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Review: The Essential Church (2023)

The Essential Church (2023)

Directed by: Shannon Halliday

Premise: A documentary about three evangelical churches and their pastors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pastors and their churches defied public health ordinances and held in-person services resulting in fines and legal action.

What Works: As a matter of filmmaking craft, The Essential Church is well produced. It’s very well shot and uses stock footage effectively. The most handsomely produced segments tell the story of the Covenanters, a seventeenth century religious and political movement in Scotland that defied King Charles I’s attempt to rewrite Christian theology in favor of the monarchy. This background is illustrated in haunting sequences cast with dramatically lit statues. The Essential Church is agitpop documentary filmmaking. It is designed to evoke righteous indignation by portraying these evangelical church leaders as martyrs fighting for faith and freedom. The filmmakers do that effectively. At the heart of The Essential Church is a legitimate grievance. A lot of state-issued lockdown rules were capricious and lacked a scientific basis. As pointed out in The Essential Church, parishes were ordered to close while shopping centers and entertainment venues remained open. Canadian provinces took the step of imprisoning church leaders for their refusal to comply, a move that was unnecessary and politically stupid. This good-faith argument reveals the kernel of a much better documentary that is buried underneath the rest of the picture.

What Doesn’t: The Essential Church is too long mostly owing to the parallel story of the Covenanters. These sequences, although well produced, go on and on, belaboring the point. The historical sequences are also detrimental rhetorically because they present a false analogy. The Covenanters protested a fundamental theological change to Christianity. The public health ordinances, arbitrary and badly administered as they may have been, did no such thing. The pastors argue that they have a faith-based requirement to gather and to preach, but they never meaningfully address why online gatherings were inadequate. They make a pathos appeal—meeting in digital spaces didn’t have the same emotional satisfaction as in-person services—but that’s not a rational or theological argument. As presented in the documentary, the pastors made no attempt to meet the circumstances or negotiate with the state such as offering multiple services with smaller groups and the churches refused to require masks or social distancing. What comes across is a group of faith leaders who, out of ignorance or intransigence, refused to adapt to a public health crisis. The Essential Church goes off the rails as it pivots to conspiracy theorizing. In concert with the historical subplot, the documentary attempts to make the case that politicians and public health officials were out to get the church and the interviewees prattle off a bunch of fear mongering nonsense about cultural Marxism. There’s no doubt that politicians and public health officials made a lot of blunders in the pandemic but the filmmakers of The Essential Church forget Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice what is explained by stupidity.

Bottom Line: The Essential Church is a frustrating documentary. It incites the passions and is rooted in a valid critique of pandemic lockdown policies but a close reading of the film’s arguments reveals its many half-truths and false analogies.

Episode: #960 (August 6, 2023)