The Tail, and Not the Head

In matters pertaining to human growth and healing, the Church has grown notably weak. How can I say that? By comparing where we’re weak and where we’re strong.

What Strength Looks Like

We are strong in basic education. We have always had a substantial number of educated people in our ranks, from earliest days:

  • Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1)
  • Many of the priests were early converts (Acts 6:7)
  • Many of the Ephesian magicians burned their magic books (Acts 19:19)
  • A number of Athenian academics were receptive to Paul (Acts 17:34)

In our the first few centuries after Christ, we rapidly emerged as a cultural leader in education. Today, secular education operates at a higher level than it ever has in human history, and the Church remains a major force to be reckoned with. In many places over the globe, the church/mission school is the only school. In many more, the staff of the government schools are largely Christian, because we’re the ones with a personal sense of mission to the downtrodden and less fortunate, and education is a time-tested vehicle for helping people raise themselves up. We’re such a leader in literacy education, for example, that the (rampantly secular) Rosetta Project used the first few chapters of Genesis as its key text across 1500 languages, because that is the most widely translated text in the entire world. For many languages, they literally didn’t have a choice — nothing but Bible had ever been translated into the language.

Even in the U.S. today, where education is everywhere, Christian schools are a strong presence, and not just for Christians. In many communities, the Christian school is by far the best-quality school in the area. And so in many Christian schools, there is a subset of students that don’t come from Christian families; their parents will cheerfully tell you that their kids are enrolled for the good-quality education. Moreover, our people have been on the cutting edge of training teachers for centuries, from the early monasteries to Laubach literacy training.

This, my friends, is what strength looks like. The world comes to us for the primary product, and for education in producing it, because they need to. Because we’re better at it than they are.

What Weakness Looks Like

Now contrast our track record on education to our track record on human growth and healing. Think about the many needs people have: emotional distress, chronic conditions, acute injuries needing emergency care, long-term debilities that require skilled care, and so on. Where do people go for that? Think about the people who work in health and healing: doctors, nurses, counselors, chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and the countless techs — CNAs, phlebotomists, and so on. Where do those people get their education?

Now it’s true that historically, the Church started the  modern healthcare system. We created the hospitals, and the ethic that drives them. Even to this day, many hospitals have a Christian affiliation, even in a notably secular city like Denver. As I write this, the hospital a block from where I’m sitting was started by Lutherans. There’s an Adventist hospital less than two miles away, and another Lutheran hospital further north.

But while some of the institutions are still at least nominally Christian, where do you go to get your education in caring for your fellow humans? Some Christian programs exist, but an overwhelming number of Christians in these fields go to schools run by pagans. Even the Christians who are overtly committed to the Church being the primary agent of healing in society do this. From me (got my bodywork and trauma education from unbelievers) to my sister (counseling degree from Northwestern) on up the ladder to folks like David Field (psychodymanic and person-centered psychotherapy training) and Ed Welch (University of Utah) and (quiet as it’s kept) Jay Adams (Mowrer), the majority of our healing practitioners get their knowledge, and often their credentials, outside the faith. Even more telling, do unbelievers come to the Christian programs because it’s the best education available? They do not.

That is what weakness looks like: we go to them to get certified; they don’t come to us.

What If?

What if we lived in a world where everybody knows that if you really want to heal, you need to go see the Christians? That world once existed, but it no longer does. What has happened, and how shall we remedy it?

What has happened is two things, calling for two different remedies.

First, there’s a sense in which we are victims of our own success. We have shamed the pagans into conforming to our ethic. You don’t have to be a Christian to start a hospital anymore; anybody can see that it’s a good thing to do. That was not obvious to anyone in the ancient world. Back in the day, when the plague came, Galen (the famous Roman doctor) ran for the hills. Christians stayed and cared for the sick, even at risk of their own lives. Doctors move toward the sick today because we taught them to. We did such a good job that now, nobody thinks of doing anything else. Part of what we need to do about this is reclaim credit where it is due. Today’s secular charity is parasitic on two thousand years of Christian values, and we need to point that out. We need to know our own history, and talk about it.

Second, we have gotten lazy. Because we won, because there’s so much cultural momentum behind healing that the church doesn’t have to push it alone anymore, we don’t. But there are frontiers that we should be pushing. Where is the existing system failing?

  • Indigent patients who can’t get access to care except at the emergency room, and therefore don’t get any care at all until it becomes an emergency.
  • People with mental health needs who can’t afford care or access to necessary medications.
  • Long-term care for people with debilitating chronic conditions where there are no successful medical interventions.
  • What else? Who are the people around you that are falling through the cracks?

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