The Non-Essential Church: Is There Hope for the Australian Church Post COVID?

“The vast majority of churches in Australia, and indeed the world, sent two very clear messages: First, we are just as afraid of death as the rest of you. Second, we don’t see the public worship of God and religion as essential to society.”

With the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020, the vast majority of the world reacted with hysterical panic and fear. Though the data never warranted it–and existing pandemic plans never advised it — governments imposed lockdowns, border and school closures, mandated mask-wearing, vaccine coercion, and the shutting down of society.

During such troubled times the church could have distinguished herself by offering a contrasting response to the fear and madness, however much of the Christian church fully embraced the Covid narrative and as a result, the world may be right to judge her as irrelevant and “non-essential.” The church needs to take responsibility for her shortcomings in supporting misplaced fear and despotic oppression. Unlike the world, the church has no excuse for fearing sickness and death.

The church’s primary hope is in the good governance of a Lord who preserves the world and everything therein, yet this hope was diminished throughout the pandemic. The vast majority of churches in Australia, and indeed the world, during the Covid-19 lockdowns, sent two very clear messages: First, we are just as afraid of death as the rest of you. Second, we don’t see the public worship of God and religion as essential to society. 

Throughout history, the church has served as a sanctuary during times of calamity. In the midst of wars, poverty, and famine the church offered to needy people the sure hope of God. In an increasingly secular age, the church has been struggling to stay relevant and the pandemic could have been a perfect opportunity to point out the fleeting nature of this life and point people to the One who upholds the world.

However in the Covid pandemic, when we were given a chance to show that religion is more than vestments, incense, feel-good music, and motivational talks, we epically failed. The church’s response to Covid-19 may have exposed the church’s faux faith in a distant, apathetic god and her ultimate fealty to science and government.

Across churches in Australia her bishops, ministers, elders, and parishioners did not look much different from the rest of the world. Church leaders looked to governments and health ministers for hope, help, and guidance. The ministers and leaders in the church cast off the public worship of God and fled to their homes with little to no questioning whether the stopping of the public worship was truly warranted or would please God. Rather, their chief concern was the physical health of people and submission to the government.

To think of the countless saints throughout the ages who have lost their lives for the sake of worshipping God and our leaders wouldn’t even risk a flu—albeit a bad one. Ministers bound the consciences of their parishioners to “do the right thing” and “love your neighbour” by adhering to whatever the government, health officers, and science were instructing.

To question the government’s response to Covid-19 among many church leaders in Australia was tantamount to sedition. Key church leaders and theologians in the colleges pragmatically argued that online services are real worship services and that taking communion online was theologically sound! Is it any wonder that our churches are still not back to pre-Covid lockdown numbers, especially among the children, youth, and families–those most abused through the government’s response to Covid-19?

Though there is a growing number of Christians and church leaders who feel genuine regret for their behaviour around the government’s Covid-vaccine mandates and coercion, there remains however an eerie silence within Christian communities and indeed the church leadership when the discussion turns toward the closure of church worship services. Why did the gatekeepers of the public worship of God consider it a light thing to stop God’s people from gathering to worship?

Ministers stood at God’s pulpits and used them as a mouthpiece for the latest government mandates, including the prohibiting of God’s people from singing praise to Him in a public worship service. Have we so soon forgotten this absurdity?! During this Covid-madness, I had a conversation with a high-level minister in the Presbyterian Church of Australia and he said, “The government prohibition of singing during a worship service is not a hill that most ministers in the Presbyterian church are willing to die on.” Very true, and not just true for the Presbyterian church.

The dirty little secret is that the stakeholders in the establishment churches were not willing to fight on any hill they thought they might die on. My question is this—Are we really even a Christian church anymore if the worship of the LORD Most High is considered something less important than our own health and safety, and not a hill any of us are willing to die on? 

The world may be correctly assessing the value of the Christian church as not much more than a community social club. The world didn’t need a church ZOOM meeting during the worldwide panic of Covid-19, they needed a Mighty King Jesus who had power over life and death. They needed brave and committed shepherds to stand up and protect the weak, wounded, and oppressed from their overreaching and imperious governments at any cost to themselves. What the community needed was more Christians standing up against the abuse of our children who were locked up inside for months on end, their schools and playgrounds closed, and banned from playing with other children.

We needed our Christian leaders standing up with one voice against segregation in our communities and churches based on vaccination status. Most importantly we needed our church leaders pleading with her people and the community to come and worship the Holy God together without fear trusting in the promises of Psalm 91:9-10, “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge— no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.”

But instead, the loudest voices from our Christian communities were heard saying, “Stay home, wear a mask, get vaccinated, be safe, and do the right thing!” The church did not consider the public worship of her God essential and worth fighting for and when it was taken away for months and months on end she did the exact same thing the other social clubs did— had a Zoom meeting— sending the clear message to the world that we did not truly believe that a public worship service was actually going to do anything essential for society. So why should we expect people to come to church now?

Will the church consider repenting for how it behaved during Covid? The church seems to be like a bride who has lost her virginity to other suitors and is now trying to convince herself that her virtue is still intact. Now is the time for the church to repent. We need to confess as Daniel did; “‘O Lord, the great and awesome God…we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules.’” (Daniel 9:4-5)

However, I do not see such public repentance as the likely response from the establishment churches in Australia, as they refuse to admit their guilt and culpability. Rather they would argue that those of us speaking up against the majority are the problem, as they generally uphold peaceableness as a far greater virtue than any truth or theological conviction. Even if the group turns out to be wrong the contrarian is always “wronger” for going against the group.

Also, the financial stakeholders in our establishment churches made it evidently clear during the Covid-19 pandemic that they are unwilling to risk the fury of the State but are willing to overturn long-standing church polity and practices. Establishment churches are diminishing and their doctrines are eroding. If we continue to follow this pattern of leadership into the future where will the mainline churches end up? It would be folly to hold one’s breath for an apology and genuine repentance on behalf of the leadership of the churches in Australia.

Nevertheless, the faithful men and women in our churches have the power to stand up and say, “No more!” and “Never again!” We must turn from our fearful ways and whoring with secular suiters and solemnly and soberly consecrate ourselves again to the Lord in reverent worship, and pledge absolute fealty to Christ alone.

Now is the time, this is the day, for the Christian church with one voice to do the very thing that might actually make us relevant again— pick up our Bible and all her outdated archaic teachings, dust off our creeds, confessions, and holy traditions, and make a stand. Let’s make the Australian church essential again!

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