The risks of public worship

The UK government wants the church to fill out risk assessment forms for people coming to worship. Here’s my assessment of the risks of public worship: 

Coming to church is a risky business.  

Coming to church has always been risky. The church should have been handing out health warnings long before COVID-19, because “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). Coming to church didn’t end well for Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-2). It didn’t end well for Uzzah, when he touched the ark (2 Sam 6:6-7). King Uzziah caught leprosy at church (2 Chron 26:19-20). 14,700 of the children of Israel caught a deadly plague at church (Num 16:49). Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead at church (Acts 5:5, 10). Some Christians in Corinth got food poisoning at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:29-30). All things considered, joining church probably lowers your average life expectancy. If your goal is to live as long on this earth as possible, stay away. 

The fact that we follow Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23), who frames the whole Christian life as a crucifixion ought to be a little clue (Mark 8:34). I’m not sure what ‘elf’n’safety officers would make of a crucifixion. I doubt it would score well on hygiene. Can you imagine the elders at Antioch signing off the risk assessment form for Paul & Barnabas’ first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3ff)?! “We’ve assessed the dangers of preaching Jesus as Lord to be a 50% chance of physical abuse, 30% chance of rioting, 60% chance of stoning”! Following Jesus has always been a risky business, but today we’d want the martyrs to sign insurance waiver forms before walking to their deaths. I fear many in the church would consider the martyrs, “who loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev 12:11), to be irresponsible and reckless. 

Not coming to church is even riskier. 

I know there are legitimate reasons why we have suspended worship during COVID-19, and I don’t mean to belittle them, or play down the complexity of the issues. But Jesus told us very clearly: “It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire … It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell… It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell” (Mark 9:43,45,47). Jesus wants us to be crystal clear about the biggest risk of all – the risk of hell. The far more dangerous infection spreading in the UK is the infection of sin. The church is to be the nation’s real ‘elf’n’safety officers, warning our nation that “the greatest and worst of all deaths is where death does not die” (Augustine). 

So, in this national emergency, it is not the National Health Service that has the key role to play, but the Christian church. For the population of Britain to really live they need to think differently about their mortal body. They need to stop attaching ultimate significance to their mortal body and to this age, and return to God, their Creator. They need to be told that shopping is not the route to happiness; that kick-starting the economy is not the number 1 priority. We need our sins to be forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:7) and to discover that true human life is found in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The only trouble is that I’m not sure the church is up for that role. At the very point we’ve been called to speak up, we’ve been willing to be privatised and shunted online. Buoyed up by the number of online hits we’ve been getting, we sit waiting for the rulers of this age to give us permission to meet! Here is a third risk – not the risk of COVID-19, not the risk of hell, but the risk of the church becoming secular, and caring more about this mortal body than immortality (1 Cor 15:54). Unless we get back to public worship soon, I fear the church will have caught an infection much more serious than COVID-19.