Your congregation can promote healing.

Health Ministry

in History and in Congregations

Christian Spirituality > Health in Congregational Life


Health was actually one of the things that helped the church grow. How?

Picture this : you're in a city of the first century AD Roman world. Except for a few buildings in public commons or wealthy houses and spas, there were no sewers -- unless you counted the narrow mud walks they considered roadways. There were no flush toilets. No refrigerators to keep food fresh. No air conditioning to keep you fresh. No plastic wraps to keep dust and vermin off the food. Soap, at least as we would recognize it today, wasn't always readily available. Rats, ticks, flies, and other disease-bearers were plentiful. Dead animals (including the human kind) were an everyday thing, leaving a ripe odor in the air much of the time. Intestinal worms were common. Water is kept in large jars or barrels which did not move, keeping the water stagnant so that, at normal temperatures, germs would breed in it. And more people keep coming in : trickle upon trickle, even wave after wave. If you've been in any of the shack cities around the major cities of Latin America, it's all too familiar -- but you couldn't tame it with modern medicine or modern packaging, for those did not exist. Plagues were common, sometimes killing as much as one-fifth of a city's population.

Now, drop into that scene the kind of Christianity that we see in Acts or in Paul's letters, or in some of the pagan Roman accounts of the Christians of their day, or slightly later on in the hospitals of Bishop Rabbula of Edessa (Syria) (420s AD). Watch on, as Christians :

  • turn over their income into a common pot to share with those who need it.
  • nurse people's infections and sores.
  • see to it that people were fed.
  • refuse to engage in social behaviors that made the health problems much worse.
  • bother to do the little things that make for a cleaner, healthier place.

These Christians' faith made them care enough to be responsible citizens in a putrid environment. Spiritual healing was not a separate thing from physical healing; all was God's reality. Their caring didn't make them immune from plague and disease (though their exposure to the germs of others may have made them more resistant, long-term). They didn't pretend that it was so. They just didn't let it defeat them. No one else could say that.

The Gathered Believers as a Hospital

What does this mean? The ancients who lived in the cities knew that their world was horrible, and even more so when they saw these Christians give them little glimpses of something much better. Thus, the supportive caring of the Christians became something people wanted to have. It could mean extra years onto their life, less disfigurement, more energy, and just feeling better all around. Starting from the time of Jesus' own ministry, it was the way of Christ's followers to go out to aid to those who needed it. (For instance, at the temple, in the streets, in nearby towns, and even traveling far away.) Most importantly, the caring was a consistent match to their message: a message of hope, of a strange sort of victory that even the sword could not achieve.

Health was certainly not the only thing Christianity had going for it. Not even close. But remember that Christianity first took hold in cities. The church, like its founder, was known for healing. It was a big part of the reason Christianity grew. Perhaps the same thing can be true today - but is it?

The Reformers and Health Care

The Church of the Middle Ages in Europe had taken into itself a large dose of the superstitions and magical notions of the pagan world it had defeated. The Protestant Reformers took dead aim at superstition, getting rid of the charms and amulets (objects which supposedly held or focused a spirit), spells (words or poetry said to hold magical power), and magi or wizards (those who were expert in the ways of magic and astrology) from the Church and the aspects of European life it controlled. [These are the very things that those of occultic and New Age beliefs try to bring back today; will they ever learn?] To the Reformers, the only rightful power in life was that of Christ, and the magic stuff held millions of people in the grasp of a few powerful tricksters in and out of the Church. The Catholic counter-reformers were also anti-superstition, and they too drove out most of their areas' magicians.

The Reformation had another effect on health matters that caused much grief in the short term, but made for better societies in the long haul. In the Middle Ages, many monasteries and convents provided basic healing and respite for the ill who lived nearby. By the Reformers' time, this monastic system's role in care-giving was fast eroding due to its own complexity, and due to the care-givers' lack of understanding and knowledge about health. City and feudal governments were already taking on a growing role in health issues, and private physicians were starting to develop standards of conduct. When the Reformation closed most of the monasteries and convents in their areas, the effect was much like it would be today if many of the nation's hospitals had to close. Many people were left with little health care at a time when there was much fear of plague. The reaction, also spurred on by the Reformers, was that congregations, cities, and private citizens, in the name of Christ and the common good, would have to take it upon themselves to create health care institutions which would have the duty of caring for all. As time went on, they invented or reinvented hospitals, sanitariums, clinics, and the family physician.

