A Place of Hope and Healing (Part 1)
Reflections on the Church as Hospital
In the past year, I’ve spent more time in and around hospitals and healthcare facilities than perhaps at any other point in my life. First came my bout with COVID this past summer, then came numerous visits to my orthopedic doctor to address some long-standing back problems, and, most recently, several emergent visits for an electrical problem with my heart. While hospitals are viewed in different ways by different people, for me, they’re still primarily places of healing: complexes intended to help people heal and stay healthy.
But hospitals are not the only places intended to be spaces of healing in our world. In fact, as prevalent as hospitals and healthcare facilities are (here in St. Louis, at least, they seem to be everywhere), there is another place of healing that is pretty common too: churches.
Churches are supposed to be like hospitals, somewhere we can go when we are sick and in need of healing. Churches are supposed to be places where people can get better when something ails us. Doubtless you have encountered the saying, “the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” (or something similar). While we are uncertain who first said that (it’s variously attributed to John Chrysostom, Abigail Van Buren, and, of course, Augustine), it persists as a common enough metaphor to be written about by Christians of many different denominational affiliations.
The Church was meant to be a hospital—not for physical illness, but for those with spiritual sickness. But what exactly does that mean?
A Scriptural Frame
Nowhere in scripture is the Church explicitly referred to as a hospital for the simple fact that the idea of a hospital—and indeed, the word hospital—did not exist at the time the Bible was written. It was actually Christians, living and writing inthe fourth century, who first talked about our concept of hospital: places where guests (hospes) could be cared for as they suffered (patior).
But even though scripture does not call the Church a hospital, the Christians who established hospitals believed that the work they were doing was a vital part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. They believed that an important part of what it meant to be the Church was to care for the sick. Why? In short, because when they looked at Jesus, they saw that healing was a key part of what He did. For example, right after Jesus healed a paralyzed man, Luke shares this story:
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes [the religious leaders of the day] grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And [this is key] Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.27-32)
For Christians throughout history, if Jesus came to heal the sick—both those who were physically sick and those who were spiritually sick—the Church should be doing the same thing. Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have consistently believed that the Church should be like a hospital, the Church was meant to be a place of healing.
The Church as a Place of Healing
Now, if the Church was meant to be a place of healing, that means a few things. It means we should not think of the Church as somewhere for pious, perfected people to gather together so they can retreat from the world of the sick sinners that surrounds them. No church I have ever belonged to has had any perfect, perfectly whole, unbroken people within it. Churches are full of people who need help. They are full of people who are sick. They are full of people who need prayer. I know this because I am broken and sick too. We are all in need of healing.
Look again at Jesus’ words: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus did not come for healthy people—He came for sick people, spiritually sick people. Jesus does not expect those who follow Him to be perfectly healthy—to the contrary, He knows they will be sick. And it is the Church that is meant to be the place where sick people can get better. In the words of pastor Carmille Akande, “[The Church] should be a place where those who are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually wounded can come.”
The Church should be a hospital for those who are sick, not just a place for healthy people, for people who have their lives together. The Church should be a place for those who are in rehab for diseases of the heart; a place for those who need physical therapy as they recover from the wounds of life; and a place for those who have themselves been recovering from sickness long enough to help others recover. If your view of faith is that Jesus is going to make you better so you can go and live your best life and never darken the doors of a hospital again, then the Church is not for you. Because the Church is a community of sickos being healed by the Great Physician. The Church was meant to be a hospital—the Church was meant to be a place of healing.
The Pain of Church Hurt
Now, unfortunately, many of us have had experiences where the Church has not been a place of healing. In fact, for far too many people, the very opposite has occurred: the Church has been a place of hurt and pain.
One of the very first churches that I worked at was such a place. I started serving at this church as youth pastor with high hopes, eager to work with teenagers and show them the love of God. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that this church was more interested in its reputation than with showing the love of Jesus. Teens who came to youth group looking different than the lifelong church kids could only mean trouble; and youth pastors who welcomed those kids were no different.
And so, quite unexpectedly one weekend, I was called into a committee meeting and raked over the coals for hours, berated for what we were doing and who we were doing it with. And the next night, the same thing happened. People who called themselves our friends turned on us, lashing out and attacking not only what we were doing but also who we were as people. And it hurt—it really, really hurt.
It hurt so bad that after I left that church, Hayley and I struggled to go to church again. We struggled to understand how people who claimed to be full of God’s love could be so full of hatred. We struggled to understand how God could let something so cruel happen to us while we were just trying to do the right thing. We struggled to see why on earth we should ever walk back into a church if the Church was filled with the possibility of so much pain.
If you’ve had an experience like this, if the Church has been a place of hurt rather than healing for you, I want to apologize. I’m sorry. I am sorry that we have put selfishness and pride ahead of selflessness and humility. I am sorry that people have gossiped about you and slandered your name under the name of “praying for you.” I am sorry that the Church has prioritized the money you give over your spiritual growth. I am sorry that we have elevated our preferences about service times or worship styles over the truth of the Gospel. I am sorry that the Church has made power and politics more important than showing love to one another. I am sorry. Because that is NOT what the Church was meant to be. The Church was meant to be a place of healing.