It’s a favorite quote of apologists of grace and beggars for mercy: “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” For all its faithfulness in naming what the church ought to be, it’s rare to hear the phrase spoken as an indicative; more often, the quote is invoked out of a sense of longing and desperation, in response to the realization that the church is rarely, in fact, a hospital for sinners.
Think about the image we invoke when we express our desire for the church to be a hospital. A hospital is a place you go for appendectomies and tonsillectomies, arteriograms and colonoscopies, liver transplants and quadruple bypasses. Even if you’re hospitalized solely as a precaution and are not subjected to any tests or surgeries, there is nothing particularly comfortable about the hospital beds or the meals you eat in them. The truth is hospitals are places of discomfort, if not serious pain; after all, they are in the business of making us well, making us whole, and wellness and wholeness do not come about without discomfort and pain. Is this really what those of us who longingly invoke this phrase desire the church to be? Is this really what those of us who are church leaders want to commit our churches to becoming?
I’m suspicious that most of us who are card-carrying members of the “hospital for sinners” club don’t want church to be a hospital at all. What we really want is for the church to be a hospice wing for sinners. Each time I hear the quote recited, and each time I invoke it myself, I become more and more convinced that what we really desire is for the church to be a place where we are made to feel comfortable, where we don’t have to feel as though we’re not as healthy as everyone else, and from which confrontation in all its forms has been banished. The last thing we card-carrying members want church to be is a hospital.
But it’s not just those of us who always have our “hospital for sinners” trump card nearby who don’t want the church to be a hospital. Most of us who are involved in church leadership, not to mention many of the people in the pews each week, can’t imagine a scarier calling than being a “hospital for sinners.” Were we to take such a calling seriously, our congregations would be places characterized by gentle, Christlike confrontation and loving accountability, as well as a decent amount of pain as a result of the transforming work of the Spirit in the context of the community of faith. Unfortunately, we are all too aware of the degree to which reasonable people will do anything to try to avoid hospitals and we are absolutely obsessed with numbers. I suppose, then, it’s no surprise we have abandoned the calling to be hospitals for sinners, in favor of functioning as hospice wings, doing anything and everything in our power to make those in our halls as comfortable as they can possibly be and to ensure they don’t feel any pain at all.
Is it any wonder, then, that we find the same folks struggling with the same illnesses of the soul, the same obstacles to wellness and wholeness year after year after year?
Imagine what might result if we, as followers of Jesus, seriously sought out churches which would help facilitate the sometimes painful and uncomfortable process of healing and restoration, the way a hospital would, instead of seeking churches which are interested primarily in making us comfortable. Imagine what might result if we, as churches, actually took seriously the calling to help the sick get better, instead of merely doing our best to make them comfortable until they die.
Oh that the church might truly be a “hospital for sinners!”