The Methodists in Britain did a lot of great things for the British public society in the 19th century. Most of these not only made Britain more just, but also made Britain healthier. By abolishing the slave trade, they abolished a barbarism that killed many of the people that it enslaved. By working to reform orphanages and workhouses, they put an end to child labor, torturous punishments, and filthy conditions. Once again, spiritual healing was one side of the same thing as physical and social healing. By the 20th century, secular versions of their ideas helped to create the social safety net for the poor found in most developed nations. In the United States, there was a different vision of 'public' being carried out, one which depended less on government action. Christians of all sorts, such as William Passavant, built health institutions all over the nation. Their vision stretched from the founding of hospitals and nursing homes back then to the founding of hospices and neighborhood clinics today. Even today, US Christians gather in such groups as Bread For the World to lobby for good government policies that help feed poor people and reduce poverty in the US and throughout the world.

There are some in the US who talk loudly about getting government off of everyone's backs. Some of these are in the Christian church. Given the bureaucratic maze of modern governance, there is much truth to their concern. Yet, the history of Christianity over the course of 2000 years has been a living testimony to a very different truth: that Christians can care enough to act together with each other, with non-Christians, and with the ruling authorities, to make all of our lives better on the matters that are most important to our being alive. The historic Christian role in health care is an example of this approach.
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Congregational Health Ministry

There are many ways for a congregation to have a health ministry. Few congregations have the size or the intensity of mission to do all of them, but any congregation can do some of them. How can a congregation develop a ministry of healing and wellness? Some ideas (among many):

  • By prayer chains and intercessory prayer cells, which keep the ill in prayer for as long as is needed;
  • By the laying on of hands, or anointing of the sick with oil by elders, deacons, and others who are commissioned or ordained. Especially during worship while others are communing, as part of the congregational prayers, or quietly after the service;
  • By visitation teams that give comfort and joy to those in supervised medical settings like nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospices;
  • By prayers during worship, and prayer-oriented special worship services for healing;
  • By holding the simple conviction that God answers prayer;
  • Through the Spirit's gifts of healing, given sovereignly by the Holy Spirit as needed;
  • By one-on-one private confession and absolution, the key step for inner healing;
  • Through support of community health services, such as hospices, social services centers, abortion-alternative services, abuse shelters, and clinics for the uninsured;
  • Through encouragement of preventative health care through exercise, education in first aid, heimlich, and CPR, and sign-ups for blood and organ donation;
  • Through the promotion of good personal health practices, such as eating good foods in moderation, keeping clean, brushing teeth, and discouragement of smoking and alcohol abuse;
  • Through choosing a qualified local Christian as the parish nurse, who has the task of teaching about health, spreading word about available health services, and making basic preventative care freely available in the congregation and neighborhood;
  • By creating an atmosphere where joy, laughter, and fitting celebration are a part of healthy normal living;
  • Through Stephen Ministers and other trained helpers;
  • By being home to support groups such as AA, Al-Anon, and Overeaters Anonymous;
  • By being home to fellowship groups for nurses, doctors, EMTs, and such; and to create drop-boxes, email boxes or message boards for them as a place where they can freely ask for prayer;
  • By supporting or setting up day care for working moms, or relief care services for those who are taking care of those with long-term illness at home.

The Congregation as a Healthy Place

This is a holistic approach. Let's go back to the origin of the word 'health'. The -th ending means 'that which has the quality or character of'. 'Health' comes from tacking that ending onto Old English *hál* (whole, hale). Thus, 'health' and 'holistic' are both about 'wholeness' and things that are 'wholesome'. That's a spiritual thing and not just a physical one, for if your soul is sick, what good is your perishable body's wholeness going to do for you -- except perhaps to buy you a sliver more time in which to heal your soul and get right with God? Health involves all aspects of physical life, when you are well as well as when you are ill. So a congregation which believes itself to be called to a 'healing/wellness/health ministry' needs to think thoroughly about what that really means.

If the church is to be a real place of healing, she must not abandon the healed ones, but stick with them, broadening their wholeness into the other aspects of their lives. Some churches have been known to cause miraculous healings or dramatic recoveries from life's deep pits, but many of the reportedly-healed eventually come to express a sense of being abandoned by the church. So after a while, they don't come back. No teaching of the faith. No continued prayer with the healed after the healing. No one to help them live a new way of life, which, as all Twelve-Step folks well know, is so important if they are to stay healthy. Is that what the gospel is about? Is that what's meant by a healing ministry?

