and song, but at the cost of abstracting the discursive means of grace out of the context of community, with deleterious effects particularly on the spiritual formation of younger believers.

While holding fast to our evangelical beliefs—and not rejecting the insights of modern science into God’s world—we must recognize these underdeveloped areas in our traditions, and take affirmative steps to ensure that our worship and community life takes account of the whole human person, body and soul.

For more in this series, click here.


[1] In Switzerland, at least, my neighbor was correct: it was widely reported that legal Swiss brothels were permitted to reopen on June 6, 2020, roughly three months after the most restrictive measures were introduced, but before most churches were meeting. The “essentialness” of this work, by standards of modernity’s conception of a human person, is implied by the COVID safety protocols proffered by a Swiss sex-workers’ professional association: “[safety standards] cannot be monitored in this way but the same is true of private dealings between people and their doctors or therapists”—i.e., the sexual contact provided by a sex worker is as essential as medical or psychological care. Tim Stickings, “Swiss Brothels CAN Reopen after Sex Workers List ‘Safe’ Positions That Won’t Spread Coronavirus,” Mail Online, 2020 May 28 (accessed Oct 7, 2020).

[2] Benjamin Giffone, “Technologising of Word and Sacrament: Deuteronomy 14:24-26 and Intermediation in Worship,” EJT 28.1 (2019): 66–77.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society, Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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