The Body of Christ as health care disrupter

By Mark Blocher  ·  Jul 21, 2023

Second in a series.

In part one of this series, I issued a call to the Christian community to create a parallel health care system that empowers Christian medical professionals and their patients to truly redeem health care. This is a vision of health care that goes beyond Christians sharing one another’s medical expenses. Although health care expense sharing is a virtuous component of Christian medical stewardship, it is not enough to redeem health care. Practically speaking, we cannot control health care costs until we control the delivery of health care services. Apart from this, rising health care costs will force sharing ministries to constantly increase their members’ Share amounts, jeopardizing the ministries’ long-term sustainability.

An audacious idea

Most Christians likely have never given any thought to their church being involved in their health care. Who would ever think of getting medical care under the auspices of a local church? It seems like an audacious, even laughable, idea, but perhaps it’s not as strange as we might think, especially when we take a hard look at where American medicine is headed.

Bloated bureaucracies, overpaid hospital administrators, money-hungry insurers, and overreaching regulators are just a few of the problems plaguing modern medicine. Add to this the steady decline in respect for the sanctity of human life, the medicalization of sin, and the rising animosity toward Christian medical professionals. Our current predicament requires us to rethink our relationship with the American health care system and to rethink the Church’s role in redeeming health care. I provide a number of reasons for saying this in part one of this series, in my book Missional Medicine: Restoring the Soul of Healthcare, and in this article, where I discuss eight reasons to integrate health care into the ministry of the local church.

I believe God has already supplied the Body of Christ with the personnel and resources necessary to change the way health care is delivered and how it is funded. That claim is likely to evoke significant pushback, especially when we consider the $4.5 trillion Americans spend each year on health care, the gleaming modern medical facilities, and sophisticated medical machines. How can we compete with that?

We compete by focusing on patients and their needs, not payments. We compete by focusing on wellness, not disease management. We compete by becoming more strategic stewards of the resources God has provided, which includes our church buildings.

Just because America spends more money on health care than any other industrialized country doesn’t mean it is money well spent. It isn’t. We pay too much and receive too little. Every year we pay more for less access, efficiency, quality, and affordability. At the same time, Christian doctors increasingly find themselves struggling to represent Christ to their patients amid the frustration of working within a dysfunctional system that doesn’t care much for their Christian values.

A better system

We must create a system that better utilizes the gifts and expertise of Christian medical professionals and exercises better stewardship of the resources God entrusts to us as patients.

On a recent weekday road trip from my home in Michigan to a Samaritan Board of Directors meeting in Peoria, Illinois, I took note of the large number of churches along my route. I also counted the cars in the church parking lots. Many beautiful church buildings, and very few, if any, cars in the parking lots. Do you see a stewardship issue? What if those parking lots were filled with people getting distinctively Christian medical care?

I believe God has already supplied the Body of Christ with the personnel and resources necessary to change the way health care is delivered and how it is funded. That claim is likely to evoke significant pushback, especially when we consider the $4.5 trillion Americans spend each year on health care.

We don’t have to build a lot of new facilities to start building a Christian health care system. We already have facilities in nearly every community and every state. We can change the way health care is delivered by repurposing some of the unused space in our houses of worship. Add up the square footage of space in your local church that sits empty most of the week. Imagine repurposing some of that space to provide medical services, especially in communities where basic medical services are in short supply. Think of the impact that would have on the congregation, its neighbors, and the church’s reputation within the community.

Furthermore, many congregations are the spiritual home of experienced medical professionals who would love to use their gifts to serve their brothers and sisters and the community in an environment where they can be openly Christian. A local church-based medical clinic could provide high-quality primary care services, which account for around 80 percent of the health care people receive each year. These clinics could be the foundational building blocks for a broader Christian health care system.

Such a model would be disruptive to the status quo and put the Church on the path to redeeming health care. I believe it is the task of the Church—big C— collectively and the church—little c, meaning local churches—to lead the way.

Eight reasons

Why the Church? Here are eight compelling reasons.

First, Christianity embodies a vision of health that goes beyond the mere absence of disease, a view that cannot be confined to the narrow focus that characterizes so much of modern medicine.

This idea itself is disruptive. For the most part, modern medicine has a myopic focus on physiological mechanisms, mind-numbing statistics of morbidity rates, and quantified risk factors, not to mention revenue capture. It turns doctors into revenue-producing, disease-managing medical technicians who answer to a bloated bureaucracy, not their patients.

Since the Church possesses a vision of wholeness that goes beyond the physical, it deploys Christian medical practitioners who can provide an exceptional whole-person continuity of care to their patients and hope for their families. In partnership with like-minded medical providers, churches can be present in people’s lives in ways that other agencies cannot. Their prominence in believers’ lives, and by extension, their community, makes it possible to bring spiritual and physical healing into direct proximity with one another.

Second, since physicians have a level of intimacy with hurting people that surpasses others, including pastors, it makes sense for a local church to strategically include medical care as part of its ministry footprint.

