Posted On May 16, 2016

Encountering the Gospel in the ICU: The Importance of Visiting the Sick and Afflicted

by | May 16, 2016 | Issues in the Church, Featured

Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to write on “Issues in the Church” that either aren’t talked about, ignored entirely, or that we want to contribute to the discussion on. Our goal with this series is to help our readers think through these issues from a biblical worldview with lots of practical gospel-application.

I remember making hospital visits with my dad when he served as a pastor. I didn’t go often but when I did, I felt a little creeped out, to be honest. Walking into a room to see a church member with IV lines and wires attached to them can be a little nerve-wracking. What I didn’t realize at the time was making hospital visits were an important task for the gospel minister.

Jesus stated in Matthew 25:36 “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ His brother James added in James 5:14 “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Historically one of the most important pastoral tasks is caring for the sick and afflicted. Often time is the hustle and bustle of the pastoral schedule the hospital call can be a nuisance. A hospital call should be viewed as an invitation to minister the gospel.

Biblical Theology of Sickness

A biblical theology of sickness is helpful in order to understand this specific pastoral task. In the beginning, God created the body to be good, whole, and complete. Humanity lived under God’s reign as a completed person without sickness. It wasn’t until humanity rejected God’s reign and rebelled against Him that sickness and death came into the world. Since that point sickness, disease, and death has consumed humanity. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection humanity can experience restoration, probably through physical healing in the present but ultimately in the New Creation. Jesus is indeed the Great Physician (John 5:1-9). In the tension between the now and the not yet, there will be sickness because of sin. This is why the Great Shepherd has assigned His undershepherds the task of visiting and caring for those who are sick.

Pastoring in the Hospital Room

Serving in an older congregation I’ve had the privilege of ministering the gospel in the hospital room. Though visiting those who are sick and hurt can be difficult, the presence of a pastor can be reassuring to the one in need. This is a sign that the sick are not alone. Unfortunately, as pastor, we get the idea that doing public ministry like preaching can influence more people for the gospel when in fact doing the small, unnoticed, and private ministry can be just as effective. In the hospital room, Jesus is present.

Many pastoral works have discussed the importance of hospital visits. Brian Croft in his book The Pastor’s Ministry states, “When we are deliberate about visiting the sick and afflicted in our churches, we can trust that a divine task is being done…” Jason Helopoulos makes simple and practical suggestions for ministering to the sick in his book The New Pastor’s Handbook. I would encourage you to pick those books up for your pastoral edification.

If I may here are three things to consider in your pastoral hospital visit.

Ministry of Prayer

Dare I say the best thing you can do as a pastor when faced with a church member’s sickness is to pray. If you aren’t able to make it to the hospital right away, take the time to pray over the phone with the member or member’s family. This not only ministers the gospel but it proclaims God’s sovereignty over the entire situation.

I have made it a habit to pray for the person in need, the family members surrounding them, the doctors, and the specific course of treatment (if it is known at the time). Many pastors suggest making the prayer short. I would agree just in case a nurse comes in to draw blood or administer medication. We need to be respectful of those during their work. Yet in the same vain as pastors, we need to be clear that it is only God who can bring the healing through Jesus. Most importantly the prayer needs to be gospel-centered.

Ministry of Word

As a pastor our greatest tool in any situation is the Bible. Church members watch as we ascend the pulpit with our Bibles in our hands so may they see us we walk into a hospital room with it as well. The Word brings comfort, encouragement, and delight.

In the hospital room, the sick church member has heard the word of the doctor, family members, and nurses. As pastors, we are afforded the privilege to speak God’s Word into people’s lives. While it is tempting to discuss the full context of a particular text, it is wise to select a few verses to read. The sick member needs the Word, not your sermon. Expect questions like “Why is God allowing this?” “Will I ever recover?” To those questions let us bring God’s Word to bare and let Him speak. Sometimes we may not have an answer for the present but we can show from God’s Word that He does care and seeks to provide comfort to those in need.

Ministry of Presence

Honestly among the prayer and Scripture most people just need someone to sit and listen. Sometimes not even listen, just sit. Your presence as a pastor is a sign that you care. Your sermon prep can wait. Your pastoral lunch can be postponed. A member of your church needs a reassuring presence. Jesus gives us this example. As we see in the Gospels, Jesus was just “there.” His presence was felt. As pastors, we like to speak but we just need to be “slow to speak” in certain situations. Whether it is there to hold the hand of a sick member, listen to a story, or simply watch the news your presence is needed.

The gospel has power anywhere and everywhere. Even in the ICU or waiting room at the ER. Visiting the sick is an important task of pastoral ministry. Ministering the gospel from the pulpit is important, but ministering the gospel in the hospital room is equally important. Don’t think that the hospital visit is an intrusion to your gospel work. Visiting the sick is your gospel ministry. Don’t take this lightly my brother.

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