J. David Newman is the executive editor of Ministry.

Is the primary goal of a church institution different from that of its secular counter part?

For example, is the primary mission of a Christian hospital to heal the sick? Or of a Christian nursing home to care for elderly people? Or of a Christian school to provide a good education? Or of a food factory to make health foods? If the goals are the same for Christian and secular institutions, what makes them different?

Some will argue that the difference lies in the environment. If so, is an institution Christian because it is staffed by born-again Christians? Is a school Christian because it requires all students to take religion classes for graduation, or because prayer is offered at the beginning of class? Should there be any difference between a Christian institution and a humanist institution that espouses high ideals?

Others will say the primary purpose varies from institution to institution. One institution's purpose may be to shelter people from the realities of the world; another may exist to provide employment for the church's members; another's main value may be as a source of income for the church.

What is unique about a church institution? If there is no uniqueness, then there is no need to call it Christian. Is there a common thread that ties all church institutions together?

This question is not academic. An institution's primary mission will deter mine the methods used to run it. The mission will make a difference in policies. It will help determine who is to be hired and what will be emphasized. It will determine whether the church should even be in that business.

The life of Christ helps answer this question. What was Christ's primary goal? Was His goal to heal the sick, feed the poor, comfort the afflicted? Did Christ perform His miracles to satisfy only a physical need? Did Christ divide His life into segments, one of teaching and preaching to convert people to God, and the other of healing, helping people for good's sake without any other motive?

The primary goal of Jesus is succinctly stated by Luke: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32, NIV). According to Mat thew, His mission was to preach the good news of the kingdom, and part of His method was "healing every disease and sickness among the people" (Matt. 4:23, NIV). Could it be that the primary mission of a hospital is not to heal the sick but something else? Could healing the sick be a means to a greater goal?

Some will become uncomfortable at this stage and mutter something about disinterested benevolence. "We should do good for good's sake," they say, "and leave the rest to God." "We don't want people to have the idea that there is a hook in everything we do."

Disinterested does not mean "uninterested" but "unselfish." All Christians must be obedient to the commission of Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of all nations. As the Westminster shorter catechism states: "The chief end of man is to glorify God." If this is true on the individual level, is it also true on the institutional level?

The purpose of a Christian institution is to do corporately what cannot be done individually. If there is no specific Christian focus, then it is no longer unique. It may be a church institution, but it is not a Christian one.

For example, a hospital takes ill people and seeks to make them into well people—finished! A Christian hospital says wait, we have an eternal perspective as well as a temporal.

If this is so, then it means a Christian hospital's approach to patient care will be totally different from a secular hospital's. It means that everyone who is part of that institution needs to be a dedicated Christian who understands and agrees with the primary focus of that institution.

The very atmosphere will speak not of humanistic loving and caring, but of truly divine compassion. There will be evident a loving concern that shows that people are serving not to simply earn a living, but to witness to the goodness and faithfulness of God and His Son Jesus Christ.

If a church operates a food factory, it has the same mission to introduce people to Christ. Through its products it will reach people who cannot be reached in any other way. It can sponsor nutrition classes, place coupons for health courses on its cans and in its packages. Similar ideas could be given for other church institutions.

Ellen White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, wrote this about the work of Christ: "The Saviour made each work of healing an occasion for implanting divine principles in the mind and soul. This was the purpose of His work. He imparted earthly blessings that He might incline the hearts of men to receive the gospel of His grace" (The Ministry of Healing, p. 20). We will help people whether they respond or not—genuine love is unconditional. But along with God our goal is that none should perish but that all should come to repentance (see 2 Peter 3:9).

When was the last time you as chairman or board member raised the question How well are we doing at our primary mission? The success of the institution will be measured not by a worldly standard but by God's standard—what contribution has it made to preparing people for eternity?

The church cannot afford to be diverted from its primary mission. No one deliberately changes the direction of an institution. It is a gradual process. That is why having a clear concept of mission is so important. That mission is its uniqueness. If the church institution's primary mission is no different from the secular institution's, then its basic policies and strategies will be no different. It is even possible for a secular institution that has high moral values to provide better service and better products than a church institution.

Church institutions are not necessarily Christian—but they should be!— J. David Newman.

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J. David Newman is the executive editor of Ministry.

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