While we were driving through a popular vacation village, I noticed a sign near the entrance that boasted it to be “One of the Top 100 Retirement Communities in the U.S.” The homes did look attractive and the sign gave the village some distinction, but it certainly takes more than a sign and an attractive building to constitute a community—just as it takes more than a sign and an attractive building to constitute a church.
In fact the church is a community—a community of faith and friendship. In his letter to the church at <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Jerusalem, James stakes his claim that the church is distinctly and ultimately a community of healing.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
How can a local congregation function as a healing community?
According to James, the church is to be a community of prayer and praise. James is not referring to selfish “Christmas list” prayers, but to intercessory prayers where believers are interceding on behalf of the needs of others.
“Is anyone in trouble?” (Jas 5:13). James invites us to pray when we are in trouble and to pray for others who are in trouble or distress. “Is anyone happy?” (v.13). James invites us to celebrate the grace and blessings of God by singing songs of praise. “Is anyone sick?” (v.14). James encourages us to pray for those afflicted with a short-term sickness and those suffering with a long-term disease.
To function as a healing community, a congregation must learn the dual discipline of praying together and rejoicing together.
The church is also to be a community of confession and forgiveness. Obviously we are to confess our sins to God, and God is “faithful and just to forgive” (I Jn 1:9). But we are also instructed to confess certain things to one another—our struggles, our hardships, and maybe even the areas in which we are most vulnerable to temptation.
The phrase “to one another” (Jas 5:16) does not mean that we are to confess to the whole congregation but to a trusted friend, group of friends or an accountability group. A healing church learns to major on forgiveness and to avoid a judgmental and condemning spirit. In the model prayer, Jesus prays, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Lk 11:4). A caring church strives to create a redemptive atmosphere characterized by grace and mercy.
Finally, James describes the church as a community of recovery and restoration. James challenges us to bring back those who have wandered away (Jas 5:19-20). Although you cannot physically seize individuals and bring them back into the active life of the church, you may captivate people by the care and concern you demonstrate toward them. You may lead someone back into active participation through patience and perseverance.
If recovery is reconnecting with people who have wandered away from church and faith, then restoration is the process of incorporating them back into the active life of the church. Restoration helps others put their sins behind them by refusing to allow their sins to disqualify them from participation and by refusing to allow their past sins become the central focus of their lives. A ministry of recovery and restoration emphasizes letting love cover “a multitude of sins“ (I Pet 4:8).
In most congregations there is plenty of room to grow in the ways we pray for people, the ways we forgive people, and the ways we restore people by God’s grace. The potential is there, and the need is there, for every congregation to become a community of healing.
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.