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In the Service of the King

Medical missions are the hands and Heart of Jesus

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One Sunday afternoon, when I was eight years old, a college professor challenged me to give up my childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian. Instead of treating dogs and cats, he suggested that I consider serving God as a medical missionary, using healing skills to win the hearts of people for Jesus Christ.

Some missionaries can remember a specific call from God, like an audible voice, directing them to follow Him as a missionary. For me, sitting in my living room that day, the call couldn’t have been clearer—even if the voice wasn’t exactly a heavenly one. I knew from that moment that my trajectory included college, medical school and a life of service in far-away places.

Now, 37 years later, my wife, Chris, and I have been serving with the C&MA in Asia for 10 years. I can’t imagine a more rewarding life. We are honored to serve hurting and needy people in the Name of Christ, irrespective of their ability to pay. We don’t have to worry about HMO contracts, Medicare payments, insurance payer woes, health care reform or malpractice premiums. Instead, we find desperate, hurting people—for whom Christ died—living in untold misery. They are not able to afford proper care for such treatable illnesses as tuberculosis, obstructed childbirth, hyperthyroidism or a broken bone. Their culture and families have little time for them. Our skills make a huge difference in alleviating their pain. In the process, some of them find the love of the One who wants to give them a new and beautiful life.

So, straight up: I’m recruiting. In these last days, there remains a door cracked open for committed Christian medical people to press through, tossing our lives and training into the ring for our Savior, Jesus Christ. This is NOT the moment for us to be timidly circling the wagons or ruminating over the decimation of our equity funds. There are more lost, hurting people in this world than ever before. Many will respond to the love of Christ at the hands of a compassionate good Samaritan, who, for the sake of Christ, binds their wounds and cares for them when all others have just passed them by. Trained medical workers with strong Christian ethics and a truly Christian worldview are scarce. We few can make a difference on behalf of our King!

The use of our medical skills often provides opportunities for presenting the gospel in ways that aren’t available to traditional missionaries. Through our specialized training, God has equipped us with unique keys that He can use to unlock hardened hearts and rescue many.

God can use such simple acts of Christian kindness to open the spiritual eyes of hurting people. We have seen the lost come to Christ in response to treating a child’s severe tuberculosis; performing a hysterectomy on an elderly woman with a prolapsed uterus; surgically draining a young woman’s abdominal abscess; and making a trip to a distant village to tend the wounds of an elderly land mine victim. Lost hearts are more open to spiritual truth when physical suffering has first been tended.

The “face” of medical missions outreach looks quite different from one location to another. However, the ultimate goal is always to place our skills at the feet of Christ for His use in building His Kingdom. We want to see disciples made for Christ and churches established in every nation. At the end of the day, the number of patients treated isn’t important. What is important is that we are the hands and heart of Jesus to each person God sends our way.

It seems like yesterday I was a youth planning to be a medical missionary. Today, I’m a middle-aged doctor, living out the call. In a few short tomorrows, I’ll be too old to return, left with only my fading memories of joy from our years of foreign medical service for Christ. So it has been for generations of medical missionaries. The need for medical missionaries has only increased, not lessened, over the centuries. It is a role for young (or young at heart), determined professionals committed to service for the King. In these last days, may the King raise up an energetic corps of committed medical servants who will use their talents and skills to help bring life to this gasping world.

“‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. . . .’” (Mark 10:29–31).

DOCS-ology

When we arrived on the field 10 years ago, we had few recent examples of how to “do” medical missions in our context. Over the years, we have picked up a few key tidbits that have proven useful in helping us to survive and minister as medical missionaries. Maybe they will be helpful to you, too.

Always try to work with a church-planting team! We have found that the challenges of mission life are much more manageable when we directly contribute to the growth of the church and have a mutual appreciation for our team members. We are committed to working hand-in-hand with our fellow church planters. We make our skills available to them and support and facilitate their ministry. Our goal is to see churches planted in the hard soil of this region that are multiplying, discipling, indigenous and holistic.

We’re different—and so are our methods of outreach. Prepare to be misunderstood. Medical missiology is a different bird than any other type of missional outreach. Unlike the harvest field of traditional missionaries, our target “audience” is composed of sick people whose needs often must be met immediately. With little or no resources to contribute to their own care (money for hospital and doctors’ fees, labs, x-rays, medicines, surgeries), they face being turned away by the health care system and left to suffer alone unless we stand in the gap for them. If we don’t act—wisely and quickly—the patient may die or be left with incapacitating and permanent injury. Our missional approach to people in these circumstances requires a much different method than that used for reaching physically healthy people in stable social situations.

Refrain from criticizing national medical workers. Westerners tend to have high levels of training and show little tolerance for those we perceive as inferior in their delivery of quality health care. Practitioners in developing countries have a substantially different level of medical training. While some are only in it for money, others may want to practice well but see themselves as having inadequate resources to do so. Whatever the case, we are guests in their country. Their way of doing things preceded our arrival—and will certainly continue long after we have left the scene. We must do our personal best, overlooking perceived faults in others, teaching any who show true interest and humbly learning from them all that we can.

Be very cautious in partnering too closely with nonbelievers. When working alongside nonbelievers or secular charitable groups, unscrupulous actions by our partners may lead patients to believe that we are complicit in extortion from patients or corrupt practices. We must look for God-pleasing ways to maintain whatever distinction is necessary to protect the Name of Christ. In medicine we have a motto: “First, do no harm.” I would like to paraphrase that for medical missionaries: “First, do no harm to the Name of Christ!”

Always try to work through the local church and seek out a supportive pastor or elder board as point man. At all costs, we want to avoid the medical-missionary-as-savior mentality. Our chief goal is to glorify Jesus Christ, never ourselves. We are quick to pray for patients, pointing them to the source of true healing. If a patient has been referred by a believer, we ask that person to come along for the consultation. If a fellow missionary has referred a patient to us, we invite that missionary to be involved in the consultation. By doing so, we attach patients to the believers who have shown the most interest in their wellbeing. We know that, ultimately, the ones best suited to minister to our patients’ long-term spiritual needs are not doctors or nurses but the Christian friends or pastors who really know them.

—Kent Copeland

Past Alliance Life Issues

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