Is going to church in a pandemic selfish? It’s not hard to see how this could become a question that Christians will start to face.
Chris Whitty very helpfully explained in a press briefing:
“The trouble with a pandemic or an epidemic infection like this is if I as an individual increase my risk, I increase the risk to everyone around me, and everyone who’s a contact to theirs. And sooner or later the chain will meet people who are vulnerable or are elderly or who have a long-term problem from COVID. So, you cannot in an epidemic just take your own risk. Unfortunately, you’re taking risk on behalf of everybody else”
It’s not a big leap in logic to jump from that to the idea that Christians are behaving selfishly by choosing to go to church. Our choice to gather in a group is putting everybody else at risk. What if sports crowds or entertainment venues did the same? In this atmosphere, the perception of church going could be transformed from something that was curious, and quirky, but ultimately private, to something sinister, that threatens the safety of the British population.
So, is it selfish to go to church?
This is a brilliant opportunity to explain to Britain what church-going is actually all about. Going to church is not a private, personal habit that some people enjoy, but others don’t. It is a moral duty binding on everyone. Everyone in Britain is morally obligated to worship the living God at church, just as they are obligated not to steal from shops, and to tell the truth. Whoever you are, you were made to worship God! When God takes the register at church each Sunday, he doesn’t just note the Christians who are absent. He says: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!” (Psalm 150:6).
The first day of the week is called the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10). In other words, it’s the day which the Lord Jesus Christ lays claim to, and insists everyone in Britain gives to him. So, the decision to attend church is not like a customer weighing up whether to purchase the goods, or a consumer deciding how to spend his leisure time. It’s about whether Jesus is Lord or not. Choosing to worship Christ is all about killing my selfish, self-centredness.
During the lockdown, we closed down our schools and Parliament and churches, because the nature of the threat was unclear. But now we’re not saying: “It’s selfish to send my children to school”. We’re not saying: “It’s selfish of politicians to continue to meet in the Houses of Parliament”. Why? Because we understand that those activities are not self-indulgent, private habits, but of fundamental importance to what we are as humans. While acknowledging the real risk of the virus, we’re conscious of the bigger risk of children not being at school. Well, how much more does true religion belong in that category!?
The closest equivalent to church is not education, or politics, or the economy, but the supermarkets, and the hospitals, which we were all quite clear were “essential services”. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3). The Christian church believes that the risks to our nation of not worshipping the living God through his Son Jesus Christ far outweigh the risks presented by COVID. It is only by turning back to God and giving him his rightful place that anyone will find true, abundant life (John 10:10).
As a public health official, Chris Whitty is doing our country a great service in wanting to alert us to the serious risks of this pandemic. But we need to ask: “risk of what?”. We live in odd times, when risk of mortality is treated as the “ultimate” value. No war in history would ever have been fought by that reckoning. The statistics are quite clear; you don’t need to be an epidemiologist to understand the graph. 1 in 1 of us die. As Christians we want to serve our country by explaining clearly that risk of mortality is not the ultimate risk that we face as humans. There is something called the “second death” (Rev 20:6), which those who are not ready to meet their Maker will face. There is the risk that each of us has not been the person God created us to be.
We understand how going to church in a pandemic could look selfish to a secular society, which sees religion as a bunch of private, personal beliefs. But this is precisely the time to explain that Jesus Christ isn’t just an invisible friend or buddy, or “life-force”. He is God the Son, who has entered history, become man, was crucified, buried, and has risen. He is the Lord of all and he is coming back to hold us all to account. So, in a challenging time, with serious public health risks, getting along to church isn’t a self-indulgent habit that sacrifices my neighbour’s safety. It is an act of love for God, and love for neighbour, of the highest importance.
Only at church, in the good news of Jesus Christ, is the real cure for our nation’s selfishness found. Will you come along this Sunday? We’d love to tell you more about Jesus who laid down his life for us, his enemies, so that we can know God (Rom 5:8,10).
[If you think that “online church” is an obvious alternative to going to church, see this post.
And, of course, church services should take place in ways that reduce the risk of infection, and are as safe as possible].