With the recent onslaught of high-profile tragedies connected with mental illness, many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, are talking about the challenges of mental illness. It’s an important conversation. But one thing I’ve observed is the difficulty with which Christians address mental health in a responsible and holistic way.
Mental illness carries with it an unfortunate and undeserved stigma to which many church leaders don’t know how to respond to those struggling with mental illness. I’m encouraged, however, by the openness among church leaders toward understanding mental illness so they can serve their people more appropriately.
The information gleaned from the recent LifeWay Research study on mental health and the church is very telling. It reveals some of the holes in our collective understanding of mental illness and our approach to helping those caught in its unforgiving clutches.
One out of four people experience some type of mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That means people sitting in our pews struggle with mental illness. They and their families desperately want the church to talk openly about the issue so it won’t be taboo.
However, our research indicates most pastors rarely talk about mental illness in sermons or other large group messages. In many ways, the church, the supposed haven for sufferers, is not a safe place for mental illness. For the stigma of mental illness to be broken, there must be direct, transparent speech from Christian leaders. We need more open dialogue in the church.
That said, 56 percent of pastors strongly agree local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families. That number is not nearly as high as it needs to be, but it is an encouraging start. Also encouraging is that 53 percent of individuals with mental illness surveyed said the local church has been supportive.
Churches tend to either abdicate their role in mental health to outside medical professionals or to isolate themselves from the medical community. Neither response is helpful. Even those in secular branches of psychology and psychiatry say psychological health is better when people are connected with a faith community, and that should drive churches to healthy partnership with trained medical professionals.
The Bible teaches that Christ’s followers are meant to serve the broken and the hurting. When Jesus announced His ministry in Luke 4, He said He had been sent to preach good news to the poor, captive, and blind. Throughout His ministry, Jesus served the hurting.
The world is continuously surprised, however, that the followers of Jesus are less inclined to do the same. So, the church shouldn’t abdicate to nor isolate from those trained in these fields but, instead, find the place of tension in the middle from which the gospel flows forth unimpeded to the hurting.
There is incredible need for churches to speak more about mental health and to do so honestly, directly, and purposefully. Attitudes are certainly shifting on this front. Churches are moving toward a greater level of awareness and engagement on issues of mental heath.
My challenge to the church is that we might move beyond the whispering, the silence, the shame, and the stigma. Instead, let’s understand and show others that Jesus came seeking, saving, and serving the lost and broken people around Him. We, His church, honor Him when we join in His mission by doing the same.
Hopefully, we can learn from the ongoing conversation and shape a new, more helpful approach to serving those who struggle with mental illness.
Ed Stetzer (@EdStetzer) is executive director of LifeWay Research. For more visit EdStetzer.com.