“Will you please stand if you have been diagnosed, or medicated, or gotten counseling for anxiety, depression, ADD, phobia, PTSD, or OCD?
“Or if you’ve sought out counseling for relationship issues—family, teens, parenting, marriage?
“Or if you take sleeping medication, stress medication, or pain medication?”
I asked my church these questions from the pulpit during a sermon series titled “The Struggle is Real.”
On that Sunday, about 85 percent of the church stood.
A similar percentage stood when I asked about having a psychological dependence on or an addiction to pornography, alcohol, cannabis, caffeine, or illicit drugs.
I can only assume that my church isn’t an outlier when it comes to mental health issues.
Mental health and the church
What may be strange for our congregation is that I, the lead pastor, am also a licensed professional counselor.
I already know how broken, hurting, addicted, and traumatized the people in our churches are. I have a good guess as to what a high percentage of them struggle with diagnosable mental illness: relatively close to the general population, which is about 20 percent in any given year (but more than 50 percent will be diagnosed at some point in their lives).
So, if the people in our communities and congregations face these issues, why did half of pastors say that they “rarely or never speak” about mental illness?
This answer is even more perplexing given that 23 percent of those pastors acknowledge that they, too, have faced mental illness (and I assume that number is vastly underreported).
Having given it some thought, considering the pressures that I and other pastors I know well feel, and reading the research, I’ve narrowed the most likely culprits to three traps that our churches, congregations, and leaders fall into when it comes to mental illness and the church.
The perfection trap
I grew up going to a church where everyone was expected to be on their best behavior. You were dressed in your “Sunday best” and “scrubbed pink” (I think there were some ethnic assumptions going on there as well). Church was a place to perform and even, sometimes, to compete with one another in appearance and behavior.
I remember the rather childish habit people had, looking around and whispering when a child was acting well.
If this perfection was the standard for children, imagine the unspoken demands on the other members, much less the church staff!
Maybe this started in the concept of presenting your best to God in an act of sacrifice, but I believe the hint of pride in this took hold and turned the church experience into the “main game,” making Sunday morning about competitive perfectionism.
Does this “Sunday best” mindset fit within the teachings of the New Testament?
Jesus says that he came to save the sick, not the righteous (Matthew 2:17). He considered the lowly prayers of the humble heart the kind that justifies (Luke 18:14). And Paul clarified that it was in our weakness that God’s strength is most evident (2 Corinthians 12:10).
I do think churches have made good progress since I was a kid. More churches seem to grasp the message I heard Rich Mullins give in a concert back in 1995: “Every time you go to church, you’re confessing again to yourself, to your family, to the people you pass on the way there, to the people who will greet you there, that you don’t have it all together, and that you need their support; you need their direction, you need some accountability, you need some help.”
The same report I cited above indicates that 68 percent of Americans say they would feel welcome in church if they were mentally ill. I am gratified to hear it, but I wonder if that applies yet to mothers of kids with special needs or other issues that might be seen as disruptive?
Either way, there is room for us to grow in matching the viewpoint of Christ with regard to our frailty.
I submit that those of us tempted to judgmentally glare at the mother with the disruptive child, who might easily have a history of trauma, ADHD, autism, or just lots of energy . . . well, it may be our attitude that needs adjustment.
The “not-here” trap
“Stay standing if you have four children. Five? Six? Seven?”
Many churches probably still do some kind of special count of children to celebrate Mother’s Day. But we don’t notice the women who never attend on Mother’s Day.
We may assume that none of them have faced abortion, miscarriages, or unasked-for pregnancies from abuse, assault, incest, or just adolescent decision-making. Surely the women in our churches don’t deal with issues like that, right?
But of course, they do, and Mother’s Day can easily be a date for confusion, regret, and grief.
This is merely one example of the kind of challenges that people can face when coming to church after experiencing trauma. Consider how much more complicated the experience can be for people who are facing clinical depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, phobia disorders, or any of the other mental illness burdens that so many carry as members of our congregations.
The “Bible is sufficient for everything” trap
We know that we cannot learn how to drive a stick shift from the Bible. However, the patience, endurance, and temperance required for driving a stick can be learned from living out the text. Is dealing with mental illness something that we only need the Bible for, or is it like learning to drive a stick shift? About one in three Americans say mental illness can be overcome with Bible study and prayer alone, but I think it usually requires skills outside of the Bible.
Of course, what the Bible teaches us about life and godliness, training, reproof, and correction are applicable to every aspect of our lives—including mental illness. Consider how they also apply to medical learning, rehab, and culinary skills too.
However, just like with these examples, biblical truth does not somehow cancel out medical learning, driving techniques, or therapeutic theory when they are also true.
In other words, all truth is God’s truth.
Truth is sourced in him no matter whether that truth is rooted in math, law, or treatment for mental illness. We must never be moved from what God’s word reveals is true. We ought never to fall into the trap of thinking that every single true statement in the universe is also found in the chapters and verses of the Holy Bible.
Fortunately, it is clear to me as a pastor and as a professional counselor that these traps are being avoided more often in churches all the time. Local churches are making real progress in offering a safe haven for those of us struggling with mental illness.
I hope this trend continues!