For over a year now churches in Ireland have been more closed than open. At the start of the pandemic this was entirely understandable—no-one knew what we were dealing with, how deadly this virus was, or what precautions would work.
Then we had the summer months when churches put into practice all the best advice and proved that it was possible to meet safely. Yet here we are a year after the first lockdown and churches are closed once more. This is in massive contrast to the rest of Europe where churches have remained largely open.
Many representations have been made to government on this, urging the government to recognise the importance and necessity of the church meeting. And always in the context of ‘with all safety precautions in place’—no-one is looking to be careless with lives. But for all that, church seems to be seen by many in government as on a par with social clubs, recreation clubs or hairdressers.
In showing the importance of the church, we as pastors have often spoken about how the church provides a vital level of care for our communities amidst rising rates of isolation, despair, stress, hopelessness, people at the end of their tether, people on the brink of suicide. In some ways this has been necessary in order to communicate in categories our politicians, the media, etc. are familiar with, and to show the benefit of the church to society and the necessity of the church gathering.
But important as those factors are, they are not the raison d’être for the church gathering. We have an even grander purpose in meeting together—one we need to remember when society would perhaps like us to be more out of sight.
The church meets because God calls all people everywhere to worship him. The great African preacher and thinker, Augustine, said “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” The church gathering is a recognition that this is the signature tune to our existence. Every human knows this, whether they wish to admit it or not. We meet because God calls us to centre our lives around him. And in seeking to do so we proclaim to the Irish people that this world is not all there is, that God should be central, and that there is a purpose, meaning, significance, forgiveness, hope, identity and future that comes to nations and individuals when we have God in his rightful place.
The church meets because God is in the business of building a family, of drawing to himself a people of every nation, tribe and language through the saving work of Jesus Christ. That family is tangibly expressed each time God’s redeemed, restored, forgiven people meet to worship their God and Saviour. We see each other, we hear each other. We are embodied people, and we are made to meet together. He has designed it this way—that in gathering we are a light to the world, an outpost of Heaven, a place of hope, joy, belonging, support and community.
The church meets because the church is the very reason the world exists. And that’s the reason why churches should be meeting—their very gathering is a proclamation of the centrality of God to every human being and a picture of what God does in redeeming humanity.
Written by Pastor Mark Loughridge New Life Fellowship Letterkenny