by Steve Noblett
Chief Executive Officer
Christian Community Health Fellowship (CCHF)
As I travel visiting clinics, students and with folks who hope to start a Christian healthcare ministry, I am often asked, “What distinguishes a Christian clinic from a non-faith-based clinic?” Usually, I respond by asking what they would expect from a Christian clinic. And people typically talk about excellence, compassion, and affordability. Certainly, any clinic that seeks to represent Christ must strive for those qualities. But all clinics, faith-based or not, should be excellent and compassionate. Those are universal qualities, not qualities that are “uniquely Christian”.
All Christian clinics should exemplify excellence and welcoming customer service. But having personally visited a ton of Christian clinics, I want to suggest four areas where we should be unique if we strive to fully embrace what it means to be a Christ-centered clinic. They are restoring patient dignity, organizational culture, embracing a prophetic role, and investing in a ministry focus beyond your organization’s immediate interest.
I. Restoring Patient Dignity
In Jesus’ ministry, he prioritized the poor and the marginalized. His inaugural sermon proclaimed that he was anointed by the Spirit of God to bring good news to the poor. He spent most of his time in rural and blue-collar communities, and went out of his way to be with those who the religious and privileged avoided.
If Luke 4 was the launch of his ministry, Matthew 25 was the capstone. The last parable Jesus told and the last recorded act of his public ministry was the story of the sheep and goats. In that parable he describes a scene at the end of the age when the Son of Man will separate all people into two groups. The “sheep” inherit the kingdom, and the “goats” are banished from his presence.
When the sheep ask why they get to inherit the kingdom the King tells them that it is because of their compassion, generosity and attentiveness to those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison. But the most amazing part of the story is that Jesus tells them that what they did to these marginalized people, they did to Him. Jesus identified himself with the weak, the oppressed, the sick, and the needy.
I have heard people refer to this story scores of times in reference to Christians who work in CCHF clinics, praising them for “being the hands and feet of Jesus”. It is true that we are the body of Christ; and in that sense, we are His hands and feet. But in this parable it is not the caregivers who were the hands and feet of Jesus. It was the homeless, the stranger, the prisoner and those who were sick. The caregivers are just sheep – really blessed, happy, sheep. Matthew 25 helps us understand how we are to treat our patients. We are to care for the patients we serve as though they were Christ himself.
Distinctively Christ-centered patient care treats patients with the same dignity and honor that we would show if Christ himself were to walk into our clinic and ask for our care. It means that we see Christ in the most broken and vulnerable of our patients.
There is something about our supreme, majestic, sovereign King that is best revealed through those who are suffering – those who live at the bottom of society. They are image-bearers of God in a unique way that we who live in privilege and comfort are not. I do not understand this fully; but I cannot deny that I see it in the Scriptures, and I have seen it in my personal experience. I know Christ better for having engaged with people for whom life is a constant struggle. I have found Jesus in the face of the poor. So have many others who have chosen to look at Christ through the lens of the poor.
At a Christian medical conference several years ago I talked about how providers and staff should love their patients. Agape love is a distinct feature of Christian medicine. It is love that gives value to the loved one, even when value is difficult to recognize with the natural eye. A surgeon in the audience interrupted, and challenged me. “We can’t get that close to our patients! It is inappropriate; and we were intentionally trained to avoid that kind of thing. We cannot love our patients and still deliver the kind of care they need.”
Yes you can. It will mean unlearning some of the style of care that you may have been trained to deliver. It will be painful, and it will take time. And because we are broken and self-centered just like every other Christian, it will require intentionality, discipline and slow progress. Loving your patient does not always mean that you feel deep sentiment for them. But it does mean that you treat them with dignity and recognize that they are people with real stories who are highly valued by God – valued enough that he paid for them with the price of his only son. It means that you treat them holistically, as spiritual people and not just a collection of physical components. Most of all it means that you will seek their good even at the expense of personal sacrifice on your part, regardless of whether they are grateful for your investment in them.
