Refuge: How "Hospital Church Ministry" Can Change Your Church Forever

A look at the "hospital" church model.

—Reviewed by Loren Seibold, DMin

By James M. Reeves. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010.

After reading his biography at the beginning of this book, it won’t surprise you that James M. Reeves would attempt to resurrect the recovery and refuge movement in a conservative American church. Reeves, now senior pastor of the 1,600 member Celebration Fellow­ship in Fort Worth, Texas, had, from childhood, held a ringside seat to the most egregious family and religious dysfunction. Fortunately for us, Reeves rolled his personal healing over into the formation of a church of healing, where he allows a strip­ping away of religious posturing and sanctimony in favor of what he calls the “hospital church.”

The hospital church members, at the starting point, believe that emo­tional maturity and faith maturity are inseparable. “Your spiritual growth will never go beyond your emotional growth,” he writes. “You can never have a more intimate relationship with God than you are capable of having with other people.” If it is true that psychological development places a cap on spiritual growth, then church should be recognized as the proper place for Christians to work on both. Reeve’s model of the church includes facilitating personal change through the practice of community, transparency, and forgiveness.

Reeve’s evocation of psychol­ogy and recovery in an evangelical context may alarm some, bringing to mind liberal Protestant ministry of the previous century that sometimes seemed bent on replacing biblical theology with psychological theory, pastoring with counseling, and wor­ship with 12-step groups. Those who would place refuge in that category aren’t reading it accurately. Reeves is solidly biblical, making his case for the healing power of fellowship and spiritual intimacy from Scripture and relying upon it as the guide to healing.

The “hospital church” model may be charting a valid biblical direc­tion for an institution that’s having a hard time defining itself in our postmodern era, but what Reeves prescribes won’t happen easily. This kind of book general-principle churchmen and churchwomen will nod an approving “yes, yes” to but (from long habit of sending into exile those with open spiritual wounds) will find it exceedingly painful to see implemented. The average church fellowship is an artfully masked performance, and stripping that away, as Reeves insists we must, could destroy some congregations were it not resisted (as it would be) in the name of tradition and stability.

Celebration Fellowship’s ministry to sex addicts illustrates the difficulty. Why do sexual addiction recovery groups, though now serving more people in Reeves’s church than those for substance abuse, still reach but a fraction of the afflicted? “It’s almost a badge of honor in our culture to say that you are a recovering alcoholic,” Reeves explains. “But there is no badge of honor that goes with saying you are a recovering sex addict.” That is to say, the latter is not safe to admit to the church. So, how could you hope to find healing there?

Without that level of transparency, though, no hospital church exists. It will only work if we, in Reeves’ words, “practice safe church”—precisely what the church did in Acts 2 and, generally speaking, hasn’t done with consistency since.

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—Reviewed by Loren Seibold, DMin

June 2012

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