Church Attendance

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. – Matthew 18:20

I moved from Alabama, which has a 55 percent church attendance (the highest in the nation), to Vermont, with a 21 percent attendance rate (the lowest in the nation) in 2015. When I lived in Alabama, I was a regular church goer. I went almost every Sunday with my family. However, since I’ve moved to Vermont, I have not attended church regularly for two reasons: 1) there are very few churches of Christ* in Vermont, and I have never felt comfortable attending other denominations, and 2) I do not like attending church on my own. It seems to me that I was given an overabundance of attention when I went by myself partly because it was a congregation struggling with attendance. I have never liked to be the center of attention. I prefer to blend into the background. And maybe it’s my current situation as an infrequent churchgoer that I do not believe that church attendance is absolutely necessity in the Christian faith. In Michael Houdmann’s book, Got Questions?: Bible Questions Answered, he writes:

The Bible tells us we need to be with other Christians so we can worship God with other believers and be taught His Word for our spiritual growth (Acts 2:42Hebrews 10:25), but it does not specifically state we must meet in a particular structure. Church is the place where believers can love one another (1 John 4:12), encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13), “spur” one another (Hebrews 10:24), serve one another (Galatians 5:13), instruct one another (Romans 15:14), honor one another (Romans 12:10), and be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32).

However, most Christian denominations disagree and require, or at least insist, on regular church attendance. Most believe church attendance is the foundation for the Christian life as the Bible and the sacraments provide the framework for the faith; most also believe that it is important for believers because it aids in the prevention of backsliding, as well as offers the company of other believers. You might be wondering why I am writing about church attendance. The reason is simple, during this time of stay-at-home orders, churches have largely been closed and offering alternatives to attending inside the sanctuary of the church. Numerous outbreaks of COVID-19 have been linked to church attendance. Some churches have flaunted the closure of churches and held services anyway. However, President Donald Trump made another play to his base Friday, declaring churches and houses of worship “essential” and sharply warning the nation’s governors that he would “override” any actions they take that interfere with the resumption of religious services. (He has absolutely no authority to do so.)

This declaration was a move meant to shore up the support of his core supporters at a time when his reelection prospects look uncertain in the midst of declining approval of his handling of the virus and the economic meltdown. Adding fuel to the latest controversy on the right – just as he did when he supported protesters at state capitols who rebelled against their states’ lockdowns – Trump tried to assert authority he does not have as part of his relentless push for normalcy. His comments came as we were headed into Memorial Day weekend, a time when health experts worry that Americans’ vigilance will give way to complacency with the potential for crowded beaches, pools, parks, holiday barbecues – and now churches – across the country.

There are many problems I have with mainstream (mostly Protestant) religions. Number one amongst my reasons is they have become too intent on building their congregations for all the wrong reasons. They want money and more money. The high salary some pastors make, especially compared to the congregants, is obscene. Go to most churches and they will tell you that you must open your pockets and give more in order to build a bigger church or even to build a “family life center.” I’m not sure what basketball court, gyms, coffee shop, or a bowling alley have to do with worshipping God, but that’s what so many are doing. They are making their churches playgrounds for the masses at the expense of worshipping God. I know of many congregations back in Alabama that require an income statement in order be a member to make sure that you give your 10 percent tithing, and it’s not just in Alabama. My granny used to tell her deacon who tried to get an income statement from her that it was none of his business how much she was worth and that she may not give 10 percent to the church, but she considered charities and helping out others to be part of her tithing. (Often if she heard someone was in need, she’d get their address and send them a check to help out. She rarely told anyone about this.) When she refused to release her net worth, the church people quit visiting her. She’d been a member of that congregation longer than I have been alive, yet they turned their backs on her when she could no longer attend every Sunday. They quit communicating with her altogether when she went into an assisted living facility in nearby Montgomery. If they couldn’t get her money, they had no use for her. Millions of dollars are being lost because people aren’t putting money in collection plates. Churches are desperate to have regular services start up again, and Trump is playing to his base pandering for votes at their expense and health. Churches have become business instead of places of worship.

So, my question is: Is it necessary for us to attend church to be good Christians, especially at the expense to our health and the health of others? The answer is no; it’s not. As the Bible verse that opens this post says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Christ says that any gathering of Christians is a gathering where He is. In my opinion, that includes each of you who come to this blog every Sunday and read my religious posts. We are gathering virtually, something that the writers of the Bible could have never imagined. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” The Bible is telling us to keep ourselves healthy and safe. By congregating in a church, we are not keeping our bodies safe, we are potentially doing something that could destroy the temple that is our body.

