In May of 2007 a two-day conference, Church for the 21st Century, was held at the Washington National Cathedral. Inspired largely by Diana Butler Bass’s book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, the conference featured (in addition to Diana) such creative thinkers as Phyllis Tickle, Sam Lloyd, Marcus Borg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Michael Battle, and Tony Jones. Each of them shared their thoughts and questions about the challenges and opportunities currently facing congregations in America.
Also featured were congregational leaders who offered workshops on the practices discussed in Christianity for the Rest of Us—practices such as hospitality, testimony, discernment, and theological reflection. One of the workshops—led by Graham Standish, pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania—explored the practice of healing, especially healing prayer.
Congregational Resource Guide staff attended Graham’s workshop, Becoming a Holy and Healing Church. Here are highlights of what we learned and a set of resources for congregations considering the ancient but vital practice of healing prayer.
Churches and Healing
Graham pointed out that many Christian churches focus on Jesus’s teaching and preaching ministries, as well as his crucifixion and resurrection, while giving less attention to Jesus’s healing ministry. This is unfortunate because 40 percent of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and more than a third of Luke and John, focus on healing.
And while Scripture tells us that Jesus came to save us, the idea of “salvation” at one time was associated with healing: the word is from the Latin “salvus,” which means to save and to heal. (“Salvus” is also at the root the of the word “salve,” which refers to a substance that brings healing to a wound.) New Testament Greek translated “to save” as “sozo,” a word that (like “salvus”) means to save and to heal.
Yet today’s churches have largely lost that connection between salvation and healing. Some churches associate salvation with being saved from sin in this life and hellfire in the next, while others associate salvation with (in Diana Butler Bass’s words) “being a good person, a good citizen, helping others, and being nice.”
Why the lack of attention to healing practices and ministry? Why the disconnect between salvation and healing? Graham suggested that Christian history may provide some clues. For the ancient Christian communities, healing prayer and laying on of hands were significant liturgical practices. But large-scale deaths, such as those caused by the Black Plague during the Middle Ages, led Christians to associate “salvation” with saving souls for the afterlife.
In the Renaissance and later, medicine gained importance to the point where Christians started viewing it as a replacement for—rather than a complement to—prayer. And Enlightenment thinking tended to separate physical health from the realm of the soul or the spirit. By the mid-twentieth century, mainline Christians were so steeped in what Graham termed an “ultra-rational” culture that they often felt compelled to give “scientific” explanations for biblical stories of healing—even if doing so distorted the stories.
New Interest in Healing Prayer
In recent years, however, there has been a renewed interest in the connection between prayer and healing. The interest has been spurred, in part, by greater understandings of the connection between the mind and the body, as well as by the movement for holistic health care. Publications such as Spirituality & Health, and studies funded by organizations such as the Templeton Foundation, have drawn public attention to ways that prayer can affect personal and social well-being.
While many churches are not yet comfortable with including healing prayer in their liturgies and ministries, other churches—such as Calvin Presbyterian—are beginning to embrace this ancient practice. As Christianity for the Rest of Us explains, “Calvin Church has come to believe that healing is the work of God, based in the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and that we open ourselves to it through prayer.”
Introducing Healing Prayer in Your Church
If you are a congregational leader who would like to include healing prayer in your church, or who has discerned that God may be calling your church to this practice, Graham advises you to introduce it slowly and gradually. Any attempt to push it on a congregation that is not ready will only backfire.
When Graham became pastor at Calvin, he introduced healing by giving sermons in response to biblical readings on the topic. He also began discussing healing in adult education settings. Later, he offered the healing rite during Communion and trained others to do so. Still later, he formed a group that met for intercessory prayer on behalf of others in the church, the community, and the world. A group was also formed to visit those who were sick and to pray for and with them. Now, Calvin has a “prayer shawl” ministry—where church members knit shawls, pray over them, and provide them to those in need of healing.
None of these activities were “programs” driven by an agenda. Rather, they arose from the church’s willingness to seek God’s guidance and then to trust what Graham calls the “gentle nudgings” that felt right to them. Together, these activities express what church leader Diane McClusky calls “Christ’s healing ministry of love.”
A Guide to Healing Prayer
Calvin Presbyterian Church has created A Guide to Healing Prayer, which explains healing prayer and offers ways to engage this ancient and sacred practice. Thanks to Graham Standish and the members of Calvin, this guide is available as a gift to Congregational Resource Guide Web visitors. After clicking on the title above, you may view, print, and share the guide. (You will need to have installed the free download, Adobe Acrobat.)
Graham concluded his workshop with these thoughts about the practice of healing prayer. You might consider them as you use the “Guide to Healing Prayer” and other resources to begin a healing prayer ministry:
- We are called to serve as conduits of God’s grace. In prayer, we ask God to open our spirits, minds, bodies, and relationships so that God’s healing power may flow into us—and through us to others.
- God heals at the deepest, most spiritual levels first; the primary healing is of the soul and spirit.
- Remember that “to heal” means to make whole—and holy. The Old English word, “hal,” is at the root of “heal,” “hale,” “healthy,” and “holy.” As John Koenig says in his essay on healing from Practicing Our Faith, “the central image for us is not cure but wholeness.” And as Graham says in Discovering the Narrow Path, “Seeking healing means seeking wholeness and holiness for self, others, and th
e world instead of cure; too often people want God to cure them and then leave the rest alone.”
- Just as some have viewed medicine as a replacement for (rather than a complement to) prayer, others have gone to the opposite extreme, endangering themselves or others by refusing medical intervention. God as Incarnational Presence works not only through prayer, but also through all practices that honor the body.
- Pray specifically but accept faithfully, giving thanks for God’s healing work in and through you.
Click here for a list of annotated resources related to healing and prayer. Other books by Graham Standish are listed as well.
For those wishing to explore additional dimensions of health ministry, CRG staff encourage you to visit the Health Ministry section of the Congregational Resource Guide. A special sub-section on Mental Health is also featured.
This report is part of the Wise Voices project, which gathers insights and wisdom from people who know congregations. If you are or know of a Wise Voice we should include, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. TheCongregational Resource Guide draws on the expertise of theAlban Institute, theIndianapolis Center for Congregations, and other specialists. It is hosted by theAlban Institute and is offered as a gift to congregations by Lilly Endowment Inc.
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Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish
What is a blessed church? It is a church uniquely grounded in a relationship with God that allows blessings to flow through it. It is a church with a vibrant sense of faith, hope, and love. It is a church that embraces the sacred and that is not afraid to serve God in its own way. Pastor N. Graham Standish describes how a church that is open to God’s purpose, presence, and power can claim God’s blessing.
Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace by N. Graham Standish
Humble leadership, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, means recognizing that what we have and who we are are gifts from God, and our lives should reflect our gratitude for these gifts. It requires us to be radically and creatively open to God’s guidance, grace, and presence in everything. When we lead out of such openness, God’s power and grace flow through us.
A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice by Jane E. Vennard
Pastors and others who want to develop their skills as teachers of prayer and spiritual practices will find in this book not only wisdom for themselves but easily accessible lesson plans, so that they can share Vennard’s insights with others while infusing the activities with their own spirit and creative ideas. Through this book, readers’ hearts are made ready to explore the wonder of strengthening their relationship with God through prayer.