Hopeful Church

Is healing at the core of our congregations?

by N. Graham Standish

As a seminary student I heard a constant refrain from our professors: Jesus came to preach and teach. It was the pretext underlying our whole seminary education as they trained us to preach and teach.

It made sense to me. Isn’t that what pastors do, spending our weeks preparing to preach on Sundays? Isn’t our mandate to offer Bible studies, small groups and classes to nurture faith? We might lead boards and committees and offer pastoral care to those in need and in crisis, but our primary role is to preach and to teach.

Something happened early in my ministry to change my perspective. I was an associate pastor at the time, and a youth group member spoke with me about his recent experience. He prefaced it with, “Graham, do you believe in healing prayer?” I told him that I wasn’t sure. He proceeded to tell me about something amazing that had happened over the previous few weeks. His girlfriend, a champion high school swimmer, was set to race in the state finals — her swan song for competitive swimming. That week she tore her hamstring and her doctor told her it would be impossible to race. She was devastated.

Listening to her despair, he told her that he had been reading in the Bible how Jesus healed someone who couldn’t walk. He said that perhaps they could pray for her healing. They agreed. Not knowing how to actually pray for healing, he improvised. He stretched out his hand, asking Jesus to let it be a channel for healing. He then placed it on her leg as they continued to pray. Nothing happened. Oh well, it was worth trying.

The next morning, though, something did happen. She got up, took a shower, and while drying off realized that all her pain was gone. Her leg had been healed. She ended up competing in the state finals and won.

Whoa! What do I do with that story? It hasn’t been the only one I’ve heard like it. Over the ensuing months others told me of their healing experiences. It was disorienting. We Presbyterians are rational people who don’t easily succumb to tales of prayer and miraculous healings. So I did what I always do in cases of cognitive dissonance — I decided to learn more about it.

Healing prayer

I discovered a remarkable book by John Wilkinson, The Bible and Healing. He started by researching healing in the gospels. He found that 25% of the stories in Matthew’s gospel dealt with healing, while in Mark it was 50%, Luke 34%, and John 36%. Further, 75% of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew dealt with healing, 50% in Mark, 66% in Luke and 64% in John.

This completely changed how I saw the church. I was awakening to the fact that Jesus came primarily to heal, and that preaching and teaching were part of that healing. He not only healed people physically. He healed the breach between us and God that formed whenever we turned possessions, law, rituals, traditions, and even beliefs, into false gods.

Salvation as healing

Subsequent research led me to study the world “salvation,” in both its Latin and Greek origins. When we think of “salvation,” we typically think of it as Jesus rescuing us from sin. There’s more there, though. The Latin root, salvus (the root of both “save” and “salve”), as well as the Greek word for it, sozo, mean both “to rescue” and “to heal.”

It led me to question the typical translation of James 5:15, where James advises those who are sick to call for the elders to pray over them. The NRSV says that the “prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” Does that make sense? You’re sick. You call on the elders to pray for you. Are you really focused on their prayer saving you? Doesn’t it make more sense to translate sozo as the “prayer of faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will raise them up”?

Healthy congregations are healing congregations

The radical change in my understanding of church was my realization that the healthiest congregations are ones who see themselves as healing communities. The early church saw themselves as places of healing. Why else would James suggest that the sick person call on the elders to pray?

What would it take to transform our congregations into places of healing? I believe it starts with reconceiving everything we do as a church. Do we see ourselves as helping heal the separation most of us experience with God, making it hard to pray, grow, and live lives the way God calls us to? Do we see ourselves as helping to heal the pain of living in a divided, dysfunctional nation and world? Do we see ourselves as teaching people how to heal the conflict they experience in their lives? Do we see ourselves as being communities that offer compassionate healing for those with mental issues? Are we prayerful communities where people with physical, emotional, and relational wounds and scars can find healing love, support, and prayers?

In my previous church these questions led to an extensive healing ministry that we developed slowly over a five-year period. It began with me preaching and teaching about healing, while also offering personal healing prayers with suffering members. We then formed a small group that studied healing and faith. We brought in speakers to talk about their own healing experiences, which we followed up by offering healing prayer as part of communion once-a-month. Then we created a healing prayer team of people trained to pray with people in their homes as they struggled with ailments. They were also available every Sunday after worship to pray with people one-on-one. And I continued to preach and teach in ways that either explicitly or subtly taught about healing spiritually, personally, and relationally.

At the center of all of this is a simple question: Is healing at the center of our ministry and mission?

The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting in Sewickley, PA, and directs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed” due in September (www.ngrahamstandish.org).