Your Caring Counts

The action of faithful believers really counts. Think of the paralytic being lowered through the roof by his friends so they could bypass the crowds and get him to Jesus (Mark 2:1-13). Jesus marveled at their faith and their determination for their friend. Disease can make faith and hope harder to come by. The struggle is hard and can rip a person up inside. When that happens, the ill depend on the faith of other faithful people to pull them through.
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Health and Mission

There are some Christians who will read what I just wrote above, and say, "you give the miracle of healings and recoveries too small a role in a congregation's approach to health". Others, especially those who have come to distrust healing ministries because of all the lies done in their name, will read it and say, "why give an opening to such poppycock?" It is a part of a health ministry because Christ has given His followers the power to heal, through whatever means. Throughout the history of the church -- including today -- recovery of all sorts has come through the hands of His caring followers. It is just one part of a health ministry, because it is uncommon, because there is so much more we are empowered to do for our health, and because there are no guarantees regarding health from any source, except that in the end we all still die and if there is to be anything past that we must turn to the God who made life. But if it is there at all, I have no right at all to disavow it, even if I felt it was necessary to do so (which I don't).

Throughout its history, the Christian faith's approach has been holistic, but has always included miracle recoveries and strange healings. A good example of this is Gregory Thaumaturgos (218-270 AD), a top student of Origen's who became bishop of his hometown of Pontus (in modern Turkey). He had a wide range of gifts, leading people to the faith using his family's high social status, his strong education and ability to teach, his visible concern for everyone in the Pontus area, and miracles of healing. By the time he died, he had led almost everyone in his small city to the Christian faith. The epithet 'Thaumaturgos' means 'miracle-worker'. There was a power behind his actions that left a strong imprint on anyone who saw him operate.

Give Honor to Health Ministers

When someone -- anyone -- commits themselves to a part -- any part -- of a health ministry, they need the open support of their congregation. One way to do that is by commissioning them at a worship service. The format's simple: present them before the congregation by name, specify the role or roles, have the congregation pray for their health and faith, and for the Spirit's empowerment in the health ministry, and have the chief ordained minister speak a blessing over them and their health ministry on behalf of the universal Church. That last part may include anointing them with oil and/or a laying on of hands, perhaps in the form of a huddle of prayer over them. Then, they and the whole congregation pray for the healing of those to whom the new servants will be ministering.

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Recap on Health

The most important thing to remember is that we live in a sadly broken world, a world which is simply unable to finally heal itself and set itself right. Yet, there are all sorts of signs going on in this world that there is something that is working at bringing about that world's complete health. And what signs does God give us?

  • The life, death and resurrection of Christ -- God is with us. This deed of God is the root form of all other healthful deeds of God, for through it God healed all that exists. Jesus had actually refused to be healed. He did not jump off the cross, stop bleeding, regenerate his damaged organs, and then start dancing around Golgotha, shaking hands and speechifying. Instead, he let the damage do its worst -- he died. Only then did God act, so that unhealth and death were no longer the final words for the living. The only way past death was through it. Even after going through it, Jesus still bore the slash in his side and the holes below his wrists, as marks of the journey.
  • It is God who gave human beings the skills and gifts to heal each other.
  • Even while we are ill, we can grow in the Spirit. Sometimes, a physical illness or damage can be turned in a positive way. Even if the illness itself isn't made into a positive, at least positive things can flow from it, in learning about oneself, discovering humility, learning how to care and how to want to help. More than anything else, illness makes it a lot easier to understand what's true all the time even for healthy people: there's ultimately nowhere else to turn but to God. (More on that elsewhere on this site.)
  • There is so much actual health in this world. There is a reason why everyone is not usually suffering from grave illness, and why most of us are well enough to keep going.

God doesn't want us to be ill. God does not want us to want to be ill. God wants us to be healthy. God wants us to want to be healthy. When a Christian says that illness can deepen faith or teach important lessons, it is not the same as saying that we should go out and get ill so we can learn those lessons. When inner growth happens, it is not the illness itself that does it. It is the Spirit who does it -- the same God who makes a way out of no way, the God that makes good come from bad and life from death. It's not the illness or even the sick person that merits our greatest attention; it is Jesus the Healer who merits it. This is true even if there is no recovery.

Health is not a right. It's a favor and a gift of grace from God, and even a constant miracle, for which we are to thank the One who gives us health now and full wholeness in a time yet to come.

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Other Links on Health and Healing:

Depression, treated holistically
a reply on lack of healing
on suffering
on death and dying
Quotes and Questions on health, healing, and recovery

Some pages for following up on this page :


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ver.: 22 May 2012
Christians and Wellness Ministry. Copyright © 2000-2012 by Robert Longman.