“To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” This often-used quote by Martin Luther, German theologian and leader of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, has been cited by ministry leaders of nearly every denominational ilk for the past 500 years.
But in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic—as a deadly respiratory virus mercilessly seeks to rob victims of life-sustaining breath—Christians and non-Christians alike are literally turning to prayer as a matter of life or death.
“It just shows how helpless man is without God,” says Jim Cymbala, pastor of the 10,000-member Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City—epicenter of the largest humanitarian crisis since the Spanish Flu, which killed tens of millions of people a little more than 100 years ago.
“With all of our boasting and scientific advancements, some little thing that nobody can see with the naked eye is bringing us to our knees,” Cymbala told Decision. “Hopefully not symbolically, but literally. This is the time for the church and believers to draw near to God.”
For 48 years, Cymbala has led this evangelical and multi-ethnic congregation in the most populous borough of New York City by encouraging Christians and ministry leaders to center their lives and ministries around seeking the Lord in prayer.
“There are a lot of things that need shaking, and I believe, and I hope and I pray that God uses this to get people serious about the ministry because it’s Christ’s church,” Cymbala says. “I never died for anyone. How in the world can I have a vision for Brooklyn Tabernacle, when I didn’t die for her? It’s His church. He says He would build His church, but it has to be built His way, for His glory, not Brooklyn Tabernacle’s glory or a brand-name glory. So, I think this is a sober moment for all of us.”
About 10 years into his pastorate at Brooklyn Tabernacle, Cymbala says, God convicted him to make prayer the barometer that guides the church and the engine that drives the church. In an era when weekly church prayer meetings are increasingly rare, Brooklyn Tabernacle has for decades been drawing more than 1,000 people every Tuesday night for several hours of intercession, lifting up prayer requests sent in from around the nation and the world. Specific prayer requests are printed on cards and distributed to those in attendance each week.
And while churches are practicing social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Brooklyn Tabernacle livestreams its Tuesday evening prayer service on their church website and makes video recordings available on demand. Before the church temporarily suspended its campus activities, 500 volunteers prayed in shifts at the church, 12 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the year. The prayer band members continue their vital ministry, now praying from their homes for requests that continue to pour in from all over the world.
“If God’s done anything through Brooklyn Tabernacle or helped us at all, I owe it all to Him responding to our prayers,” Cymbala says.
As the federal government prints more and more money to stave off an economic recession and scientists and drug manufacturers grapple to discover a vaccine or drug medley to eradicate COVID-19, Cymbala says he is praying the spread of the virus will cease and churches will recommit to the priority of prayer and Biblical teaching guided by the Holy Spirit.
“Right now, there are some very dangerous movements in the church—although attended with numerical success—which are very detrimental to the cause of Christ. It’s Christianity-lite,” Cymbala says. “We have learned how to do church without God, without the Holy Spirit.”
Cymbala says he hopes the temporary suspension of corporate worship will cause pastors and ministry leaders to re-evaluate narrowly scripted programs that seemingly leave no time or space for the Holy Spirit to move and work among the people gathered.
“When props are knocked away, you feel your need for the Lord more, and that’s what’s happening to us,” Cymbala says. “God is knocking away a lot of props that we’ve had that sometimes take us away from true communion with the Lord, real closeness with the Lord.”
Cymbala senses God might be using this unprecedented crisis to cause the church to draw nearer to Him in prayer, resulting in a sifting and purging of “stuff that shouldn’t be in our lives or churches.”
“We’ll come out of this stronger and more fervent, and maybe a little of the chaff will be separated from the wheat and the Christian church will be purified,” he says.
Prayerful for a revival in the pulpit, Cymbala says pastors need not shy away from speaking the truth in love by preaching what the Bible says about sin. “There’s a difference between clever communication and speaking as ‘oracles of God,’” he says.
Preaching that avoids the mention of sin for fear that people won’t return to your church is more focused on “attendance numbers rather than spiritual fruit,” Cymbala says. “Have them come back next week? OK, what if that person dies in a car accident? What if he dies from the coronavirus while you’re concerned about building numbers?”
Cymbala is excited to see churches partnering online and in their communities that might not otherwise come together but for the pandemic. “Territorial pride, brand pride, denominational pride, that has always been a curse on the church,” he says. “But when you’re on the front lines and you’re fighting a battle of life and death, nobody cares about your label anymore.”
Longing to be with his congregation at the church’s historic downtown Brooklyn theater location, Cymbala says “the closest thing to Heaven on Earth is a church filled with the love of God.”
“Looking out over a group of people representing every nation, every race, every ethnicity—African-American, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic—gives me the deepest joy I could ever experience, because it’s a foretaste of Heaven right here and now. They’re born again. They’re singing for the Lord.”
Photo: Courtesy of Jim Cymbala