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Thinking the Faith, Praying the Faith, Living the Faith is written by the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship.

Thinking, praying, and living the faith is at the core of ministry in the Office of Theology and Worship. In the following videos, learn more about what thinking, praying, and living the faith means to the leadership of the Office of Theology and Worship. Discover why it matters and what difference it makes in our lives, work, and worship.  

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Christine Hong 
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September 20, 2013

The Church Is a Hospital (Among Other Things)

My colleague Teresa Stricklen and I have found ourselves, these last weeks, reflecting on the church in our contributions to “Thinking, Praying, Living.”  (See here, here, and here.)  Here’s another bead on that string.

Abigail Van Buren is said to have given us an oft-repeated quote: "The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints."  It’s an image that could help us see some things about the church that we might not grasp as well without its help.

Here are four ways hospitals might illuminate elements of the church.

First, as the quote above reminds us, hospitals are places to care for those who are physically ill or wounded, seeking to heal and restore them.  Hospitals exist for people who are physically ailing (patients); patients go to hospitals because hospitals are the best equipped to deal with most medical sickness.  Sometimes the healers who work at the hospital themselves become patients, too.

Second, hospital are places where a team of healers gathers to . . . well, to heal and restore.  The team consists of doctors, nurses, and medical technicians – folks with specialized training and gifts in the various fields of medicine.  The team gathered there includes social service providers and chaplains – folks with training (yes, specialized, in this case also) in various fields of helping recovery and bringing comfort.  The team gathered there includes financial folks, security staff, building and equipment maintenance workers, cleaning staff, and administrators – folks with training and skills without whom healing and restoration can’t happen. 

Third, hospitals are places where sicknesses are found.  Hospitals are places where, in spite of the team’s best efforts, people sometimes get infected, or pick up a sickness they didn’t have when they arrived.  (There is a wonderful meditation on this problem, and on ways to address it, in an essay by Atul Gawande, “Washing Hands,” published in his book Better.)  Hospitals are also places where, in spite of the team’s best efforts to prevent it, as seldom as possible (we all join in hoping), malpractice happens.

Fourth, in the city where I live (Louisville) several downtown hospitals and medical service providers are concentrated together.  They are on opposite corners of the same intersection, so to speak.  They all work hard and successfully to heal and restore.  Yet each is organized in a slightly different way, with differing histories and internal cultures.  Those differing histories and internal cultures support different specialties.

Hopefully you’re already finding parallels to the church, and hopefully some of the parallels are intriguing.

First, the church is a place (many places) to care for sinners.  Church is a place for those who seek the “balm in Gilead” to “heal the sin-sick soul” (that’s hymn 792 in the new hymnal, Glory to God).   It is always tempting to think that the church is a display case for us saints.  That’s a dangerous line of thought, as Jesus repeatedly pointed out.  It shouldn’t surprise us to discover that the people who are the church are sinners – in the same way that it shouldn’t surprise us to discover that the patients at the hospital are persons suffering with and struggling against various forms of illness and physical harm.  And sometimes it’s members of the healing team who are ill.  This means that the church is a place for everyone, even (indeed especially) us when we sin – a place committed to the healing and restoration that Jesus Christ, the great physician (Matthew 9:12) works.  That’s good news.

Second, the church is a place where a team gathers, committed to healing and restoration, grateful to be agents of God’s forgiveness and redemption.   It’s a large team, with many tasks that wait to be filled, all contributing to the mission of the whole.  We gather not just to be cared for but also to become caregivers.  And caregiving takes a myriad of forms, some of them not so obvious (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

Third, congregations, which are the church gathered, are places where sin is present.  And sometimes that sin spreads, drawing in others.  Christians gathered in congregations and denominations have sinned, do sin, and will sin (lest we begin to think that that’s only true of us in our past).  We need to be steadfast and vigilant in honesty about this – both with ourselves and with others (in church language, we need good practices of confession and repentance).  Furthermore, as events regularly remind us, there is malpractice among us.  This too requires a response of honesty, courage, and passion for what is right.  Our sins and malpractice turn others away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They damage our ability to share Christ’s healing.  Honesty about these failings is a Gospel imperative.

Fourth, Christians gather in congregations and denominations that differ from one another.  They are organized in different ways, they have differing histories and internal cultures.  And in their life together they seek to embody and display differing aspects of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Metaphors are always limited.  The hospital can at best shed light on only a few aspects of the church.  The metaphor easily becomes inward-focused.  Other equally important aspects also need our attention.  For instance, mission.  Those deeply engaged in reflecting on and embodying the missional nature of the church remind us that God’s church does not have a mission, no, God’s mission has a church.  Seen this way, the church is a staging area (among other things).  But if the hospital can help us understand what our mission is about, then that will be help enough from a metaphor.

Tags: balm in gilead, belong, church, congregation, healing, holy spirit, hospital, hurt, jesus christ, membership, salvation, sin, wholeness


  1. Thanks for the help with the quote! I agree: Abigail Van Buren?! An Episcopal bishop feels more like it. Unfortunately, I've not been able to find information that seems reliable on this one. Perhaps someone with reliable information (like the name of the bishop) will happen by and help.

    by Barry Ensign-George

    December 3, 2013

  2. Abigail Van Buren?! She may have quoted it. But the correct attribution, so I believe, is to an Episcopalian bishop whose name I have since forgotten. And the correct form of the quote, if memory serves me, is "The church is not a Hilton for saints, but a hospital for sinners." And yet, that is simply a quibble. Your thoughts on the matter at hand are certainly to the point.

    by Reford Nash

    November 26, 2013

  3. Rev. Williams, Yes, very much so. And then we face a decision: will we make the changes our doctors (in their own offices or in the hospital) tell us are necessary? Thanks for extending the metaphor!

    by Barry Ensign-George

    September 23, 2013

  4. Isn't a hospital also a place where a patient is sometimes ordered to change his or her lifestyle, to avoid health hazards and cultivate healthy habits? Isn't the church also a place where the nature of one's sin can be exposed and instruction given for turning toward life instead of death?

    by Rev. Ernest Williams

    September 21, 2013

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