What has faith to do with public health?

A version of this article by Dr. Heather Sipsma, master of public health program director and associate professor of public health, originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of STILLPOINT magazine.

Over the past decade, a systematic separation between the Christian church and public health has become more and more apparent. Public health has generally distanced itself from the Christian church primarily due to disagreements—or perhaps assumptions—on traditionally-held values and beliefs. Christians may see the field of public health as wrought with policies and programs that are misaligned with their convictions, whereas public health professionals see them as effective strategies for addressing and improving health among populations. This separation results in polarization, intolerance and ultimately ineffective strategies for improving health.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this gap between Christianity and public health is that the two should, by design, be intricately connected. Great synergy exists between following Jesus and working in public health. Christ’s call to love and serve one another is mirrored in the overall aim of public health, which is to improve the health of communities. When we consider health holistically—including aspects of physical, mental and spiritual well-being—the alignment is clear. Working in public health allows us to love and serve individuals and communities, and to follow Jesus’ example of servant leadership. Jesus himself encourages this posture in several instances. In Matthew 25:40 he says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” Thus, our work and learning in public health can be amplified when paired with this Christian calling.

By allowing a gap between Christianity and public health to exist, and even grow, we perpetuate tension and do a disservice to our communities. We need future leaders marked by love to stand in this gap. We need open, authentic dialogue; a spirit of courage and compassion; and a strong network of believers to support and encourage one another so that we can serve in a loving, informed and productive way. Together we can create robust solutions to public health challenges that are effective in reaching both Christians (who may be skeptical of public health) and non-Christians (who may be skeptical of the Christian faith). This strengthening of Christians in public health will enhance our capacity to effect great change and have an important impact for God’s Kingdom.