Medical analogies abound in Christian culture. Jesus is the Great Physician. Prayers refer to the lost as “those who are sick spiritually.” Even the New Testament writers refer to those are spiritually dead, the most widely recognized being Paul in the book of Romans.
My home church once did a whole series on viewing the church as a hospital. The basic idea was that because the church is for sick people, that means we must have the humility to remember we too are patients, and we shouldn’t expect people to have their lives in good shape before they come to Jesus. You wouldn’t expect someone to wait until they’re well to visit a hospital E.R., right?
But herein lies the complicating factor: as Christians we may be patients, but we also want to bring others into the hospital. And especially for those who are pastors and teachers, we want to serve the Great Physician and be part of how He heals people. That’s a great thing, and that very analogy can often reveal why our typical approach to evangelism is frequently wrong-headed.
We Diagnose Too Soon
To illustrate, let’s stick with the medical example. I recently went to the doctor’s office for a check-up, largely related to some issus I’ve had with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). I saw the nurse practitioner, we talked, she made some recommendations, and I had some tests done. Afterward, I had a diagnosis. Now if the medical world operated the way the Christian world sometimes does, it would have gone something more like this:
Me: So I’ve been having some stomach problems–
NP: You have stomach ulcers, esophageal cancer, and chronic anxiety, which affects the digestive system. I have your treatment plan pre-printed for you. Now will you follow it?
We can see why this is wrong, right? The Nurse Practitioner doesn’t have all of the information he or she needs to make the diagnosis! By plowing into prescriptions before knowing that information, this nurse practitioner would sabotage the patient’s health.
Now there’s a sense in which Jesus is always the “prescription” that sinners need. But just as a sick person has many obstacles in the way of being healthy, there are many possible obstacles one may face when it comes to faith. One person may highly respect atheist scientists and find their arguments compelling. Another may not be swayed by atheism, but believes there are many paths to God, and Christianity is too exclusive.
Good Medicine is Time-Consuming
But even knowing the right category is not enough. When I told the nurse practitioner that I was having “IBS issues,” she asked me to clarify. What were my symptoms? How frequent were they? When I changed my diet, did it help? By what percentage did I see improvement? You see, even within a particular category of illness, individual cases widely vary. This is in sharp contrast to the last time I visited a walk-in clinic. I had to tell this practitioner three times I wasn’t there for a flu shot. Only then did she give me and my son the strep test we had come in for.
Just as a doctor spends time gathering information before making a diagnosis, so should we. This means asking several questions before deciding how we ought to engage someone. This takes time, and is not as easy as “tell me what your problem with Christianity is.”
Bedside Manner is Still Important
It will take time and getting to know the person before we identify which of their top objections is really the one that’s close to their heart. Even when we know what their greatest obstacle is, the person must trust us before we can have a productive dialogue. Do they know we care about them, or do they think we’re only interested in them so we can have a convert story at small group?
If we ask all of these questions just so we can have a lead-up to a smackdown moment in a debate, then we’re doing it wrong. In that case, we aren’t interested in winning a soul, but an argument. The church is a hospital. So let’s be willing to invest time in patients with a listening ear, and communicate with compassion and respect, like a good medical professional would.