What is “success” for a church? I’ve been mulling over this question for, well, my entire adult life. At the Kootenay Faith Fest in June of 2019, our keynote speaker, Carol Howard Merritt offered some ideas of what “success” looks like in the church. She described a successful church as a place of healing; she spoke to the necessity of consisting of multiple generations; and she highlighted the need for innovation, where decision-makers say, “yes, and…” to new ideas. I agree with all of these points. If a church doesn’t offer healing in the case of brokenness, there’s no gospel there. If it welcomes people of only a narrow age range, that’s not exactly a full community. And if innovation isn’t welcome, the church should expect to shutter its doors before long.
If a church doesn’t offer healing in the case of brokenness, there’s no gospel there.
But hold on a sec…”a place of healing”? Isn’t that what a hospital is for? Churches are scarce equipped to suture a deep wound or provide an IV drip!
The healing miracles described in the New Testament may well be intended literally. It’s entirely possible that Jesus had special abilities: maybe he studied reiki or another Eastern tradition (this was long before Western medicine). It’s also possible these stories describe spiritual wounds, or brokenness of the soul. These days, few churches serve as places of physical healing. But if we agree with Manfred Max-Neef that spiritual needs are to be seen on par with physical needs, churches can offer a lot of healing. I might even assert that churches can offer more healing than the places we typically associate with healing, because every soul is wounded in some way.
When I talk to practitioners, I often hear a deep yearning to be able to address root causes. The medication, surgery, and lifestyle changes practitioners might recommend or prescribe usually treat that which is easy to detect. But what about the underlying anxiety from seeing the challenges present in the world and feeling utterly undercapacitated to address them? Or in the case of dying, maybe there’s some important pain relief from narcotics or physical therapies. But what about the meaninglessness some feel when face-to-face with their final breath? This is where a “successful” church can step in.
A “successful” church treats the root causes of that which ails the soul.
I suggest a healthy dose of skepticism for anyone who claims a pastor can cure sickness, or a church can restore sight. A cure? Not likely. But healing? Absolutely! Our lives can be made whole even in sickness, even at death or in grief. People with disabilities who shouldn’t expect a cure, per se, should absolutely expect to live with wholeness. A “whole” life doesn’t mean an “easy” life. A cured body isn’t necessary for a healed soul.
The soul begins to heal when our brokenness is acknowledged and accepted (and not avoided). The soul continues its healing when we are embraced for our whole selves (and not asked to leave a particular characteristic at home). The soul begins to remove its bandages when it offers healing to another, when genuine community forms.
A “successful” church is a place of deep healing, where we are made whole through mutual care.
A “successful” church recognizes that none of us is actually whole yet, and supports one another on the journey.
A “successful” church reminds us of the gospel story, the one where love overcomes injustice, and where even enemies are embraced as loved ones.
When the kin-dom is fulfilled, every church will be a place of healing, through which our journeys to wholeness continue.