Christ calls the Church to care for the whole person. Christian doctors view their patients as whole beings created in God’s image; therefore, they can care for the whole person. They get closer to patients faster than anyone because in the exam room there exists a vulnerability uncommon in other ministry-related contexts. For this reason, Christian doctors have a unique opportunity to represent Christ, the Great Physician, in their patient encounters, and what better setting for that to happen than in the place where believers gather weekly to worship, pray, learn, and experience Spirit-inspired life together.

Third, church congregations are the most pervasive voluntary organizations in American society, providing a massive number of motivated, gifted individuals called to serve others.

A local church-based medical clinic could provide high-quality primary care services. These clinics could be the foundational building blocks for a broader Christian health care system.

Regular voluntary gatherings are at the heart of every church, a place where people come together to express their faith and to worship, share, learn, and support one another. It is in these gatherings that believers often speak openly about their physical, spiritual, and emotional needs, all significant elements of health and wellness. It is in these gathering places where fellow believers find a familiar face to pray with, a friend to cry with, a fellow believer with whom to share joys and sorrows. For many, their local church is the place where individual milestones are recognized, where people marry, dedicate their children to God, grieve losses, and celebrate accomplishments.

The design for the local church found in the New Testament is that within this faith family one can find brothers and sisters in Christ to share burdens that are common to all. In the local church, people find support in times of distress and comfort during times of pain. Churches are places where we develop relationships of trust and communication. At least, this is what Christ intends.

Fourth, throughout Church history, local congregations have been effective deliverers of both spiritual care and social services, offering benefits to the broader community by encouraging life-affirming lifestyles, promoting marital and family stability, and inspiring civic responsibility. In some situations, churches included medical care in their scope of services, mostly for the poor.

Many U.S. churches support overseas medical ministries. Why not in our own backyard? We must expand our vision to include our fellow believers with whom we worship and serve. Why leave them to languish in an overpriced, inefficient system?

Fifth, local congregations already provide an infrastructure for recruiting, training, and deploying volunteers. They provide an ideal setting where people can learn about strategic things that need to be done and develop competencies in doing them.

There is a reason why people in need frequently look to the church for assistance. People who want to volunteer often go to congregations where they can be trained and encouraged as they serve. It makes sense that the local church is the ideal location for the promotion of real whole-person health and wellness.

Sixth, local churches already do what secular society struggles to do—promote whole-person wellness. Although the public health community persistently calls upon employers, insurers, and health care organizations to promote wellness and help patients reduce risk factors for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions that consume 80 percent of health care resources, the local church provides the ideal context for helping people adopt lifestyles that address these issues.

Studies reveal that those who participate in the life of a local congregation drink less alcohol, smoke less, have less stress, experience less depression, use fewer opioids, and engage in less risky sexual activity. Since people with cancer, diabetes, and heart disease account for the majority of health care expenses, churches already make a substantial contribution to improving public health and reduce costs.

Seventh, healthy local churches can contribute to wellness in ways that modern medicine cannot. The proclamation of the Gospel entails the ongoing process of sanctification/discipleship, contributes to improved marriages, better parent/child relationships, and deeper friendships, and impacts other facets of Christian living. Making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) involves transparency and accountability, which reduces anxiety and depression. Since churches already focus on how members can improve their lives in specific ways, it simply makes sense for them to include direct health and wellness services.

Many U.S. churches support overseas medical ministries. Why not in our own backyard?

Eighth, the organization I lead, Christian Healthcare Centers, just celebrated its sixth year of operation. Many told us our direct-patient care model would not work. It does, and we know it can be modified to work well within the framework of a local church. Finding highly qualified and motivated medical professionals will not be difficult. It hasn’t been for us. We have attracted some of the best and brightest Christian practitioners around and continue to hear from many more who would love to work in a model like ours. The mechanics, liability issues, equipment, and supplies are not as difficult to navigate as many assume. We just need the will and determination to do it.

Conclusion

I know this is an audacious idea. Although most readers know well the flaws and frustrations of modern American health care, to think we can make significant changes at the local and national level might seem preposterous, impractical, and beyond our capabilities. It seems even more preposterous to think a local church could be the foundation of a Christian health care platform. Yet, it has been done before.

Space here does not permit a detailed history of the Church’s massive influence upon health care. I provide some of this history in my book Missional Medicine: Restoring the Soul of Healthcare, an excerpt of which appeared earlier. Suffice it to say, the Church was at the forefront of health care throughout its history until the mid-20th century, when scientism and secularism escalated their takeover of medicine.

What you see happening today in medicine is partly a consequence of the Church’s retreat.

Wherever the Gospel has gone, medical ministry has gone with it. The Body of Christ in America has at its disposal the resources needed to disrupt a fragmented, dysfunctional health care system by creating a parallel health care system, one where Christ, the Great Physician and Redeemer, is preeminent.

Health care cannot be redeemed in any meaningful way without this approach. All of the strategies, reforms, re-branded socialist funding schemes, and actuarial manipulations proposed or implemented by government, insurance companies, and gigantic health systems have failed. A government takeover of health care will only make a bad system worse for both patients and the medical professionals who care for them. It is time for the Church to truly redeem health care.

Next: The nuts and bolts of a church-based medical clinic

Mark Blocher is a member of the Samaritan Ministries Board of Directors and president/CEO of Christian Healthcare Centers.