I came to faith in Jesus at 16 and studied Scripture for 20 years, but it wasn’t until I launched Meet The Need 20 years ago (yes, I’m 56 now) that I understood what a church really is, what discipleship means, and how to help the poor. It also took working with thousands of churches and ministries over 2 decades to realize how pervasive and intrinsic the topic of health is in the Gospel, the ministry of Jesus, and the history of the Church. Since the Fall of man inaugurated illness and death, God in His infinite love has been executing His plan for reconciliation and restoration. He will eventually not only restore our bodies to perfect health, putting an end to illness and death, but will heal the spiritual and mental health challenges that are so evident in our world today.
Jesus could have chosen any way to demonstrate His power – any miracles to show His love – but He chose healing and feeding. Health is our greatest concern. Nothing stops us in our tracks like pain and disease. The instant we get in an accident or receive a dire diagnosis, all of our seemingly significant problems suddenly fade into the background. Nothing brings us more joy than healing – physical, spiritual, and psychological. Restoration to health directly and dramatically affects us like nothing else can. Imagine taking your first deep breath in weeks following COVID-19 or getting word from doctors that you’re in remission or cancer free.
The Old Testament foretold that Jesus, the Great Physician, would one day take our infirmities and carry away our diseases, a uniquely encouraging prophecy. No act of compassion is more intimate and impactful than the touch of a healing hand. Consider the ripple effect of Jesus violating social distancing laws and touching the leper. Consider the “word of mouth” effect of the thousands Jesus fed telling everyone they knew how a few fish and loaves filled all of their bellies. It’s no wonder Jesus referenced food so frequently in His messages to those who were physically and spiritually hungry – “eat my flesh”, “bread of life”, “shall never thirst”.
Meet The Need follows suit and focuses much of our efforts on feeding and healing. We’ve partnered with Feeding America for 9 years to build the world’s largest food rescue network, redirecting over 3 billion pounds of food before it goes to waste to shelters and agencies who feed the poor. We’ve also helped Tampa Port Ministries connect with the University of South Florida College of Nursing to provide a more personal service to sailors than it ever had before – health care. That port-based clinic may be the first of its kind in the world – long overdue given the duration seafarers are on ships.
Since its inception, the Church was instrumental in the provision of health care services. Jesus’ gave His disciples the power to heal, before and after His ascension. Early believers risked their lives to care for their oppressors in Rome suffering from the plague. The first hospitals originated from distinctly Christian principles like charity, dignity, and healing – and most were founded by churches. Yet few churches today are integrally involved in providing health care or regularly feeding the hungry, which (ironically) has significantly diminished the Church’s own “health”. Church “health” is a frequent topic in pastor publications and conferences, but few assess their own churches’ “health” biblically.
It took years in full-time ministry to realize that how churches measure their “health” determines how people in those communities assess their “health”, which in turn dictates our nation’s “health”. To the extent that churches focus on numerical rather than spiritual growth, their members and those in their circles of influence are more likely to adopt self-centered views of their welfare as well. The healing and restoration that our nation needs right now hinge largely on whether pastors will revert to Kingdom-centric measures of congregational, community, and (big “C”) Church “health”.
Church Health Crisis
Churches underperform on “health” metrics they track (e.g. attendance, growth, giving, programs, volunteers, facilities) when they don’t pay close enough attention to what they should be tracking:
- Nutrition – No longer positioning church as a “hospital for sinners”, which casts members as patients served by doctors rather than medical staff trained to treat others.
- Fitness – Making disciples who’ve essentially attended “medical school”, taken the proverbial Hippocratic Oath, and are fully committed to doing the Lord’s will no matter what that entails.
- Medical Missions – Deploying churchgoers into neighborhoods and workplaces, equipping them with medical instruments provided by Scripture and the Holy Spirit.
- Healing – Offering vital services to those suffering, not just spiritually but psychologically and emotionally, recognizing only Jesus offers true, enduring hope.