2. Developing A Distinctively Christ-Centered Culture in Your Organization
Exodus 33 tells us what happened after Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. He called on God and interceded for the Israelites, asking him not to destroy the people. God’s initial answer was, “Okay. I will send an angel ahead of you. He will go to the Promised Land and drive out your enemies so that these people can go in and settle there. But I am not going with you, because my presence carries consequences, and this nation is full of stubborn and stiff-necked rebels.” Moses’ reply was awesome: “Thanks for the generous offer, God. But if you won’t go with us, we won’t go either. What else distinguishes us from all other peoples on the face of the earth except for your presence!” (Ex 33:15-16)
Christ-centered clinics should create an organizational culture that recognizes and honors the presence of God. People coming to our clinics should be amazed that they encounter God there. You and your co-workers should be constantly mindful that you are doing what you do in Jesus’ name, and that he is there in the mix with you. Work should be worship, whether you are the physician, the billing clerk or the CEO.
All of us have been in settings where we were aware of God’s presence. Usually, we felt peace or joy or love in an undeniable way. I am telling you that we are meant to live that way daily. A book that has helped me and generations of Christians live this out is called “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk whose main job for over 50 years was working in the kitchen and repairing sandals. Brother Lawrence shares how he came to enjoy fellowship with God in even the most rote and mundane parts of life. You don’t need special music or lighting. God is with us. We can and should learn to live in that reality.
Leaders who are committed to be Christ-centered must be more than managers. We should embody the values and mission of the organization. A leader that does not overtly value the presence of God in their own life will not bring that value into their organization. Leaders should be symbols for their organization, living brochures that others can examine to better understand the character of the company they lead. As you build, look for those kinds of people to lead your organization.
A distinct Christian culture is not only marked by an awareness of God’s presence, but also by dependency on Him. It is a culture of prayer, humility, transparency, authenticity and trust. It promotes reconciliation among staff, and nips backbiting in the bud. Some organizations do this by having trained spiritual care consultants engage staff members who have been unable or unwilling to resolve conflicts. In one situation that I am aware of, the two parties were called into a manager’s office to find a cup of grape juice and a small loaf of bread on a table. The manager, with tremendous grace, told them that the goal of the meeting was for all three of them to break bread together at the end of their discussion. Reminded of God’s presence, and their call to love and value one another like Christ does, they forgave and affirmed each other in a beautiful moment of reconciliation.
An organization that embraces these practices will be a powerful witness for Christ and his kingdom. John 17:20-23 reminds us that a corporate witness of love, unity and joy amplifies the gospel: “I pray…that they may be brought to complete unity so that the world may know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.”
3. Embracing a Prophetic Role
In the Old Testament, prophets were spokespersons for God who were agents of change when change was needed. They were also great encouragers and builders during key periods of Israel’s history. God used prophets to call people back to his standards. When people got hyper-religious, but were not caring for the poor, prophets called them out. When kings and civil authorities became culturally compromised, prophets confronted them. Prophets suffered with the rest of the people when the nation fell under God’s discipline, but reminded the people of God’s mercy and covenant love. When the people were cocky and prideful, they warned them of imminent demise. But when they were humbled, enslaved, or in exile, prophets reminded them of the certainty of God’s kingdom.
God has placed us in that role today. In the area of healthcare, you and I are ambassadors of Christ’s kingdom, and responsible to speak for God. We hold the plumb-line of his revealed will up against the broken health systems in our organizations and cities and say, “Hey, this is not what God has in mind. This doesn’t look like what you would expect to find in the kingdom of God. This is broken. By the way, I am broken, too; but I know where you, me and this whole system can get fixed. Let’s go together.”
A friend of mine defines being prophetic as “living like tomorrow’s people telescoped back into today”. We see the features of God’s coming kingdom – righteousness, justice, joy, peace, and compassion. And though we live in a broken and corrupted world, we choose to live as though that kingdom is here. We do our best to live as a partial fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Being prophetic requires that we spend time seeking God through his word, through prayer, and examining what he has done in the past. We must learn how to apply the principles of God’s kingdom in practical and tangible ways to the institution of healthcare. Prophets do more than just point to what is broken or wrong. They help define and bring clarity. They call broken what is broken, and they point to what should be; and they do it in a way that provokes faith and courage.
When I think of people in our movement who fulfill a prophetic role, several come to mind. John Perkins is at the top of the list. Dr. Perkins has used his skills as a preacher to impress on Christians all around the country that justice is an essential part of the gospel. Whenever I hear Dr. Perkins speak I feel emboldened to remain unapologetic and true to the message that there is no real lasting hope apart from the gospel; but that unless the gospel addresses reconciliation and justice for all, then it is not the gospel of the Bible.
