The Church is Essential

One of the more unfortunate things that happened at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic was how our economy and culture got divided into “essential” and “non-essential” categories. It led to all kinds of awful classifications and even political chicanery as politicians keep many things closed or near-closed because they are “non-essential”.

First of all, exactly whose paycheck is not essential? I understand why some of the original decisions were made, but they were made in haste with nearly zero consideration from other voices and points of view.

But now we have reached a place in our culture when we need to make the argument that church is essential. In most states church gatherings have been put in the same bucket as sporting events and concerts. These are “leisure” activities that, apparently, have very little to do with the necessary working of our culture. And so, churches get put on a back-burner.

The argument is actually easy to make: churches are essential. They are essential for those who love it, for those who live in neighborhoods and cities influenced by them, and for those who can’t stand the church. The case is huge and expansive (I am, after all, convinced that civilization requires the church), but here are a few thoughts in this direction.

Relationship Health

Regular church goers consistently report higher levels of satisfaction with their family and friend relationships than those who identify as Christians but attend rarely, and those who are of no faith. The research firm, Barna, has tracked these kinds of details and report:

Regardless of marital status, practicing Christians (65%) are far more likely than U.S. adults overall (51%) to express being content with their relationships. Religious faith in general seems to benefit relational contentment (55% self-identified Christians, 52% other faith vs. 42% no faith), but Christian practice makes a notable impact. Again, this is especially true for young adults. Among the general population, 50 percent of Millennials and Gen Z (combined) agree they are relationally content; among practicing Christians, three-quarters of adults 35 and younger (72%) say they are content with their relationships.

When a church calls itself a spiritual family, it is not a silly metaphor. Scripture’s favorite image for the faithful is a family. When people follow Jesus Christ and are healthy parts of a local church, their relational health is greatly increased by the strength of a network of trustworthy, stable people who are willing to give support, love, and resources to each other. If you take a church out of your life pattern, do you have an equivalent organization just as stable and just as gracious?

Barna Research: Relational Flourishing

Happiness

A well-known formula for what makes people happy states that happiness is largely a factor of four things at work in a person’s life: faith, family, friends, and meaningful work. When people report higher degrees of each of these, the happier they report themselves to be.

Faith creates a stability that helps each of us through all the seasons of life, grounding us in God’s provision and grace, and surrounding us with people who become part of our journey. When faith is missing, there can be strength and stability in the other three, but nothing else can provide the kind of hope and assurance that transcends life itself. Faith is a big part of stability and meaning in life, and a big part of our happiness.

Being a regular part of a healthy church is good for us psychologically. We are less lonely and less afraid when we are part of a spiritual family. We have informal relational resources available to us when we belong to a good church. We can both visit a good counselor and be part of a good small group and find direction and support in both places. Take one of those options away from yourself at your own risk.

Vibrant, orthodox, local churches do as much good for individuals, families, and communities as any other common institution.

Moral Meaning

Church is an organization that creates a moral foundation in enough peoples’ lives to accomplish two big things: meaning and direction in individual lives, and moral expectations for a community.

Individuals who commit themselves to their faith commit to a set of moral standards and begin to make decisions based on those standards. A church is part of the accountability structure that continually reinforces that kind of lifestyle. This is not coercion, this is an agreed-upon set of behaviors that we believe honor God and make life better. We want to be more like Christ, and we help each other walk that path.

A community needs local churches who build moral people and expose them to the transforming work of God. The more virtuous citizens live in a city, the fewer laws that city needs. We can rely upon a moral person more than we can the threat of jail.

At this point it is always argued that atheists can be moral, too. Of course, they can. But atheists have not yet successfully replaced God as a source for moral justification. Atheism needs to claim some version of moral authority, but has not yet identified a universal, enforceable replacement for God. Communities need people who believe in God and live like they do.

This story could go on and on. Vibrant, orthodox, local churches do as much good for individuals, families, and communities as any other common institution. Churches are essential for all of us, whether you want them open and full of life, or not.

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