Wear a mask. Stay six feet apart. Remain home as much as possible. And don’t dare attend a church service.
You can still protest so-called systemic racism in the streets, even if it means standing shoulder to shoulder during a global pandemic.
The government’s clampdown on church services during the COVID-19 pandemic created a spiritual rebellion worthy of a documentary film. “The Essential Church” mostly does the subject justice, capturing both church culture and the government’s willingness to snuff it out.
The film’s length and willingness to alienate secular viewers are troublesome, but the heart of the matter is never discounted.
What happened was wrong on many levels, and “The Essential Church” expertly explains why.
The government’s decrees during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were met with almost universal approval.
Yes, we’ll spend 15 days slowing the spread, and we’ll take extreme measures to protect ourselves from a virus we knew little about.
Christians mostly shared that approach, at least at first.
When the lockdowns persisted, some began to question their necessity. We could shop at Walmart and buy booze but attending church was considered too dangerous.
Sometimes even outdoor services.
Americans watched their loved ones die from a distance, but Black Lives Matter supporters could flood the streets without sparking a super-spreader crisis.
Some churches fought back.
The Grace Community Church in Los Angeles came into sharp national focus for doing just that. “The Essential Church” is courtesy of Grace Productions, “a ministry of Grace Community Church that creates original biblical content with compelling storytelling to encourage and edify the church.”
The group’s documentary recalls their initial thinking during the pandemic, why they chose to open their doors against government orders and how local politicians punished them for their actions.
Other Christian-based rebels included Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary. He got hauled off to jail while his shrieking children held onto his outstretched hand. Other Christians faced monumental fines, physical barricades and other draconian measures to prevent them from congregating.
Meanwhile, some U.S. politicians brazenly defied their own protocols with zero repercussions.
Larry Elder: “The reason we started this campaign is because this man, Governor Gavin Newsom, was sitting up there at the French Laundry restaurant … with the people who drafted the mandates that they were violating.” pic.twitter.com/md7UwaJi4h
— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) September 15, 2021
“The Essential Church” tells the story methodically, drawing color and candor from its sources. The narrative simultaneously recalls a 17th century event in Scotland where the local government similarly punished Christians.
It’s a shrewd way to show how government often suppresses faith, but “Church” extends far too much energy on the earlier drama.
That reflects another pragmatic issue with the film. The documentary’s message easily applies to secular audiences, people who never step a toe in a church. They also need to see how the government overstepped its role and punished both faith and dissent under spurious justifications.
Yet “The Essential Church” often plays out like an extended sermon preaching to the choir. Literally. That approach may have creative benefits, but the potential to touch audiences unfamiliar with the church shrinks as a result.
That’s a shame since the story in question matters to everyone. Or it should.
Plus, few films capture church culture as elegantly as writer/director Shannon Paul Halliday does here. “Church” lets the pastors and elders describe what it means to oversee a flock of spiritual souls, the need for face-to-face contact and the power of community in times of distress.
Like a pandemic.
The government discounted all of the above, and the fallout will be felt for years, if not decades.
“The Essential Church” may be an independent film, but the production design and cinematography are first class. Elegant camera work and sharp compositions bring the story to life, and the Scotland flashbacks are staged with sustained creativity.
The film ends on a powerful note, rallying at just the right time to hammer home why “The Essential Church” is a necessary document. It also shames those who set the lockdown measures in motion, noting how they opted to settle their differences than defend their decisions in a court of law.
It also doubles as a teachable moment for right-leaning, faith-based creators. The very best of “Church” recalls the human stories behind the lockdowns, like when Pastor Stephens consoles his children as officers arrest them.
Spiritual leaders explore the human drama behind the decision to re-open their churches, and the hurt feelings and worry that led to those maneuvers.
Yet other elements of the film feel dry, impersonal. Popular culture is a vital tool, one the Left uses with impunity to send a message, even corrupt ones.
“The Essential Church” is a remarkable product given its cinematic excellence and potent perspective. It can’t fully embrace the medium and its potential to change hearts and minds.
HiT or Miss: “The Essential Church” offers a bracing reminder of what was lost during the pandemic lockdowns.