LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–Have you ever had a conversation that changed the direction of your life?
Thirty months ago my wife, Kay, while battling cancer, told me her heart had been broken over the greatest health crisis in history — the worldwide HIV/AIDS pandemic — and that God was calling her to do something about it.
Of course, I encouraged her vision, but I didn’t feel any personal calling to get involved. Like you, I was busy pastoring our congregation and serving other pastors. I didn’t know God was speaking through my wife to me. But as I heard Kay talk about this worldwide plague, I realized how little I knew about AIDS, how almost everything I knew about it was wrong, and how this crisis could be the greatest opportunity for the church to be the church — in both our own community and around the world. Soon, God grabbed my heart, too.
Consider this: 40 million women, children, and men worldwide have HIV/AIDS -– with more than 1 million in America! That means, statistically, someone in your church has HIV/AIDS right now. They may not even know it. And more than 50 percent of people with HIV/AIDS are women and children. Did you know that?
The Gospels repeatedly show that Jesus loved, touched and cared for lepers — the diseased outcasts of his day. Today’s “lepers” are those who have HIV/AIDS. They often hide their condition — even from family — out of fear or shame.
I’m convinced the HIV/AIDS pandemic is the church’s greatest opportunity to visibly demonstrate God’s love to skeptics. It is also an incredible opportunity to grow in Christ-like character, to share the Good News with the hurting, and to extend your church’s witness into your community and around the world.
Most people expect the government, not the church, to take care of people with HIV/AIDS. But Jesus said this to his church, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40 (KJV).
You may be thinking, “What can the church do?” The answer is a lot more than you think! I believe the local church is the only organization that can eradicate this disease. The six ways congregations can attack AIDS are expressed in the acrostic C.H.U.R.C.H.:
— Care for and comfort the sick.
Churches are commanded to care. It is their calling. Love leaves no choice! Local congregations are the only caring organization found in every community around the world. Members can offer physical and emotional care in homes and in the community.
— Help test and counsel.
Churches are the most trusted organizations in villages and towns, so people are more willing to be tested and counseled there. Just being tested has proven to promote healthier behavior. Members can be trained to give medical, emotional, vocational, and family counsel to those receiving results from their testing. They can also offer pre-treatment preparation and treatment education to the entire family.
— Unleash an army of volunteers.
Churches have the largest volunteer labor force on the planet — 2.1 billion members. What if just half of those could be mobilized? There aren’t enough professionals in the world to teach prevention, administer treatment and offer care to those who need it. There is an enormous pool of untapped talent, energy and relationships sitting unused in churches.
— Remove the stigma.
Churches are best positioned to remove any shame and stigma. Churches
offer faith, hope, love, forgiveness and grace –- spiritual support which neither business nor government can offer. In many parts of the world, if the church says you’re OK, you’re OK!
— Champion healthy behavior.
HIV/AIDS is a behavior-based disease, making it 100 percent preventable. Churches have the moral credibility to challenge high-risk lifestyles, and teach the moral motivation for abstinence and faithfulness. To resist peer pressure and relapse, faithfulness requires faith.
— Hand out meds and nutrition.
The church has the largest distribution network on the planet. It is universal, and it is already in place! Millions of villages have a church, but nothing else. The only way for treatment to become universal is to develop a church-based treatment model. NGOs (non-government organizations) come and go, but churches are permanent community fixtures. Members can be trained to distribute ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs) and other meds, vitamins, and food.
Do you see how your church can now make a difference?
This fall, Bill and Lynne Hybels, the outstanding ministry couple who founded the pacesetting Willow Creek Community Church, are going to join Kay and me, along with an impressive roster of the leading HIV/AIDS authorities in the world for Disturbing Voices: An International HIV/AIDS Conference, Nov. 29 — Dec. 1, 2005, at Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, Calif. It will be an historic and world-changing conference that we don’t want you to miss. Together, we’ll examine why and how your church can be a leader and your members can model for others what it means to care for the sick the way Jesus did and commanded.
For details on the conference and to register, visit http://purposedriven.com/en-US/Events/AIDS/Overview.htm.
Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life.”