We wept. We fasted. We knelt in prayer. We stepped outside of our usual local church schedules and gatherings to join hands with other believers in our city. We gathered in sync with Christians across the nation to intercede for our shattered county.
It appears those days are relics from another time, and it’s not just because of current COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that took the lives of 2,977 people, we saw a groundswell of congregational, regional, and nationwide prayer gatherings in this country. At that time, Bruce Wilkinson wrote these words for Christianity Today:
These are times that strip away the places, routines, and assumptions that had seemed most real to us, and had been most often the measure of our wealth. We’re left feeling impoverished, vulnerable, and perhaps abandoned by God. Feeling, in other words, utterly mortal.
These are times when we turn to prayer. And in that turning I find great hope. My friend Max Lucado wrote recently, ‘This is a different country than it was a week ago. We’re not as self-centered as we were. We’re not as self-reliant as we were. Hands are out. Knees are bent. This is not normal. And I have to ask the question, “Do we want to go back to normal?” Perhaps the best response to this tragedy is to refuse to go back to normal’.
There is no “back to normal” in 2020.
In the face of the ongoing public health crisis, the response of the church to the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t look anything like the unified, prayerful response we witnessed in 2001.
Or for that matter, looking anything like it has during earlier times in our nation’s history when the church across a region or nation has come together to seek God, whether via single-event concerts of prayer or ongoing prayer meetings that preceded or accompanied times of spiritual renewal.
While there have been some large-scale, cross-denominational efforts to call God’s people to prayer around COVID-19 (including this, this, and this), it seems that most of the focus in in the Evangelical world has been on how and when to safely assemble in person, the politics of mask-wearing, disputes and lawsuits around the topic of religious liberty, and how to faithfully care for the vulnerable in a community. Those conversations frequently have been contentious and typically framed in terms of winning a debate – or at least “owning” the opposition – rather than as a call to seek God.
In fact, the closest thing I’ve seen that represents a call to Christian unity during the pandemic has been the sharing of various versions of the Elevation Worship song, The Blessing. Penned by Chris Brown, Cody Carnes, Kari Jobe, and Steven Furtick, dozens of versions of the song have been uploaded to YouTube, often recorded on Zoom by a variety of worship leaders from countries around the world including Singapore, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan, as well as cities or regions in the U.S from Hawaii to Washington D.C.
While these videos have offered solace and encouragement to many during this difficult year, they are not the same as unified, ongoing prayer for comfort for the suffering and grieving, for strength and protection for the front-lines workers, for insight for those working on treatments and vaccines, for provision for those facing financial losses, and most of all, for an end to the pandemic.
Prayer alone will posture the church to learn what God wants us to know about him during this time of testing and empower us to respond to him and the community around us with faith, courage, and creativity. But we are transformed as God’s people only as we allow change to take root in our lives. As a cautionary note, when the flurry of prayer meetings faded in the wake of 9/11, studies revealed there was little lasting change in church or culture. Many of us were looking for comfort in those prayer gatherings, not change. When the shock faded, it was easy to resume our regularly-scheduled patterns of church life.
I don’t believe we’ll be resuming our regularly-scheduled programs any time soon. What is God calling his people to do and to become as a result of this plague? I recognize that the comparisons between prayer activity in September 2001 and today aren’t equivalent, as 9/11 was a single event, and the pandemic in our country is one of many simultaneous ongoing crises happening in our midst including racial unrest, political division, and revelations of immorality from a few high-profile Christian leaders. COVID-19 has intensified the fault lines already existing in this country.
If a majority of a congregation holds the position that reports of the virus are #fakenews or part of a deep state conspiracy, then praying about COVID-19 would seem for them to be an exercise in praying about a dark fairy tale. If a region is not experiencing high infection rates, then there is no sense of right-here, right-now urgency to pray. Who can blame a congregational leader for wanting to sidestep controversy, especially when keeping the doors of a church open is an existential challenge for many congregations this year? However, true leadership always requires spiritual courage in the face of the lure toward self-protection.
Certainly, many local churches are praying about some aspects of the pandemic. But I believe the lack of a unified call to ongoing prayer from Christian leaders may be a reflection of the grip politics has on us all right now. When I informally queried some friends about what their congregations and denominations are doing, one friend noted, “We’ve turned into news reactors versus prayer responders. We take sides instead of coming before God together.” Social media exacerbates these tendencies among us, but it also highlights what isn’t happening as well. I recognize my own temptation to mindlessly, and therefore prayerlessly, amplify bad news on Facebook and Twitter.
I am restrained (somewhat, anyway!) by what I’ve experienced in corporate prayer gatherings through the years. In particular, I saw the importance of regional corporate prayer gatherings during the years I volunteered, then worked part-time for a ministry that brought together church leaders and congregations for prayer, learning, outreach, and service to the community. Praying together with people from dozens of local congregations to adopt the principle behind Jeremiah’s prophetic words to God’s people exiled in Babylon to seek the good of our city brought together people in prayer from congregations ranging from Assemblies of God to members of independent Bible churches. Though the ministry eventually shifted in focus and leadership, those years gathered in prayer bore fruit in relationships that lingered in the region for a long time.
Even if we haven’t been focused on corporate prayer, it is not too late to change course. I celebrate that a number of organizations and denominations that have put together prayer and resource guides in response to the coronavirus including the Southern Baptists, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Salvation Army, and World Vision. Intervarsity Christian Fellowship shared the prayer below written by Kerry Weber, the executive editor of America magazine. It offers us all a place to begin – and remain – even after the pandemic fades:
Jesus Christ, you traveled through towns and villages “curing every disease and illness.” At your command, the sick were made well. Come to our aid now, in the midst of the global spread of the coronavirus, that we may experience your healing love.
Heal those who are sick with the virus. May they regain their strength and health through quality medical care.
Heal us from our fear, which prevents nations from working together and neighbors from helping one another.
Heal us from our pride, which can make us claim invulnerability to a disease that knows no borders.
Jesus Christ, healer of all, stay by our side in this time of uncertainty and sorrow.
Be with those who have died from the virus. May they be at rest with you in your eternal peace.
Be with the families of those who are sick or have died. As they worry and grieve, defend them from illness and despair. May they know your peace.
Be with the doctors, nurses, researchers and all medical professionals who seek to heal and help those affected and who put themselves at risk in the process. May they know your protection and peace.
Be with the leaders of all nations. Give them the foresight to act with charity and true concern for the well-being of the people they are meant to serve. Give them the wisdom to invest in long-term solutions that will help prepare for or prevent future outbreaks. May they know your peace, as they work together to achieve it on earth.
Whether we are home or abroad, surrounded by many people suffering from this illness or only a few, Jesus Christ, stay with us as we endure and mourn, persist and prepare. In place of our anxiety, give us your peace.
Jesus Christ, heal us.