Several times each year, our church has its Sunday evening worship service with other area churches. Before the service, we greet old friends in the parking lot and squeeze together in the quickly-filling sanctuary. Meeting in a place that a recent study called “the most post-Christian city in America” our combined assembly is not particularly large, but it is always immensely encouraging.
Week-by-week, vastly outnumbered by our avowedly-secular neighbors, our individual churches can sometimes seem like minor oddities. But, every few months, for two hours on a Sunday evening, these scattered congregations gather. We sing together, pray together, confess our faith together, receive the Word together, and fellowship together. Together, we affirm that, though each local church may appear weak and solitary, we have never been—and will never be!—alone.
In the book of Acts, when Luke reports on the earliest spread of the gospel, he describes it as the growth of a single church: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). Congregations assembled for worship in various locations in Judea and Galilee and Samaria. They were unique groups of specific people under the care of particular elders. But, seen together through the lens of Christ’s great redeeming work, they were “the church.”
In our local congregations, we are not just a few or a few hundred; we are part of something much, much bigger. We are part of the church.
As Presbyterians, our structure of government acknowledges our connection with other churches. Our system of church courts—the presbytery and general assembly—officially affirms that our local congregations belong to one another and have responsibilities toward each other. But even Presbyterians don’t always do a good job of living out the robust inter-church relationships our polity is meant to promote.
If our local churches are one—and they are!—this should have practical implications for everyone in the pews. Consider three ways to love other churches in your city or state:
Passing kingdom news from one church to another—whether as an official report or a grocery-store-aisle exchange between members—is a vital practice. In these moments, we tell one another about the work of God in our midst and affirm our commitment to one another’s spiritual health. Paul frequently passed information from one church to another, sending his reports by the hand of a trusted messenger (e.g. Eph. 6:21-22, Col. 4:7-9). This wasn’t a mere formality; his letter to the Thessalonian church demonstrates the spirit in which we should seek and receive such information: “When I could bear it no longer, I sent to hear about your faith” (1 Thess. 3:5). Paul wasn’t dozing through the church reports; he was desperate for them.
Then, having heard good news about the Thessalonians’ progress in faith, Paul overflowed in love (v. 6), received comfort (v. 7), thanked God (v. 9), expressed joy (v. 9), and prayed for them “night and day” (v. 10).
We, too, should take great interest in the faith of churches near and far. We should ask members how their congregations are doing; we should encourage our elders as they meet with elders from other churches; we should receive email reports from churches around the world with a sense of urgent expectation. We should rejoice and give thanks to God when we hear good news about other churches. This is not just any news. This is news of Christ’s work in the world and among his beloved people. It heartens us, strengthens us, and moves us to pray. It is news of the greatest significance.
The information we know about other churches ought to prompt our supplications on their behalf. “From the day we heard,” wrote Paul to the Colossian church, “we have not ceased to pray for you” (1:9). Elsewhere, Paul urged the Ephesian church to persevere in prayer for “all the saints.” (6:18).
All of the things we pray for our own congregation, we ought to pray for the churches with whom we have communion. During Sunday worship services or in a mid-week prayer meeting, we can pray for their gospel proclamation (2 Thess. 3:1), spiritual maturity (Col. 1:9-14), and ministry and missions (Matt. 9:37-38).
We also ought to pray for churches in crisis. The writer to the Hebrews urges: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (13:3). When we hear that other churches are facing persecution, mistreatment, or attacks from the Evil One, we ought to pray for them as a congregation—not just occasionally or casually but “as though in prison with them.” This prayerful communion among churches is rooted in our real, spiritual communion; we pray for them “since [we] also are in the body.”
On our knees as a church, we lift up other churches. We “rejoice with those who rejoice,” “weep with those who weep,” and “bear one another’s burdens” (Rom. 12:15; Gal. 6:2). In prayer, our churches come together before the throne of God.
Our spiritual concern for one another overflows into practical assistance. Paul urged the Corinthian church to make a “willing gift” for the relief of the poverty-stricken churches in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 9:5; cf. Rom. 15:25-26). When we hear that other churches have experienced natural disasters, famine, or loss of resources, we ought to “[overflow] in a wealth of generosity” (2 Cor. 8:2) toward their congregations.
By giving, we sacrifice our own church’s comfort in order to help Christ’s suffering people, affirming that we are one in Christ. In this act, we conform to the image of Christ our head, who “though he was rich” yet for the sake of the church “became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9).
We also read about another kind of cross-church contribution in the New Testament. Frequently, local churches willingly gave up workers from their churches to serve the needs of other congregations. In the book of Acts, Barnabas brought Saul (later, Paul) from Tarsus to Antioch because the newborn church in Antioch needed help, and “for a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people” (11:26). Later, Paul sent Timothy from Corinth to Thessalonica to help the struggling church by ministering the Word to them for a period of time (1 Thess. 3:2).
At times, we too may send some of our members to a newly-planted church that needs mature believers; we may send our elders to assist a church without shepherds; we may send our pastor to preach to a congregation that does not have one. These corporate self-denials are not in vain. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (13:16).
Our local churches are united in Christ. Let’s take every opportunity to love one another.
This article is adapted from A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church and is used here by permission.
About the Author:
Megan Hill is the author of three books, including A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church, which released in May. A PCA pastor’s wife and pastor’s daughter, she serves as an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Massachusetts where she belongs to West Springfield Covenant Community Church.