Day by day our television sets and internet connections are filled with advertisements of products and medicines that promise to increase our health and bring us to a state of higher or better performance. B list movie stars endorse weight loss products and plans and virtually every month a new supplement or diet plan is introduced all with the aim of making us healthier people. Most likely the most important issues confronting the United States government today is the large number of uninsured and underinsured persons in the
United States. Health is clearly at the top of the priority list.
In the areas of health and wholeness, we increasingly look to experts: doctors, dieticians, nutrionists and the like, to give us guidance and leadership in our quest for good health, long lives, and wholesome diets. These experts offer sometimes conflicting, most of the time confusing advice that so threatens to overwhelm us that we generally respond by picking only a few cherished gems of information and relegating the rest to the back of our mind as so much useless or superfluous information.
This concern with health, wholeness and well being is not restricted to our concerns about our physical well being; nor has the reliance on expert opinion and comparative studies. Over the last twenty years, the language of physical and mental health care professions has entered the church with a vengeance and permeated our understanding of what it means to live and function well as the body of Christ. We talk of healthy churches and the dysfunctionality of relationships as if this was the preferred language of the New Testament writers. Further, we employ a type of comparative analysis in our search for health. We not only compare ourselves and the life of our congregations to those described in the pages of ther New Testament, but we, increasingly compare ourselves with other churches, seeking to find “best practices” in order that congregational health may be achieved. We read the work of experts who diagnose from a distance our condition and prescribe the appropriate doses of scripture, purpose, and vision to cure our disease.
While there is nothing inherently wrong and certainly not sinful in utilizing this language or conceptualizing congregational life in this way, it is a method fraught with the same challenges as those found in the ever growing beast that is the American health care system. Faced with a constant stream of advertising in the form of conferences, books, and yes, even online journals, we have become obsessed with our failure and do not look to the guiding light of the bright and morning star in order to steer our course, but to lesser lights which seem less mysterious and more accessible to us. For example, while I admire and appreciate the work of Rick Warren in the Purpose Driven Life, might it not just be the evangelical church equivalent of the South Beach Diet – a quicker, less painful way of achieving what we all know can only be really achieved with the steady application of self discipline through diet and exercise?
Let us also consider the usage of medical terminology and health as applied in the church. How does one determine something as difficult to pinpoint as health when even within the medical community the term has changed meaning significantly over the past fifty years? It seems that we have replaced the brutal honesty of scripture in describing life within the body of Christ with unrealistic perfect images of community that are the ecclesiastical equivalent of runway models. Or perhaps we simply aim much lower, succumbing to the temptation that
St. Paul alluded to in 1 Corinthians, “comparing ourselves with ourselves.” The apostle, of course, warns that doing so is not wise, and yet we persist in our navel gazing, scale watching, calorie counting behaviors in an effort to achieve what might indeed be the unattainable goal of the perfect church.
Notwithstanding the need for pastors, church leaders, and congregants to be honest in their reflections about the state of things within the local body, it is important that none of lose sight of the inherent brokenness of any human community this side of glory. This is not suggest that we should merely give up trying to live to the best of our ability in accordance with our understanding of the gospel. It is rather, an invitation similar to that issued in a recent editorial in the New York Times about the issue of diet and health. Instead of obsessing about what we eat, how much, and what vitamins and minerals are being ingested in every meal, the author suggests that we simply eat food and enjoy it. Similarly, I believe that our near obsession with being purposeful and healthful within the context of the church may be counterproductive to what we actually seek. Thoughtfulness and prayerful reflection are good; stressing out over every meal served in the context of a worshipping congregation isn’t.