Forging or Breaking Links
Recognising the prevalence of MH in the Church
‘Shut up. You’re retarded.’ That’s the way my mates and I used to talk to each other in high school. It was a cliché. Sometimes it was a joke. Today I would strongly argue against the use of stigmatising terms. No Mental Health (MH) condition should be turned into a cliché. It’s not a joke either. Instead of bringing levity to the situation, the jokes damage others’ feelings and faith.
Everyone in some way is affected by MH, and the Church is not exempt. It should be common knowledge by now that not all illnesses and disabilities are visible. Diabetes and tinnitus are completely invisible to the observer, and yet they are real and have varying levels of silent suffering. The same goes for those who suffer with MH. Taken from a 2014 NHS survey from The National Archives, in England, 1 in 4 adults suffer from a mental health issue, and 1 in 6 adults suffer from a Common Mental Disorder (CMD)*. That’s simply staggering. Maybe we have better mechanisms to report MH. Maybe times are getting worse at a very organic level. Likely, it’s both.
We walk into church on a Sunday and witness a sea of smiling faces. Charles is beaming. Susan is her bubbly self. What we don’t know is whether these faces are masks over trauma we can’t see, and that trauma has taken them down a dark and difficult road. Just because someone wears a smile doesn’t mean he or she didn’t have a horrible week. The Scriptures remind us we can only observe the outside, but it’s God who knows what’s going on inside. MH may be unseen and unheard, but it’s not unreal. It’s a silent plague that visits at unexpected and unwelcome hours. This sin-sickened world, and indeed our very friends, put on a brave face, but ‘terrors make us afraid on every side, and drive us to our feet' (Job 18v11). As if that weren’t bad enough, ignorance on the subject leads to unintentional mistreatment within the Church.
Compassion Check-up—how do you spend your time?
Do you talk more than you listen? Do you rush in to fix others’ problems with your opinions? ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue.’ ‘Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.’ ‘He that answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him.’ (Proverbs 18v21, James 1v19, Proverbs 18v13) Our compassion can easily be measured by how much of a listening ear we lend to others, not just after the morning worship service, but throughout the week. Do you invest time in others by being the first to reach out (ring a friend, meet for coffee, etc.), or would you wait until you’re asked to be a friend? I’m amazed how cheaply mobile phone minutes come these days—unlimited minutes for pennies! Why? Because people just don’t talk on the phone much anymore. A quick text. Check Facebook. Post to Instagram. But talking on the phone? Now that takes time. If you treasure healthy relationships, time spent there will take priority.
Wisdom to tactfully end a conversation that’s become non-stop moaning is indeed a spiritual discipline, but on the other hand, do you help carry others’ burdens, especially the burdens surrounding MH? The Apostle Paul undoubtedly met a wide variety of personalities, and yet he said to the Galatian church, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ How do you help carry a burden, like anxiety or bipolar, that you don’t understand? Ask them. Ask what it’s like to be in their shoes when their MH challenges flare up. Don’t try to fix it. Quite likely you’re not a trained MH professional with years of experience. What you can do is to tell them you can’t imagine the difficulty they’re experiencing and that you’d like to pray with them now and pray for them during the week. Follow up next week and the week after and the week after. Draw them to Christ who is their true Answer and Healer. Don’t slap them with verse after verse. Healing won’t happen overnight, and it may never be complete. One of the best ways to help bear the MH burden of someone in your church is to listen to them, talk with them as a compassionate friend, and really pray for them.
A Culture of Compassion
The Church desperately needs to become an environment of openness and compassion when it comes to MH. Those struggling with their thoughts, chemical imbalances, substance abuse, and psychological difficulties need to know that MH is not a taboo subject among the body of Christ. We must ensure we truly are friends among brothers and sisters in Christ. The Church fails when we confine ministry to four walls one day a week. Jesus didn’t meet the ‘woman at the well’ in a synagogue. He met her where she was without condoning her sin. His approach was compassionate, and He told her the good (and bad) news she needed to hear. Ministering to those with MH disorders requires time, understanding, and a willingness to bear a brother or sister’s burden for the long haul.
Joshua Booth has been in ministry since 2004. In 2006, he completed his master’s degree in Bible Exposition. He and his family moved to the UK from America in 2011 to continue their ministry. Joshua has served in four churches and currently serves as Associate Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church Spalding (Lincolnshire). For a number of years, Joshua was bi-vocational as a pastor and a building contractor, so he still enjoys rolling up his sleeves to do DIY. He likes to go on walks with his family and dog.