Comprehensive Health Ministry
What picture does it really paint?
I stood gazing at the headstone in the cemetery. As I looked at the name and the dates, my mind raced back to my early days in rural mission practice.
He was a tall, imposing, confident, and influential man. He came into my office just to make my acquaintance. He had recently moved into town and purchased the hotel and the printing press that published the local weekly newspaper. He informed me of two things: First, I was to know who he was in the event that he may need urgent medical help at any point. Second, I was not to engage in spiritual or religious discussions with him. I was taken aback, but I promised him I would not discuss spiritual matters with him unless invited to do so.
Some months later I was called to an accident just outside town, only to have the tragically difficult task of certifying the man’s wife to be dead and to perform the complex surgical task of repairing the multiple lacerations on the face of his beautiful daughter. As I was heading into the operating room I paused to commiserate with the father. He then grabbed my sleeve and said, “Please pray with me.” So I did. After about three hours of painstaking cleaning and suturing of his daughter’s wounds, I referred her for definitive plastic surgery.
About a month later I saw the daughter in follow-up. I was delighted that the plastic surgery had yielded such a wonderful result with virtually no scars. When I commented, the father said: “There was no further surgery performed; the tertiary-care center elected to leave the work that had been done intact and see how things would work out.” I was amazed; the Lord had indeed performed a miracle.
“Thank you for helping me to have my heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh by a loving Savior,” the father said softly as they left my office. Both he and I knew that it was not these hands of clay that had healed his daughter’s face.
I was born into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which my family and I love dearly. My parents were brought to an understanding of the three angels’ messages a few years before I was born. My mother’s daily prayer for me was “Lord, make him to be a missionary in the four corners of the earth.” What a blessing to have a God-fearing, praying mother! By the end of high school it had already become clear that a blended pastor and medical ministry was the pathway my life should take, with medicine as my primary qualification.
As I negotiated the taxing yet wonderful years of study, I began to realize that, in essence, the physician also has pastoral opportunities and obligations. God revealed this to His church from its inception through His servant Ellen White:
“The gospel minister should preach the health principles, for these have been given of God as among the means needed to prepare a people perfect in character. . . . The medical missionary work has its place and part in this closing gospel work.
“The Christian physician has a high calling. With his fuller knowledge of the human system and its laws, he is in a position to spread the gospel of salvation with much efficiency and power.
“The Christian physician has a high calling. With his fuller knowledge of the human system and its laws, he is in a position to spread the gospel of salvation with much efficiency and power.”
“The first and chief object of the gospel and all that pertains to it is to seek and to save that which is lost. The ministry of the gospel, whether by the minister or the physician, is to reach out to man a helping hand wherever it is needed. It is to minister to the sick and suffering physically as well as to the sin-sick soul.
“Here the gospel minister and the Christian physician unite, and the Bible worker in her visit from house to house as well.”1
Ellen White also wrote that “no line is to be drawn between the genuine medical missionary work and the gospel ministry. . . . They are to be joined in an inseparable union. . . . A solemn dignity is to characterize genuine medical missionaries. They are to be men who understand and know God and the power of His grace.”2
The writings of the Spirit of Prophecy are replete with such injunctions, encouragement, and blueprints. Ellen White’s qualifiers are significant: We are to “understand and know God and the power of His grace.”3 We would do well to take stock here. Instead of highlighting only programs and plans, we must focus on our relationship with Jesus; to know Him, to experience His love and grace, and then become the conduit of these characteristics.
My own journey, which I briefly mentioned, started at my mother’s knee but continued at our kitchen table, at Junior Missionary Volunteer Society meetings at church, with dedicated teachers, and with signing the temperance pledge in childish “printing-writing.” It continued with sticking with those principles through high school, university, and the army (including life-threatening circumstances), in mission medical practice, church planting, church pastoring, the blended ministry in its fullness—working with mentors, committed pastors, and administrators—and accepting the privilege and lifelong responsibility of ordination to the gospel ministry. The past compels me to share this message today. It’s not what I have done but what God can do when given the opportunity to use even the weakest vessel.
The blended pastoral and medical ministry is God-designed and God-ordained—and it works! But it requires buy-in, collaboration, the sacrifice of egos, the willingness to learn from one another, and most important—following Christ’s method of mingling, caring, ministering to needs, winning confidence, and encouraging others (by precept and example) to follow Him.
Medical missionary work, in its older and broadest sense, has been done in our church for more than a century. We’ve been challenged, however, to have a comprehensive, concerted, Christ-centered approach, taking what has been “good” and making it “great”! Could the Adventist Church be readying itself and the world for the soon return of the Lord Jesus Christ through comprehensive health ministry, done in a way and with an energy not witnessed until now?
Comprehensive Health Ministry in Action
In Acts 16 we see how Paul and his companions were being kept from preaching. Verse 9 describes how Paul has a vision of a man of Macedonia begging, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” The rest of the chapter describes the exciting (and at times frightening) events that followed, including imprisonment. Eugene Petersen in The Message paraphrases verse 10 into action: “The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over into Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.”4
What does the picture of comprehensive health ministry really look like? There are four basic markers of this special initiative:5
- When put into practice, it appears as if Jesus is among us. The sick are cared for, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and sympathy, love, and inclusivity abound.
- It’s not merely a method but rather a ministry and a mission—extending the healing ministry of Jesus Christ “to make men and women whole.”
- It’s concerned as much with wellness and wholeness as with the treatment of disease. Preventive lifestyle initiatives are vitally needed.
- The continuum of care addresses the wholistic being in every aspect, including physical, social, mental, and spiritual.
As every church member embraces comprehensive health ministry, each church becomes a health center for health promotion in the community. We maintain relevance in our communities by practicing Christ’s method of mingling, sympathizing, meeting needs, winning confidence, and sharing timeless spiritual truths of salvation and eternal life.
A United Ministry
I returned one day to the cemetery where the wife of my fellow townsman was buried and noted a new date on the headstone—the date of the death of my patient and friend, 28 years following the death of his loving wife. Although I was saddened by the inevitable feeling of loss, I had a peace in my heart because my friend had assured me many years before that he had committed his life to Christ. The experience had brought him into a living relationship with his Savior.
No single ministry in the church is sufficient to the task of comprehensive health ministry. Instead, we are called to work together, regardless of our roles, to reach out to a broken planet. As Paul says: “The body is not made up of one part but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14). We need each other to fully accomplish God’s mission.
The Adventist Church has been blessed with a message, not just about eternal life in Jesus, but also about having a more abundant life now. We must live this message, practice neighborliness, and reach outside the church and into the lives of other people so they too may enjoy wholeness in humanity’s brokenness.
Jesus summarized well comprehensive health ministry when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). We can be the ones God will use to help give people—even now—the more abundant life that Jesus promised.
It’s my deepest desire to see us all come together on this vital aspect of our calling. Through the grace of God we can—and will—make a difference, now and for eternity.
- Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Oct. 29, 1914.
- Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1932), p. 250.
- Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
- I credit Lowell Cooper, a general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, for the four markers that so beautifully characterize comprehensive health ministry.