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A Mandate for Church-based Health Ministries

by F. Dale Leamon
Senior Pastor
Battle Creek Tabernacle

Should a local church try to carry on a significant health ministry?

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Seventh-day Adventists have been involved in health ministries since the 1860s. Today these ministries range from the large clinical institutions associated with our churches in a few places such as Glendale, California and Hinsdale, Illinois to the simple cooking school or smoking cessation class offered in many local churches. Between these two poles are several options that have proven effective evangelistically. These options include progressively more intense programs such as ongoing lifestyle support classes, health clubs (involving exercise and a supplied diet), food outlets, and medically-supervised lifestyle health centers.

The primary goal of every Seventh-day Adventist health ministry is evangelistic. To my knowledge no Adventist health program proselytizes directly, but it is the goal of all such endeavors to carry on the work of Christ in reducing physical suffering. This opens hearts to the Bible-based Adventist message. While many Christian denominations sponsor charitable work such as hospitals and clinics, the Seventh-day Adventist health ministry is more closely tied to its theology and mission than is that of other denominations.1

End-Time Mission. Adventists see themselves as an end-time community. Their central mission is to restore to the world a right concept of God, leading people to a transforming relationship with Him in preparation for the judgment of the living and the end of the world.

Health ministry is an essential part of Adventists’ mission, because it reveals God’s character as healing rather than condemning, underscores the Bible’s reliability, and demonstrates the value of obedience. As health seekers are led to trust and obey the laws of their physical being as found in Scripture, they may more readily come to understand that all of God’s laws are the indispensable path to “life at its best” and that obeying them is a gift of restoration to the Divine image.

Chief Proponent. The first and most persuasive proponent of health evangelism among Adventists is Ellen White. She urged, “In the preparation of a people for the Lord’s second coming a great work is to be accomplished through the promulgation of health principles. The people are to be instructed in regard to the needs of the physical organism and the value of healthful living as taught in the Scriptures, that the bodies which God has created may be presented to Him a living sacrifice, fitted to render Him acceptable service. There is a great work to be done for suffering humanity in relieving their sufferings by the use of the natural agencies that God has provided and in teaching them how to prevent sickness by the regulation of the appetites and passions. The people should be taught that transgression of the laws of nature is transgression of the laws of God. They should be taught the truth in physical as well as in spiritual lines that ‘the fear of the Lord tendeth to life.’ Proverbs 19:23. ‘If thou wilt enter into life,’ Christ says, ‘keep the commandments.’ Matthew 19:17” (Testimonies for the Church, 6:224, 225).

We have yet fully to adopt her vision of the scope and importance of this work. We quote her at length on the specifics of a biblical lifestyle (as featured in Genesis 1 and 2 and in Daniel 1) and on the urgency of offering health education to the public, but we have largely overlooked her concept of a healing ministry’s relation to the local church. “In every city where we have a church . . . [a] place should be provided where treatment may be given for common ailments. . . . These, skillfully employed, would prove a blessing not only to our people, but to their neighbors, and might be the means of calling the attention of many to health principles” (ibid., p. 113).

Local Church’s Obligation. Seventh-day Adventists have a unique sense of obligation with regard to community health. This obligation falls more upon the local congregation than upon the denomination. The idea of the local church as the center of the Seventh-day Adventist ministry of healing seems new even though it has been with us for more than a century.

Large, semi-independent institutions near major urban centers are flagships of the Adventist health ministry, but they are not ideally suited to carry out the evangelistic goal of the church’s health program. In most cases, their very size makes their service too impersonal to achieve an evangelistic purpose, though thanks to the loving efforts of many Seventh-day Adventist professionals, they do bear some spiritual fruit.

Small, independently-operated rural institutions, while producing some converts, also have difficulty fulfilling the evangelistic component of the Seventh-day Adventist health ministry in that they often seem disconnected from the main body of the church. Wouldn’t a local-church-based healing ministry best serve the central purpose?

The obvious reason why connecting health ministry to the local church makes sense is because the local church is the main evangelizing entity. The local congregation preaches, teaches and witnesses about the character of God. The local congregation receives converts into its fellowship and is best equipped to support new believers.

Our History. It should not seem revolutionary to connect health ministry with the local church. Our churches have been sharing health principles with the community for more than a century. As an example of what local churches were doing nearly a hundred years ago, consider this account from Mrs. White:

“During the past few years, the ‘beehive’ in San Francisco has been indeed a busy one. Many lines of Christian effort have been carried forward by our brethren and sisters there. These included visiting the sick and destitute, finding homes for orphans, and work for the unemployed; nursing the sick, and teaching the truth from house to house; the distribution of literature, and the conducting of classes on healthful living and the care of the sick. A school for the children has been conducted in the basement of the Laguna Street meeting-house. For a time a working men’s home and medical mission was maintained. On Market Street, near the city hall, there were treatment rooms, operated as a branch of the St. Helena Sanitarium. In the same locality was a health food store. Nearer the center of the city, not far from the Call building, was conducted a vegetarian cafe, which was open six days in the week, and entirely closed on the Sabbath. Along the water front, ship mission work was carried on. At various times our ministers conducted meetings in large halls in the city. Thus the warning message was given by many” (Review and Herald, July 5, 1906).

Healing Centers. The vision of Ellen White in this regard, while not new, does seem revolutionary because in recent memory we have seen so little of it implemented. Following her counsel would make our churches into healing centers where members of the community would naturally turn for help with the most common diseases.