- Triage – Resuming a role on the front lines of poverty alleviation since only churches are ideally suited for short-term Relief as well as long-term Rehabilitation and Development.
- Hunger Relief – Serving food insecure families and walking alongside them as they navigate the road to a brighter future, demonstrating the Father’s love the way Jesus did.
- Home Health Care – Doing a better job of preparing members to make “house calls” during the next pandemic because most chose self-preservation over self-sacrifice during COVID.
- Pro Bono – Only expecting members to be as generous in giving to the church as that church is in giving to those in desperate need of a cure for loneliness and hopelessness.
As churches have gradually outsourced the Great Commission over the past few decades, Americans and our nation as a whole have increasingly experienced a mental and spiritual health crisis that exceeds the damage from any physical ailments. Once churches changed their definition of the “customer” from those outside the “4 walls” to those in the pews, their measurement and incentive structures shifted from equipping and sending disciples to attracting and retaining members. Consequently, the “health” of churches and our country has declined as the (discipleship and compassion) expectations of churchgoers diminished and the (performance and program) demands placed on pastors skyrocketed.
Personal Health Crisis
It’s no coincidence that church “health” metrics that favored building institutions over making disciples precipitated a correspondingly self-interested view by Christians of their own spiritual and mental “health”:
- “Blessed” – Success and wealth became seen as the Lord’s reward for “good” works
- “Favor” – Absence or escape from trouble became signs of God’s preferential treatment
- Consumption – Shopping for the best church experience became normalized
- Recognition – “Church chores” became expectant and deserving of acknowledgement
- Sin – Obedience to God’s laws clearly spelled out in Scripture became optional
- Surrender – Cultural Christianity, in name only, became acceptable for church attenders
- Sanctification – Holiness became something acquired at conversion, not a process
That self-oriented view of faith focuses primarily on what God can do for us and our welfare in this life. It fails to worship God as He deserves through our submission to His will and service to Him at any cost. Those lower standards churches and Christians began to use to evaluate their “health” filtered over into the rest of our culture. Studies of “flourishing” rarely assess an individual’s impact on the “health” of the community or world, but simply record personal views of one’s own happiness, virtue, character, and life satisfaction. As a result of our society’s accelerating detachment from Christ and grounding in Christian values, those measures of “health” (happiness, virtue, character, and life satisfaction) are nearing unprecedented lows.
National Health Crisis
America’s spiritual and mental health crises are primarily attributable to the Church’s health crisis. The growing contingent of “Dones” (with church) may not have walked away from God, but have rejected “Church as We Know It”, which redefines “church” (as a place and pastors, not people) and its “customers” (as members, not those who don’t know Jesus). A brief glance at the news shows how far and how fast a society untethered from the Father can fall. Our culture measures “health” today in self-centered terms reflective of the shift churches and Christians made toward emphasizing the benefits of faith rather than the costs of discipleship – religion over relationship:
- Happiness – The ultimate objective and excuse for hedonism
- Tolerance – The consummate, strictly enforced virtue, justifying deviance
- Freedom – Escape from the oppression and suppression of Christianity
- Activism – Realization of meaning and purpose in fighting for a cause
- Justice – Seeing human nature as inherently good, so even criminals are victims
- Charity – Defining poverty as material, not spiritual or psychological, fueling hand-outs
- Independence – Not allowing anyone to tell us who we are or what we should do
- Equality – Noble, yet twisted to negate the differences in God’s perfect design
- Control – Doing whatever we want with our bodies (which in actuality don’t belong to us)
While some of those may appear innocuous, the outcome of assessing America’s “health” based on self-aggrandizing metrics are rampant depression, suicides, substance abuse, isolation, crime, division, and hatred. We’re reaping exactly what we’ve sown by teaching children that they are cosmic accidents, giving fallible humans authority to determine “truth”, instituting policies that break apart families, and positioning government (not Jesus) as savior.
It’s Your Turn
Do you see the connection between Church “health” and America’s “health”? How can you be part of what God is doing to bring healing and restoration to congregations and communities?