Beyond Reform

Three Ways to Transform Health Care without Dividing the Church

by Scott Morris

The current climate around health care ensures that the topic remains front and center on the stage of public debate. Both polarities of the political spectrum claim to have fair and reasonable approaches, but dissatisfaction with those answers raises the issue of whether anyone is asking the right questions—including the church.

The church should be concerned about health care. Why? The simple answer is, of course, because Jesus was. Jesus healed. Sick people came to him in droves and he exhausted himself with a healing ministry as much as a preaching ministry. When Jesus sent the first disciples out in pairs, he said, “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). Jesus sent them not only to preach the kingdom of God, but also to heal as a demonstration of the kingdom. Healing is as much a part of the gospel message today as it was in the first century. Jesus hasn’t changed.

Unfortunately, most Christians have little to say about the role the church should be playing in our great national debate about health and health care. Part of the reason for this silence is the way the legislation under scrutiny has been framed. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act primarily is about restructuring the means to pay for our current health care system. That system does, indeed, have little to do with the church. But the church can be a voice that brings the conversation back to talking about improved health outcomes, rather than how to pay for a broken system. I suggest three ways the church today can position itself to speak with a clear voice on the subject of health care.

1. REGAIN THE BODY

Our bodies are a gift from God, not the purview of science with nothing to do with theology. God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life, “and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). We cannot separate the body from the spirit. God’s grace comes to us in physical, visceral ways and our experiences as flesh and blood are God-given blessings. In honoring our bodies, we honor God.

Churches have the potential to be powerhouses of life-giving community. In this country we believe that no matter what we do to our bodies doctors can use technology to fix them when they break, or when we break them. Unfortunately, the technology is not always that good and the doctor is not always that smart. God gave us our bodies for a reason, and we have an obligation to care for them. Daily life is full of choices that soon enough become habits. Congregational life is full of traditions we soon enough stop questioning. The church has an opportunity to come alongside individuals in changing habits and decision patterns. Imagine what might happen if churches began to ask, “Is this program—this tradition, this snack, this meal—helping people live healthy lives as God intends, or is it a stumbling block to their efforts?” We must reclaim the health of the body as a priority of life as God intends, rather than the life our culture delivers.

2. RETHINK PREVENTION

The hospitals of history already have succumbed to the economic survival of the fittest model. Hospitals all over the country retain church names but no longer belong to denominations. But what about a new model? Advocate for prevention in your congregation, in the sub-communities and neighborhoods around you, in your denomination. Participate in prevention activities. Invest in faith community nurses. Budget for ministries that keep people well in all the dimensions of their lives. Get involved in community movements that can improve the socio-economic indicators of poverty at the local level. Washington cannot do this. Not even your state capital can do this. It takes people who care about your congregation, community and city.

The institutional church has wrestled throughout the centuries with how to remain relevant and faithful at the same time. The health care challenge our nation faces is yet another example of a dimension of life where the church must wrestle hard. Revitalization of the church will not come from more bad Christian rock music, but it may indeed come from creative, active, effective health ministries in churches all over this country. The Church Health Reader is designed to help churches begin true health ministries at a grassroots level and in the process show the country what healthy living looks like.

3. RECLAIM DEATH

Yes, claim death. We, as the people of God, have not spoken up about how we understand the end of life. We have allowed a relentless application of technology to prolong life at all costs. Too many people spend the last two weeks of life in intensive care with tubes stuck down their throats and separated from people who love them. This is immoral.

Death is not the enemy. Christians should be the first ones to embrace this truth. Death is part of the very human existence that God’s own Son shared with us. Jesus experienced death and then conquered death in the resurrection. Paul preached that believers will share in Christ’s resurrection. Death does not have the last word. Christians believe this, but it is hard to see in our actions. How to die well is a conversation most of us avoid having on an individual level, much less a national level. Legislation that does not ask the right questions will not take us to the right answers. We must ask hard questions. The church must keep the door to conversation open, rather than slam it shut when the answers are not black and white. We must be leaders of continued dialog in end-of-life issues and lead a public discussion about our addiction to technology and where it takes us.

Can the church solve the great social crisis of health care in America in its entirety? No. Not this year. Not by itself. But the church can answer the call to be faithful to its own mission of caring for the bodies God has given us and reaching out to the poor with the healing compassion of Jesus. If the church did this, one congregation at a time, the impact on national health might surprise us all.

The cost of discipleship is never cheap. Neither is the cost of health care in America. But when the church focuses on issues of health, it shines light on the path to the kingdom of God.

How can churches be involved in faith-based health care ministry?

  1. As a congregation, support the organizations providing quality health care to underserved populations.
  2. Explore growing movements, such as faith community nursing, that can help contain skyrocketing costs of health care by intervening to support preventive efforts and keep people healthy before neglect causes disastrous outcomes.
  3. Develop church health promoters—people in the congregation trained to recognize common health risks, such as diabetes, poor heart health, and lack of prenatal care, and persuasively speak into those situations to encourage change.
  4. Plan ways to touch the community with activities that promote healthy living such as gardens, sports teams, support groups, nutritious meals or walking groups.

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