For the last 6 months we have lived under the shadow of the Covid-19 virus. The pandemic has been disruptive and the toil tragic. More than 146,000 Americans have died from coronavirus and 620,000 deaths worldwide. Many feel the deaths are unnecessary, the result of political short-sightedness. Some are convinced it is a hoax and others preach Armageddon. The prevailing worry is the long-term effect on the economy, and how will it affect our jobs.
To waylay this impending disaster, essential businesses reopen. These included tattoo parlors, beauty shops, bars, restaurants, beaches, and other recreational locations. Though not considered “essential”, places of worship were also allowed to open.
Many bars and taverns were overwhelmed by patrons, and customers had to be turned away. Sadly, churches did not face this problem. It is disconcerting to contemplate that bars, beaches and tattoo parlors are more essential than churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques, and that they draw a greater number of people. The faithful must wonder why others “are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” [i] What has happened which caused faith to become non-essential, especially in times of uncertainty and pandemic?
Blaming politics or economics blinds us to the real cause of churches becoming “nonessential”. There is no one to blame but ourselves. We have stopped being an essential component of people’s lives, so fewer people see the institutions of faith as providing real solutions toward human problems.
History can provide some insight. 1st century Christian teacher Tertullian wrote “that while pagan temples spent their donations on feasts and drinking bouts,” Christians spent theirs “to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to the house.”[ii]
Plagues occurring in 165 AD and again in 250 AD devastated the Roman Empire. Citizens fled the epidemic, abandoning their own families to avoid the pestilence. Christians, following Jesus’s teaching, turned to helping the stricken, exposing themselves to the disease. This impressed the pagans especially since the death rate among Christians was lower than among non-Christians. A letter from the Bishop of Rome to his counterpart in Antioch in 251 AD, stated “more than 1,500 widows and distressed persons” were in the care of his congregation. This is confirmed by pagan observers. Roman Emperor Julian complained, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well.”
While caring for the sick led to greater persecution, it also brought more people to the Church. Thus, the Church became “essential” for the welfare of the people.
Modern faith-based institutions continue to do this work in accordance of scripture. Also, in the example set by Jesus, they do so humbly and without self-promotion. “The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.”[iii]
Humility is bedrock to living out our faith in the world. When others see that Christians are willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of others they seek to know why. In the parable of the “Good Samaritan”, the innkeeper is given sufficient funds to care for the beaten man and the Samaritan expected no restitution save the health of the victim. This act must have caused others to, as Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
The combined corporate contribution of all faith-based institutions is immeasurable and necessary to address global hardships. Helping others during difficult times should be an essential function of God’s church. So why have small community churches ceased to be essential in their local communities?
Perhaps one reason is that being a Good Samaritan has become institutionalized. Broader systems have been developed to address human needs, replacing the role of smaller churches. Funds are collected and given to these far-reaching organizations. Even within the churches, there is a committee who takes care of that, or it has become “the Pastor’s job”. (And their spouses, I might add.) The congregation is increasingly isolated from direct contact with anyone in need or who they do not personally know.
The Christian in 250 AD did not wait till some institution asked for help, nor did they send someone else to assist. They responded to the question asked of Jesus; “Who is my neighbor?” and found people who were suffering. Their actions, not their words, grew the church. Luke 7:22 demonstrates this. “ So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Following Jesus’s example during these plagues, Christians made themselves essential by providing aids that, not even the Roman government provided. Through healing of the body, there is healing of the spirit.
Are the community churches doing this today? In some ways yes. Are they committed to such works as their primary function? Not likely. And that may be why they are not essential to the people of their community. What is vital to the local church, filling the pews on Sunday morning, is not crucial to the community at large.
Churches need to discover what can they offer that a bar, or a tattoo parlor cannot. Modern faith must be progressive, and the best example of future growth lies in the past action of the early Christians. It not about preserving the traditions of church dogma but rediscovering the teachings that our faith is built upon. We can become essential once again when we answer the simple question asked of Jesus, “Who is our neighbor?”
[i] Mark 8:33
[iii] John 5:13 NIV