Over the past week, I’ve suffered from a few little aches and pains and fatigue that remind me that I’m not as young as I used to be. My elbow has been twinging as a result of playing too much pickleball (a relatively new sport – sort of like indoor tennis – that is taking off at Grace Hills). Occasionally, I’ll have a muscle spasm or stitch in my side for no apparent reason. Saturday morning, I awoke to a flare-up of tendonitis in my left knee that left me hobbling around the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Finally, last weekend’s late nights and early mornings, combined with a shift to Daylight Savings Time and a week full of stress and travel, has left me feeling behind on sleep. A lazy Sunday afternoon yesterday was quite in order, especially the two (unplanned) naps!
Our bodies are wonderful combinations of flesh, bone, and chemical connections that God has fashioned to work together in an amazing manner. Yet those very connections are designed to work within very specific tolerances. I’m fairly sure that my tennis elbow developed from overuse of the muscles and tendons in my right arm by playing too much pickleball in too short a time. I’m equally sure that my back spasms and tendonitis are affected, at least in part, because I’m carrying around a few (ok, more than a few) extra pounds. And my fatigue? Why wouldn’t I expect to be tired if I got less than 4 hours of sleep two nights in a row, followed by a week of travel and interspersed nights of interrupted sleep?
I’m no health expert. I’m not THAT kind of doctor, nor am I a personal trainer, an expert in kinesiology, a dietician, or even an exercise enthusiast. I don’t need to be to know something fundamental about the human body: to feel good and maintain health, there are certain things we need to do. We need to get an appropriate amount of exercise (without overtraining). We need to get an appropriate amount of rest and relaxation (without becoming couch potatoes). We need to have a balanced diet with good nutrition. We need to maintain our bodies and pay attention to any warning signals we get (like pain, a grumbling stomach, or shortness of breath). In short, to maintain the amazing organic system that is our body, we have to intentionally take care of it.
The same is true of the church. Several passages in Scripture use the image of the body to describe the nature of the church. Ephesians 4 speaks to the importance of unity and maturity in the body of Christ, and finishes in verse 16 with a beautiful image: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” This wonderfully organic image of the church, as a body growing and becoming healthy, reminds us that the same techniques we use to care for and develop our physical bodies are often helpful in developing, strengthening, and caring for the body of Christ.
Exercise: One of the hardest things to do for our physical bodies is establish an appropriate exercise regimen. Despite its difficulty, though, exercise is needed to develop and maintain a healthy body. This is also true for the church; without spiritual exercise, or mission, the church is just another civic organization or country club. Jesus tells us that we are called to follow him for a purpose: to do the things he did. We do this when we make disciples, when we care for the needy, when we share the Gospel message, and when we generally strive to make the world more like the world God wants it to be. Those are important tasks that we do as a body of Christian believers, but they can be overwhelming in the same way that running a marathon can be overwhelming for a couch potato like me. So how can we incorporate spiritual “exercise” into the life of our church? By having mission and witness integrated into the life of the church. When a church can offer several options for people to engage in mission, with varying levels of commitment and effort, the burden of missional “exercise” can be alleviated; it just becomes one more part of the rhythm of the church’s life. It becomes part of the day-in, day-out life of the congregation, and the church is challenged to continue to grow and develop as a healthy body of Christ.
Rest: A body needs more than exercise to thrive, because exercise without appropriate rest results in overwork, discomfort, and injury. Indeed, a well-rested body makes for better and more productive exercise than a fatigued body. Rest is a glorious part of the rhythm of life that God has built into our bodies, and the body of Christ needs periods of rest, as well. There are busy seasons in church life: Christmas and Easter, of course, but also other regular times of energy and effort such as VBS. After such times of exertion, it is important that the church include a period of rest, with less programming and less demands on people, particularly in church leadership. Such times of rest and recuperation allow the recovery of energy and creativity, and those periods of rest also serve as wells of strength for the church and its leaders to draw from in the next period of activity and mission.
Nutrition: If I eat junk food all day, my body is going to rebel: I’ll get stomach aches, I’ll have a lack of energy, and I’ll gain weight. To operate in a healthy way, my body needs good and balanced nutrition. In the same way, the church needs spiritual nourishment to grow and develop in a healthy manner. Scripture and the person of Jesus is the source of nutrition for the church. The church needs to get a steady diet of grounded and relevant sermons, informative and helpful Bible studies, and timely recommendations for Bible reading and personal devotions. It also needs to receive encouragement and opportunities to engage in personal and corporate prayer, learning to hear and heed the voice of our Lord. These practices nourish the souls of both the individuals who make up the church and the corporate body of the church itself.
Care: When our bodies are hurt or fall ill, the prudent thing to do is to provide care. A wound untended will get infected, a cough disregarded will become bronchitis, and a sprain ignored could lead to a more lasting injury. Caring for our bodies when they are hurt or compromised is vital to our overall health. This is true for the body of Christ, too. Sometimes, a member of the body is hurt: an individual loses someone close to them, or suffers an illness, or faces turmoil in their family or job. Other times, the hurt is to the whole church: the congregation experiences conflict, has a major financial problem, or is hit with ridicule or obstruction from an outside party. In each of these cases, care is needed. The church needs to do those things that promote healing: rebuilding broken relationships, spending time with despairing members, working through conflict instead of ignoring it, and encouraging one another instead of tearing each other down.
When the church acknowledges its identity as the body of Christ, it draws from a metaphor that we know well: our own bodies. Like our physical bodies, the church body needs exercise, rest, nutrition, and care to remain healthy. When those things are present, the conditions are right for the church to grow and develop as the body of Christ. May all of our churches become the healthy churches that God wants them to be!