I want to take a quick look at how far back containment of illnesses go. First of all, what is the difference between isolation and quarantine? Isolation and quarantine are public health practices used to protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease. Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not know it, or they may have the disease but do not show symptoms. An early mention of isolation occurs in Leviticus, written in the seventh century BC or perhaps earlier, which describes the procedure for separating out infected people to prevent spread of disease under the Mosaic Law:

If the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and in sight be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white; then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days: And the priest shall look on him the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague in his sight be at a stay, and the plague spread not in the skin; then the priest shall shut him up seven days more. – Leviticus 13:4-5

So, by this, we know that the practice of isolating diseased people dates back thousands of years and would have been known by early Christians. People in isolation according to Mosaic Law would not have been allowed in the temple to worship. If it was Mosaic Law that these people not attend temple to prevent the spread of disease, why is there a problem with people not attending church today in order to keep from spreading COVID-19? Furthermore, the word “quarantine” originates from quarantena, the Venetian language form, meaning “forty days”. This is due to the 40-day isolation of ships and people practiced as a measure of disease prevention related to the plague. Even in Catholic Venice, people under quarantine were not allowed to attend mass because they were to be isolated. My point is that isolation and quarantine have been around for a very long time, and at no point was church or temple attendance required by those in isolation or quarantine. Why are modern churches so adamant that their doors be reopened when they could possibly be spreading COVID-19 by doing so?

Some may point to the early plague outbreaks as examples of what to do in a pandemic. In those earliest cases, such as the Antonine Plague, Cyprian Plague, or Justinian Plague, Christians tended to the sick and their mercy on believers and non-believers alike helped to grow the Christian faith. During the Black Death, many priests died of the plague because they remained behind to help minister and nurse the sick. All of that may have been valid arguments back then to help others at the risk to their own health, but it is an invalid argument today against stay-at-home orders. Few people understood the germ theory of disease until the late 1850s with the work of Louis Pasteur, and it was not widely accepted until the 1890s. We now know so much more about the spread of disease, but with COVID-19, other than knowing that it spreads very easily, we do not know all the details of how it is transmitted, which is why we have the stay-at-home orders. During those early plagues, they believed in the miasma theory that diseases were caused by a miasma (μίασμα, ancient Greek: “pollution”), a noxious form of “bad air”, also known as night air. Germ theory just wasn’t understood in those days. Even with Mosaic Law, they did not understand germ theory, but still believed in isolation of infected people. Likewise, when the Venetians established quarantine laws, they only understood that the plague could be transmitted if diseased people came into the city, but they too did not understand germ theory.

All of this has been on my mind because I worry for my family back in Alabama. The state is opening up businesses and putting people at risk as the number of cases of the virus continues to grow. My parents, aunt, and sister’s family all attend church regularly, though at different churches. I know my sister already thinks that the closures in Montgomery by the mayor are overkill, and basically hasn’t spoken to me since I told her she was wrong. My aunt works in healthcare and is not about to risk further exposure or even spreading COVID-19 to others by attending church. However, I really worry about my parents. So far, they have seemed to be doing fairly well with self-isolation except for a few doctor’s visits my mother had and grocery shopping, but I fear as Alabama continues to open back up, their church will once again have regular services. Right now, they are having people park in the church parking lot, with their windows rolled up, and tuning to the preacher on a low frequency radio station. I wonder how long they will keep this up. My mother has had lung issues since she worked for the State of Alabama in a building with black mold on the roof and as a result has asthmatic bronchitis quite frequently. She can’t afford to contract COVID-19.

I’m just worried that the president’s rhetoric will put them in danger, as all of them are Trump supporters. I hope my mother has more sense, though I just don’t know. She was an infection control nurse and has had mountains of training on pandemics and the responses to it, so she should know better. She used to be part of the first line of defense for Central Alabama until she retired. My aunt, who worked for the same healthcare company as my mother, is now on that same task force. The thing is, they know what to do to keep people safe, but will they bow to the pressures of others who have the backing of the president? I just don’t know, and it scares me. 

Please, everyone stay at home and stay safe. Remember showing love for one another means doing whatever you can to keep each other safe.

*I am a member of the churches of Christ. Some people will write it as “a member of the Church of Christ,” but technically, this is incorrect. Church should not be capitalized in the name, though it almost always is capitalized on church signs.

I just saw Bob Slatten’s post “Funny Papers” on I Should Be Laughing and had to add this cartoon from the post:

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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