“Look at that!” I said.
“Look at what?” My wife asked, as we sped along the rural road.
“You missed it,” I said. “But someone ran into the fence around that body shop back there. He knocked down part of the fence and really crumpled up his hood.”
“Oh,” Elaine said, not particularly interested.
“I guess the good news is that they won’t have to tow him very far to get his vehicle fixed,” I said. “If there’s a good place to have a wreck, it must be on a body shop’s lot!”
My mind wandered on and strangely enough, it settled on nosocomial infections.
Nosocomial infections are the medical name of hospital acquired infections. They are infections that are not present at the time of a patient’s admission that develop over the course of a hospital stay. We could almost say, that they are accidents at the “human body shop.”
These types of infections are amazingly common. The CDC estimates that there are around 1.7 million of them every year in the United States.
They range from things like C. Diff colitis (a bowel infection that can follow antibiotic therapy), to pneumonias, or urinary tract infections.
You would think that they aren’t that big a deal. Patients jokingly tell me that if they fall at my office, that they are in the right place to do it, as though a hip fracture that happens in a doctor’s office is somehow better than a hip fracture that happens when you are wrestling a steer on the back lot.
One would think that a patient in the hospital is in the best place if they get an additional infection and it should be easy to take care of these sorts of illnesses. Just pop them on another antibiotic and hey-presto, the additional infection vanishes in a puff of penicillin.
Unfortunately, that is anything but true. Patients who get nosocomial infections are often weak to begin with and this makes the additional infection hard for them to handle. Worse than that, the bacteria that are acquired in a health care setting are often extremely resistant bugs. They do not respond easily to normal antibiotics.
Churches are hospitals for people with spiritual ailments. At the same time, many people have been harmed by churches. Like nosocomial infections, people who have been damaged by churches or hurt by those who claim to be Christians are very difficult to help.
Prevention is Paramount
In a hospital or nursing home, it is extremely important to take care of anything that could lead to a hospital acquired infection. Lines and catheters are discontinued as soon as possible to prevent contamination. Staff are to wash hands frequently and even wear gowns and gloves to prevent the possible transfer of infection from one patient to another.
Quite simply, it is easier to prevent an infection than it is to treat one once it has begun.
In the same way, churches need to spend time taking the temperature of those already attending. It is tempting to believe that a church’s mission is simply about outreach, growth, and ministry to the hurting people outside of the church, but there are many who sit in the pews every Sunday who need a little — or a lot — of TLC too.
More than that, it is important for churches to deal with members who are not living Christ-like lives. One of the main points that the Apostle John made in his first epistle, was that Christians who do not demonstrate an active love for others do not truly love God.
Church members who are unkind to their spouses or children or have issues with other relationships need to have these things addressed. These are serious matters and end up destroying the church’s ministry and testimony if they aren’t taken care of.
This is not something that is solely the responsibility of the pastors of a church. Certainly, those in the ministry have that responsibility, but all church members have the ability to help.
Lost Sheep are a Bad Sign
Hospitals that have many nosocomial infections have a problem. It might be that their doctors and nurses aren’t practicing good hand hygiene. It might be that they are leaving catheters in place too long. There might be some other issue that is going on.
What is certain is that it isn’t the patients’ fault.
Sick people are not to blame if they get sicker in the hospital. Regardless of what prevention you put into place, some of these infections will happen, but if there are high rates, then the hospital needs to figure out what they are doing wrong.
In the same way, when a church body has a constant loss of members, the church needs to evaluate what is going on. It is easy to blame the people who are leaving for “not investing themselves” in church activities or to believe that it is an indication of the back sliders lack of spirituality.
When churches see a pattern of leaving, they need to do an evaluation to see what they can change to make a difference.
Doubts are Not the Issue
Germs are everywhere! They are on our skin and in our mouths. They colonize all parts of our body. It is no wonder that people catch infections. People even take good bacteria pills, called probiotics to try to rebalance these tiny creatures.
Blaming bacteria is a superficial reaction. The issue really isn’t the bacteria, it is when the wrong bacteria get into the wrong place that bad things happen.
In much the same way, many blame doubts for those who leave church settings, but that isn’t really the issue. Everyone has doubts. The issue is whether we have a solid community of believers around us to support us through our darkest times.
Love is the Antidote
In the hospital setting, there is no magic bullet. There is no special probiotic that once instituted it will take care of all issues. There are simply many little steps that health care providers take in order to make certain that infections don’t spread from room to room or new infections begin in a hospitalized patient.
Churches do all sorts of things to battle people leaving. They put into place teaching programs, Bible studies, and even apologetics efforts. Pastors work hard to make their sermons interesting. Song leaders and music ministers do their best to make praise and worship livelier.
At the end of the day, people don’t leave churches because the apologetics program wasn’t adequate. They leave because they don’t feel a sense of community or feel loved.
I suppose it is easier to do all of the busy work that we do in a church setting than to figure out how to make someone else feel loved and set about the hard work of loving them. It doesn’t change its importance.
“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye have love one for another.” (John 13:35)
Hospitals are Still Important
“Hospitals are killing people!” I heard this refrain frequently from people during the heart of the COVID epidemic. They were convinced that doctors were taking poor care of people in the hospitals and ICUs.
Regardless of what the truth of that statement was, many people avoided hospitals during that time. They stayed home, or went to alternative clinics.
I remember talking to a woman who told me that she delivered her babies at home. At the time, I still did deliveries in the hospital and I questioned her about this decision.
“I delivered my first baby in the hospital,” she told me. “It was a terrible experience. I never want to do that again. I’ll have my children at home where I have someone who cares about me taking care of me.”
It saddened me. The issue isn’t really whether it is safe for people to have most of their health care in an outpatient setting or deliver their babies at home. The issue is that an organization charged with providing care for a patient let that patient down when they needed help the most.
Some of those scars will never heal completely.
There are bad doctors out there. There are hospitals that provide sub-optimal care. At the same time, when people are really sick, there is a level of care and knowledge that is available in a hospital setting that is not available elsewhere.
Churches are much like hospitals. One of their missions is caring for sick and hurting people. Probably the saddest thing is that those same churches, that should love and care for people in need, sometimes harm those very people they are charged with protecting.
Jesus said that as we care for the “least of these,” we care for Him.
When someone has experienced harm in a church setting, they eventually leave and many never come back. More than that, they tend to generalize, believing that all churches are like the one that didn’t take care of them.
God knew that we humans need community and family to nurture and help us through childhood into adulthood. The same is true for Christians. We need a family of people to help us when we are struggling in some way.
It is devastating to realize that many people not only aren’t supported by their church families, but have actively been harmed by them. Having felt that pain, they will never willingly return to such a setting again.
It is hard to know how to bring healing and trust when the damage goes so deep and was caused by the very institution that should have provided care. Maybe healing starts with listening to someone’s experiences, but it can’t stop there.
Churches need to actively address toxic leadership practices and deal with them. They need to figure out the needs of their members and do their best to meet them. Most of all, they need to create a family-like community that is invested in each of the members and ready to minister to whatever needs they have.
Prevention is better than treatment. It isn’t someone else’s problem, for when my brother or sisters suffers, I too, feel pain.
Most of all, we need to heed Christ’s command to His disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
There is more to having a church then having pews, good singing, and a Bible based sermon every Sunday. A church is a family of believers who are focused on loving others – even those who have experienced church-acquired infections of the soul.