Unable to Gather: Pray for Other Churches
On this day, the 30th of March 2020, the Philippines, where I am originally from, has been on "lock down" for several weeks due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This means that everyone is restricted to their houses with limited exceptions. Australia, where I am now living, has just announced that public gatherings will be restricted to two people. My wife, daughter, and I had just met with a couple yesterday for some time of prayer, singing, and studying the Word, all while practicing social distancing. But I guess that might be the last time for a while that we'll be able to do that. All of this is being done in order to help slow the spread of of the virus.
Everyone is now spending most of their time at home. Many are being laid off from work, churches are not able to physically gather, and frontliners (those who work in hospitals trying to combat the virus) are often getting sick, and in some places, losing their lives. As Christians, one of the ways we respond to a situation like this is through prayer. Those who don't trust in Christ might not see this as a very useful response. Nevertheless, believers pray. We pray because Christ has granted us access to the Father. The Father, whose love "has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Romans 5:5). It only makes sense for us, who know the love of God, to cry out to Him, to cast our worries upon Him, to ask for help, and to pray for our neighbours, because we believe that the Lord knows best, and works out everything according to the counsel of His will. Most churches are putting time aside to pray for doctors, nurses, patients, government, and so on. This is a wonderful thing. Our hope is in the Lord, therefore we call on Him for mercy and grace.
Unable to Gather
Now that we're all stuck at home, possibly spending more time on social media, I'm sure we've noticed how other churches are trying to navigate this situation. You've got uploaded sermons, Facebook live, Zoom meetings, and whatever online tool you can think of, being used to try to get congregations to keep in touch and stay connected. This would've been impossible just a few decades ago. The fact that we have the blessing of technology at this time is certainly a gracious gift from God. Yet, this is also not normative! Anyone who thinks that it's business as usual for the church is missing the point. The church is commanded not to neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Corporate (not virtual) worship is central to the Christian life. It is the closest glimpse of heaven we're ever gonna get on earth. It is when God meets with His people in a special way, and promises to work through His ordained means.
As of now, we are unable to meet. We are unable to catch that glorious glimpse of heaven. We are not denying the fact that we who are in Christ have access to God 24/7, and can worship and commune with Him anytime, anywhere. But we are saying that something that is vital to our identity and calling as the body of Christ has been taken away from us. So, as much as we enjoy our virtual communication with one another, this pandemic should be grieving our hearts, because there is nothing sweeter than being present both in Spirit and in the body with fellow saints, communing with our Triune God.
Pray for Other Churches
It is our duty to pray for churches everywhere, not just our own. This worldwide pandemic gives churches the opportunity to think about and pray for other churches whom they might've never considered praying for or even knew existed. We're all in the same boat now. We're all bummed that we can't fellowship in person. You might have a higher view of corporate worship than the church down the street, and maybe they don't even feel that bad about not being able to meet. In which case, it would be good to pray for that church and ask the Lord to use this situation to create a longing in their hearts to once again gather for worship.
Definitely, pray for your local church as first priority, because that's where God has graciously placed you, and you are blessed with the privilege of caring for your fellow church members in a way that other people can't. But now that most of us have extra time on our hands, now that we're all online trying to stay connected with our churches, it makes it a lot easier to just look at the other churches doing their thing on your timeline and quickly lift them up in prayer. Paul commands the churches in and around Ephesus to pray "at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:18). This is not reserved merely for the saints in our locality, for Christ Himself prays to His Father regarding His disciples "that they may be one" (John 17:11), then later says "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:20).
Reformed Churches Pray for All Christian Churches
The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith reminds us that "every church and all its members are obligated to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all churches of Christ in every place" (chapter 26, paragraph 14). Not specific denominations or specific fellowships, but all churches of Christ. Clearly, there remains a distinction between those who call themselves churches but have abandoned the Gospel, and true churches of Christ that hold fast to the truth. We are exhorted to pray for true churches, for our brothers and sisters in Christ. James M. Renihan, in his exposition on chapter 26 of the Confession, writes:
"We have a universal obligation that belongs to each church...Your church has an obligation for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ in all places. I hope you pray for other churches in your community. Maybe they are not Reformed Baptist churches, but if they are true churches, you ought to pray for them. You ought to pray for the churches in your state, the United States, and around the world, for God's movement in their midst on the Lord's Day. Let us not be sectarian. We must recognize that there are other true churches that are not exactly like us but are still true churches. This is an exhortation within our Confession to recognize that and to promote it."1
Instead of "your state" it might be "your region". Instead of the "United States" it might be Australia, the Philippines, or China, or Africa, or wherever. Praying for other churches is both a duty and a delight. We can be clear about our disagreements with certain churches' doctrine and practice while at the same time genuinely praying for their spiritual prosperity. We can be firm about our differing convictions while still praying along with our Lord Jesus "that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." (John 17:23). Note also that Renihan exhorts us to pray "for God's movement in their [other churches'] midst on the Lord's Day." How much more should we be praying for them now that they are unable to meet!
Looking Forward to Gathering
The unity which we are told to pray for in Scripture cannot be appropriately cultivated and accurately displayed to the world if we are not gathering together. The great unifying act of the church is corporate worship. It is there that we as one body are called into the presence of God. It is there that saints sing praises to the worthy King with one voice. It is there that God addresses His servants through the preached Word. It is there that we pray together and speak to God with one heart. It is there that we commune with Jesus and enjoy the Supper in His presence. It is there that new citizens of God's Kingdom are welcomed through Baptism. As we gather on the Lord's Day, it is there that week after week, the King sends us back into the world to be His witnesses and glorify His Name.
If corporate worship is the closest thing to heaven on earth, if it is what God has ordained to enjoy sweet communion with His people in this life, then while we are still alive on this earth and Christ has not yet returned, we must pray fervently, for all churches, that we would be able to gather. But if the Lord decides to return before we are able to gather again as churches in this present world, we have the comfort of knowing that we will finally gather as one body before our Triune God in perfect unity, with no fear of pandemics or ever being separated again.
1 Renihan, James M. Associational Churchmanship: Second London Confession of Faith 26.12-15 (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2016), 43.