A big part of fulfilling a prophetic role is simply telling stories. We have a unique responsibility to make sure that people of privilege and power understand the struggles of our patients and providers. The truth is that privileged people need poor people as much as poor people need privileged people. Like prophets of old, we identify with God’s broken people, and often suffer consequences for faithfully representing God’s interests. That is why the most important aspect of our role is to be a demonstration of our message. Being prophetic means that you are the first to respond to the message God has given you. Being personally invested by sacrificially loving and serving the poor, gives weight to our voices as we challenge those in power to do what is right.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of false things about you. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” We are the prophets who have come after the prophets who were before. Let us embrace the prophetic aspect of our mission!
4. Investing in Ministry Beyond Our Organization’s Interest
The healthiest Christian clinics I know are ones that do two things: they engage in meaningful, responsible mission work outside of their home community; and they actively train the next generation of medical disciples and leaders. The needs that threaten to overwhelm our ministries make it seem insane to think about reaching beyond our target population – but only because we don’t see things from God’s perspective. God is intimately aware of the needs where we minister. But God’s heart – his agenda – is worldwide in scope. He is a big God with a big mission. His commitment to cities and nations beyond where you live does not tax his ability or commitment to meet the needs in your community. God loves your community, and is just as interested in places far beyond.
That is why, if you are honest, you get excited about seeing God do something great in places far beyond the reach of your target area. The Spirit inside of you longs for the knowledge of the glory of the Lord to fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. Jesus’ last words to the apostles before his ascension were: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The overlooked word in that verse is the word “and”. Jesus did not say “Jerusalem, then Judea, then the ends of the earth”. Nor did he say “Jerusalem, or the ends of the earth”. Jesus said “and”. While each of us must live out this wonderful commission in the place where we live, we all have spiritual DNA that longs to extend his witness to places beyond us.
There are several reasons that working beyond your target population is healthy. It helps give your providers a perspective they would never have if their only focus were your immediate community. It honors their motivating sense of mission and calling. It helps them see their daily work in a greater context of God’s greater kingdom work. It stretches them in both their medical skills and in faith in the healthiest of ways. It requires fresh faith from the organizational leadership. (Over time our tendency is to become reliant on well-established systems that no longer stretch our faith. It happens in every ministry. Reaching beyond your resources reengages faith as the modus operendi of your organization.) Most of all, it satisfies something that is uniquely from the Holy Spirit and that stirs in all of us. Part of your mission should include a strategy to reach out to other strategic places of need beyond your target community.
It is also important to have a commitment to train the next generation of Christian medical disciples. Training students means challenging them, and providing them with real clinical education. It should include opportunities for students to rub shoulders with excellent Christian doctors and leaders who will transparently share about the challenges they face in a career focused on serving the poor.
We have an incredible opportunity to disciple our future partners, and to impart the vision and wisdom that God has entrusted to us. The commission to make disciples should be our first priority. Some of those disciples will go farther than we have. Some will pioneer health ministries in needy communities where there is currently nothing for the poor. Some will lead teams to hard places where poverty and chaos seem insurmountable. But they will go as ambassadors of Christ, committed to demonstrate and proclaim good news to the poor. What a heritage! Impart your life to students who want to integrate faith and medicine.
Organizations that encourage their providers to train students have less trouble recruiting new providers. Two large Christian clinics I know recognize the value of training the next generation. They screen students for interest in faith and the service to the poor. In addition to medical training, students stay in guest homes in communities the clinics serve. Students discuss calling, missions, suffering, a theology of justice and reconciliation, and are given opportunities to spend time with providers and their families to talk about more than just medicine. Over 70% of the students that participate in these programs choose a path of missional medicine and serving the poor as a career. Those organizations have little trouble finding providers who are eager to work as part of their team. Make replication and extension a core part of your organization’s mission, and your organization will always have missionally motivated providers eager to work with you.
We are all growing in our understanding and commitment to be more Christ-centered. I hope these four areas have caused you to think how you can lead your organization in a healthy and dedicated commitment to be more than just a good clinic, but one that advances God’s purposes and glory. It is a good thing to seek to be distinctively Christ-centered; but that can only happen in a spirit of love and humility. Those groups who are doing this well are attractive, not exclusive, and have meaningful and engaging relationships in their medical villages.