A curious little documentary worked its way into the box office four weeks ago, grossing $253,000 at the domestic box office and becoming the weekend of July 28th’s 17th highest-grossing film before quietly disappearing back into the ether, that being Grace Production’s inaugural film The Essential Church—a part of one of the largest congregation in the country’s efforts to create “original biblical content with compelling storytelling to encourage and edify the church.”
Amid the current summer, where countercultural filmmaking is finding surprising success against corporatized blockbusters, The Essential Church snuck into theaters with the ambition of attempting to offer a definitive statement in the culture wars by dredging up the issue of COVID-19 lockdowns and their negative effect on American life. Sadly, it didn’t succeed in making the splash its filmmakers likely would’ve hoped.
It’s tempting to dismiss The Essential Church as so much hand-wringing over the effects of a pandemic that society has largely moved on from. As it stands, most Americans do not want to think about the horrors of the COVID years anymore. Outside of weird misanthropes and the terminally sick, the majority of institutions and governments have ceased their COVID measures entirely and are simply allowing the disease to fade into the background as it should.
But, The Essential Church does have an ax to grind, and it is eager to make it clear that what happened during COVID-19 to America’s churches can never happen again, lest the country face horrific spiritual consequences. It’s a message that should be heard more widely.
The film explores the story of several large contemporary Protestant churches in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic including John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, James Coates’ GraceLife Church in Alberta, and Tim Stephen’s Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary. All three pastors faced severe legal consequences for refusing to shut down their congregations during the early stages of the lockdowns. MacArthur responded to multiple cease-and-desist letters and lawsuits, taking the state of California to court and winning an $800,000 settlement. Coates and Stephens were less lucky and were both arrested by the Canadian government.
Anyone can definitely agree that the early months of COVID-19 were confusing and that nobody knew what they were doing or talking about. But as the movie suggests, the non-violent resistance of American churches revealed a curious tension in our modern understanding of faith—namely that the government considers it “non-essential.”
That the American and Canadian governments were actually willing to arrest dozens of pastors and parishioners for visiting the sick or failing to enforce social distancing, dragging them to court in the process, shows just how much the federal government enjoyed arbitrarily wielding its power against the faithful, and they’ve yet to apologize for doing so. The government was implicitly willing to overlook breaches in lockdown etiquette it agreed with—like Mayor Cooper’s permitting of public protests in 2020—but actively prosecuted pastors for similar sins.
At the height of COVID, racism was considered a more pressing and essential health issue than mental or spiritual wellbeing. The CDC even “declared that racism is a serious public health threat,” with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introducing a resolution to Congress to make it official. While those two things need not be in tension, it does speak to our nation’s priorities that a racist nation cares more about stopping racism than anything else.
John MacArthur, being one of the most popular preachers in the country, wasn’t dumb to the implications of his actions. As the documentary makes clear, Grace Church struggled in the early weeks of COVID with an appropriate response. Many elders and church members didn’t like the idea of reopening the church. There were good reasons to keep the churches closed initially, particularly in service of protecting the elderly for a few weeks.
However, a government that has the power to tell the churches that they are unessential to modern life—while Costco and protest marches are defended—has crossed a serious moral and spiritual line, one that the filmmakers argue qualifies as a form of spiritual warfare. The documentary goes as far as to suggest such actions have a whiff of the Satanic about them, saying the evil powers of this world are using the government (intentionally or not) to oppress the church.
As MacArthur notes, Christians are commanded to be good citizens, pay taxes, and obey the government when it is legitimate. However, Christians are not required to honor laws that impede their worship with the threat of arrest.
MacArthur goes as far as to argue that the fruit of his churches’ bravery has been Grace Church’s miraculous growth and acclaim as a spiritual institution. His willingness to go on Fox News nightly and brag about his flagrantly breaking California law resulted in his congregation swelling from 3,000 to 10,000 members at the height of the pandemic, and he claims that he gets 80 to 100 new visitors per week.
This stands in harsh contrast to American Christianity which was effectively destroyed by COVID. As a recent study from Arizona Christian University shows, regular church attendance in the U.S. has collapsed post-COVID, particularly among younger generations. The number of Americans who attending church frequently has decreased from 56% to 41%. As a recent Wall Street Journal piece points out, the lockdowns broke people’s weekly habits, and accelerated declining religious trends.
The fallout of these lawsuits and COVID-19 policy are still ongoing. It has been less than a year and a half since the Biden administration declared the end of the COVID emergency this past April. Many court cases are still ongoing. One church in Moscow, Idaho, just received a $300,000 payout from the state after church members were arrested for attending a maskless outdoor singing event. Greg Locke’s controversial Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet is still locked in an ongoing years-long legal feud with Wilson County and the greater mainstream media.
The film is admittedly melodramatic in its presentation. Its prologue compares the federal government’s actions to the Church of England’s mass executions of Scottish Presbyterians in the 1630s (which controversially preceded the English Civil War and the Puritans’ ransacking and murdering their way through England). As my colleague Christian Toto rightly points out in his review, the film’s overtly spiritual overtones and persistent debates on ecclesiology and theological wrestling over issues of authority make it a hard pill to swallow for secular viewers—calling the film ”an extended sermon preaching to the choir.”
The Essential Church may be hand-wringing a bit and not focused on broader implications, but the injustices perpetrated against average Christians are not something to take lightly. American Christianity faced a critical test of leadership during COVID and it failed—thousands of people suffered for it.