If your congregation is typical, a wide gap probably separates your church from those in your community and around the world who are HIV positive. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to bridge that gap–to care as Jesus would for those who are affected by HIV/AIDS. At Saddleback Church, we’ve begun building that bridge, and I’d like to help you understand how you can build your own ministry bridge. Your bridge probably won’t look exactly like the bridge Saddleback is building in southern California, but whatever it looks like, it will help bring Jesus’ love and healing to those in your community and beyond who are hurting because of HIV/AIDS.
As we’ve worked to build our ministry bridge at Saddleback, these guidelines have worked for us:
1. INCREASE AWARENESS
Three years ago, I knew next to nothing about HIV/AIDS. I knew no one who was HIV positive, and I thought that people who were HIV positive probably deserved it due to their behavior. And, honestly, I didn’t really care. But God used one magazine article to open my eyes and heart to the pandemic. From there, I read and talked with experts and did everything I could to understand HIV/AIDS and build relationships with people who are HIV positive. In Exodus 3:7, God says, “You can be sure that I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt.” God is acutely aware of the suffering of those he created. We must follow his example and become aware of HIV/AIDS and those it affects in our communities and around the world.
2. ADJUST ATTITUDES
When you begin to see the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, you likely will realize that you are in desperate need of an attitude adjustment. To move further across the bridge and be able to minister to people who are HIV positive, you will need to release some attitudes, while you embrace others:
Release fears, stigma, and ignorance
If you don’t deal with your own fears and address the stigmas and ignorance in your own life, you won’t be able to minister effectively to people who are HIV positive. I used to think that people who were HIV positive deserved that status and, therefore, didn’t deserve my mercy or help; that’s a stigma I had to get rid of. But even after I moved past that stigma, I still thought that I might catch HIV just from sitting too close to someone who was HIV positive; fear and ignorance caused me to stay away from those who needed to be shown Christ’s love and compassion.
Embrace compassion, acceptance, and knowledge
When someone who has just had a heart attack is brought into an emergency room, the doctor doesn’t ask him about his diet and exercise habits before deciding whether to try to save his life. The doctor just accepts the patient in his current condition and does everything possible to help him. When we encounter people who are HIV positive, we don’t need to learn how they caught the disease before we show them the love of Jesus. Our job is to accept those people and demonstrate the compassion and love of Jesus. God’s job is to mold people into his image.
As we grow in compassion and acceptance, we also must grow in knowledge. You can help your church grow in knowledge by:
- Inviting people who are HIV positive to share their testimonies.
- Inviting local medical personnel who have experience working with HIV/AIDS to teach how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and be available to answer any medical-related questions you and your church may have.
- Presenting HIV/AIDS statistics in terms your church can understand. For example, don’t just tell your congregation that three million people die of HIV annually; tell them instead that the number of HIV deaths is equivalent to a city the size of Chicago being wiped off the face of the Earth every year.
3. TAKE ACTION
You can adjust attitudes all day long, but eventually you actually have to do something! Notice the action verbs in these verses:
“Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.” (Matt. 10:8 MSG)
“I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:36 NLT)
When God touched my heart for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, I began talking about it almost nonstop and praying that God would send people with similar hearts my way. He did, and with those people, I formed an HIV task force for Saddleback. None of us were experts, but we had willing hearts and worked hard to learn how we could minister effectively. Here are some ideas you can try:
Share about HIV/AIDS from the pulpit. It is most critical that the pastor and senior leadership of the church lead the way in charting a course for your church’s HIV/AIDS ministry.
Assemble a prayer team to pray for those affected by HIV and for your church’s involvement.
Form care teams who can work with HIV providers in your area to befriend those who are HIV positive.
Create support groups within your church for those who are HIV positive and their family members.
If your church has a Celebrate Recovery ministry, offer groups for people struggling with sexual addictions or gender or lifestyle confusion.
Hold a Christmas party at a clinic for those who are HIV positive.
4. ALLOCATE RESOURCES
At Saddleback Church, HIV is becoming a “signature issue.” It’s not just one of 150 other ministries, but it’s one of just a few issues that distinguish our church. That means that we’re making changes in our budget, staff, calendar, and church emphases. But those church resource allocation changes also must be reflected in a shift in our personal priorities. If caring for those who are HIV positive is going to be a priority for me, I must adjust how I allocate my personal resources – like my time, energy, creativity, and, yes, even my finances.
5. BECOME AN ADVOCATE
On the other side of ignorance, stigma, and fear are courageous folks who are willing to speak up on behalf of those who have no one to speak up for them. When King Solomon asked for wisdom, he received from God more riches, more power, and more influence, so he was able to be a voice for those who have no voice. We must be willing to do the same. Women around the world have very little influence; children, especially girls, have even less influence. Being an advocate means that we will speak for those with no voice and that we will identify with those who suffer. We will bring up their cause at every opportunity; we will stand with those who are hurting.
6. ADVANCE GOD’S KINGDOM
Why, ultimately, do we want to build a ministry bridge? We want to help those who are marginalized, ostracized, abandoned, forgotten, stigmatized, or far from God to find his love and mercy. We want them to know that, while others have abandoned and forgotten them, God has not. While their cultures, their communities, and perhaps even their own families and churches have hurt them, those actions do not reflect the heart of God. Instead, he has a heart of mercy, compassion, justice, and love. As we are open and generous with our lives—as we as a Church show who Jesus is and share his message of forgiveness, salvation, and a place to belong—people are able to see that he is not like those who have hurt them, and they are more likely to enter into a relationship with him.
I encourage and urge you to begin building a bridge of ministry from your church to those affected by HIV/AIDS. Don’t wait for your church culture to change before beginning that bridge. Two thousand years ago, Jesus changed the whole world with 12 individuals. He can do the same today.