Note this description from The Ministry of Healing, which encourages training in both evangelistic and health work for the local church: “Every church should be a training school for Christian workers. Its members should be taught how to give Bible readings, how to conduct and teach Sabbath-school classes, how best to help the poor and to care for the sick, how to work for the unconverted. There should be schools of health, cooking schools, and classes in various lines of Christian help work. There should not only be teaching, but actual work under experienced instructors. Let the teachers lead the way in working among the people, and others, uniting with them, will learn from their example. One example is worth more than many precepts” (p. 149).

While diagnosis and specific treatment may not legally be carried out without medical supervision, Ellen White recommended that churches be involved in both preventing disease and healing it through the intensive application of the biblical lifestyle. For example, she wrote, “In the cities this work of instruction may be carried forward on a much larger scale than in smaller places. But in every place where there is a church, instruction should be given in regard to the preparation of simple, wholesome foods for the use of those who wish to live in accordance with the principles of health. And the church-members should impart to the people of their neighborhoods the light they receive on this subject” (Gospel Workers, p. 362).

Door Openers. Mrs. White also counseled that churches with trained physicians on hand should set up treatment centers: “Sanitariums and treatment-rooms should be established in many places. These will open doors for the entrance of Bible truth” (Review and Herald, September 10, 1908). In all of this work she insisted that churches follow a lifestyle approach to healing rather than the traditional medical approach, since only the lifestyle approach can impress the patient with the unique Adventist adherence to biblical principle. Listen to her call to do a Christ-like ministry:

“Christ is no longer in this world in person, to go through our cities and towns and villages healing the sick. He has commissioned us to carry forward the medical missionary work that He began; and in this work we are to do our very best. Institutions for the care of the sick are to be established, where men and women may be placed under the care of God-fearing medical missionaries, and be treated without drugs. To these institutions will come those who have brought disease on themselves by improper habits of eating and drinking. These are to be taught the principles of healthful living. They are to be taught the value of self-denial and self-restraint. They are to be provided with a simple, wholesome, palatable diet, and are to be cared for by wise physicians and nurses” (ibid.).

“In these institutions the sick may be taught to commit their cases to the Great Physician, who will co-operate with their earnest efforts to regain health, bringing to them healing of soul as well as healing of body” (Testimonies for the Church, 9:167, 168).

This fidelity to Bible principles that Mrs. White called for is what establishes the authority of the Seventh-day Adventist message and makes evangelism effective.

Current Experiments. Several churches in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists are presently experimenting with this expanded vision of church-based health ministry. The main intent is to establish the church as a healing center as much as possible. The degree to which these churches can become institutions for healing will depend on the facilities and personnel available to the congregation.

Prominent features of this concept are:

  • The establishment of an identifiable, permanent health ministry by the local church that will become well known in the community.
  • The operation of a facility for health-related services that is either physically connected to the local Seventh-day Adventist church or easily identified with it.
  • The offering of both preventive care and restored health through immune-system-enhancing lifestyle education and support. Clients and patients will understand that the effective therapy is a “biblical lifestyle.”
  • Operation of the ministry on a fee-for-service basis so that workers can be hired.
  • The direct involvement of the pastor or other qualified church members with the clients/patients in lifestyle instruction and in making the holistic connection with spiritual/emotional factors.
  • The gentle but systematic invitation to health clients to acquaint themselves with additional life-giving Bible truth.

    According to this model, the local church’s objective is to go as far toward establishing and institutionalizing its health ministry as it can with the resources and personnel it has. In ministering to such genuine human needs, the church’s goal for health outreach is to become well known in the community as a center of good health and overall well-being. So it is helpful to achieve the highest profile possible for its ministries. Four possible levels of community health service are represented by the pyramidal chart on the next page.

    Motivation. Why would any given church be motivated to invest so heavily in health ministries? Speaking from experience, I would offer the following reasons.

    1. Giving new life to the sick complements the gospel presentation theologically and practically.
    2. The counsel of Ellen White mandates health education and a healing ministry as an essential partner with the three angels’ messages.
    3. Churches which offer need-based health ministries as part of a well-rounded church growth program do grow (see Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development).
    4. Churches which offer health ministries are themselves healthier physically and spiritually (providing they avoid the pitfall of fanaticism).
    5. There is no better way to overcome the view of our church as a cult than to draw near to sick people in Christ-like concern for their health, pointing them to the Bible as the source of all truth and life.

    “The human family is suffering because of transgression of the laws of God. The Lord desires that men shall be led to understand the cause of their suffering and the only way to find relief. He desires them to see that their well-being—physical, mental, and moral—depends upon their obedience to His law. It is His purpose that our institutions shall be as object lessons showing the results of obedience to right principles” (Testimonies for the Church, 6:224).

    “Christ co-operates with those who engage in medical missionary work. . . . Those who visit these institutions [sanitariums and treatment rooms] will be benefited physically, mentally, and spiritually—the weary will be refreshed, the sick restored to health, the sin-burdened relieved. . . . [F]rom those whose hearts are by these agencies turned from the service of sin unto righteousness, will be heard thanksgiving and the voice of melody. By their songs of grateful praise a testimony will be borne that will win others to allegiance to and fellowship with Christ” (ibid., 7:50, 51).

    Wouldn’t you like to have such an experience in your church?


    NOTES

    1 There is not room here to discuss the “faith” healing and “mind” healing alternatives practiced in some Christian communities. Adventists accept the reality of miraculous healing as a divine alternative but believe that God’s end-time preference is to teach people the benefits of adherence to His word by giving health to those who try to identify and follow the laws of health.

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