Monday, March 17, 2014

Mental Illness and the Church: Where do We Go From Here?

I little over a year ago, Rick and Kay Warren suffered the unspeakable loss of their son Matthew.  The Warrens used this family tragedy to shine a brighter  light on mental illness, and the role the church should be playing in helping society address it.  Below is the post I wrote a few months later.

On Monday night, my wife and I watched the heartbreaking interview with Rick and Kay Warren in which, for the first time, they shared with the public their experiences surrounding the April suicide of their 27 year old son Matthew.  Due to the circumstances surrounding Matthew's death, the interview spanned a number of issues: including  parenting, gun control, and the struggle of faith that occurs in even the most committed during such gut-wrenching times. But the primary focus of the interview centered on the state of mental health care in our country, and the role the church should play in that discussion.

I watched, first of all, as a father of three.  There is absolutely nothing I wouldn't do for my children.  I can't imagine the helpless feeling of knowing your son or daughter suffers from an ailment, and that in spite of the best doctors, you are still unable to prevent them from doing something like this to themselves.  My heart broke for the Warren's when I first heard of their son's death back in April.  Last night, this father's heart broke all over again.

But I also watched this as a pastor, and I did so with one question in my mind:  "Why would anyone suffering from mental illness turn to the church for help?"  I want the church to be the first stop for people in need.  Unfortunately, I was unable to answer my own question.

As it turns out, my reservations have some statistical warrant.  Just this week, Lifeway Research released its latest poll on mental illness and the church.  You can find the bulk of that research here, but what haunts me about the results is this:  48% of evangelicals believe that Bible study and prayer ALONE can cure mental illness.  Essentially, that means that half of regular, church-going, evangelical Christians see mental illness as solely a "spiritual" issue.  By contrast, only 21% of those polled who attend church said they believed they would feel welcome in their church if they had a mental illness.  Additionally, 45% of the unchurched don't think people with mental illnesses are fully welcome in the body of Christ.

I believe that prayer works, and I believe that God still heals!  I have no doubt that the people of God, praying in faith, could certainly see someone fully restored to health.  I've seen it with my own eyes--cancerous tumors that no longer appeared on the CT scan after God's people have prayed, for example. At the same time, I don't know of any church who would discourage their people from visiting the doctor, or getting needed medical treatment.  Yet in too many churches, when it comes to mental health that same common sense approach goes out the window.

In my experience, this is primarily due to the misconception by many pastors that to accept the validity of mental health care is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture.  The problem with that assumption is that to deny our parishioners access to care that can potentially save their lives and help their families is to ignore one very important principle that those fully sufficient Scriptures teach.

Scripture teaches that God reveals Himself to us in two primary ways.  General Revelation is the process whereby God reveals truth through the created order (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20-21) and also through the human consciousness (Romans 2:14-15).  Special Revelation is the description given to specific ways in which God reveals truth throughout redemptive history, first through miraculous phenomena such as burning bushes, still, small voices, and messages in tongues, and ultimately in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), who in turn is revealed in the written Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16).

So, while God reveals Himself in these two primary ways, human beings also explore truth in two primary ways.  Where special revelation is concerned, disciplines like Biblical studies, Biblical and Systematic Theology, and Hermaneutics are employed.  Where general revelation is concerned, we explore the created order through the earth, life and physical sciences, and we explore the inward human psyche through anthropology, sociology, education science, and psychology.

In short, through the behavioral sciences, God has provided us an avenue by which we can learn things about the human mind that will allow us to help.  Sure, some who handed these sciences down to us in history didn't always have the purest motives, and still others were openly hostile to Christian faith.  But we also can't dismiss that they stumbled onto some very legitimate findings that can be of help where mental health is concerned.  Some veins of historical science haven't exactly been friendly to Christians either, but I'm not about to reject the very scientific method that gave my children a vaccine for chicken pox.  Truth was discovered, albeit through some rather crooked vessels.

With all this in view, here is why it is dangerous for pastors to reject the help that can be offered by the mental health field.  First, by appealing to the sufficiency of Scripture, we are rejecting what those Scriptures tell us about the validity of discovering truth via general revelation.  To put it bluntly, we are ignoring Scripture in an attempt to defend it, and that never ends well.

Second, we treat people with legitimate illnesses as though their problems are solely spiritual.  Admittedly there are times when this is the case.  Over the past 20 years, I've met with more than a few who claimed to "need counseling," when what they really needed was repentance.  But often, working together with mental health professionals will help us help our people with the scientific advances God has given us.  My friend Ed Stetzer said it well earlier this week: Let's treat character issues like character issues, but let's treat illnesses like an illness.

Third, the rejection of mental health care sets up a polarization between two disciplines that should be helping each other.  The lack of trust between clergy and mental health professionals is both obvious and palpable in too many areas of our culture, and both sides need to rid themselves of the false assumptions they have about the other, and talk openly with each other.

I'll be the first to agree that we are an over-medicated society.  We pop a pill for just about anything these days--when we get too fat, when we are working too hard, or when we need more vitamins.  It is true that sometimes the answer isn't becoming dependent on a synthetic substance, but instead repenting from gluttony, getting some sleep, or eating some healthy vegetables.  But the answer to a society that over-medicates isn't no medication.  Its appropriate medication.  Only when pastors and mental health professionals work together can we help to strike that balance.  Many of those mental health professionals can be found in our churches each and every Sunday.  Let's seek to understand each other within the church--the very context in which God intends that trust grow between brothers and sisters.  Let's equip those saints to fulfill a calling that is ever more crucial in our day, and let's cooperate with them in a way that integrates our respective disciplines for the glory of God.

As a pastor, I want to see less Matthew Warren stories.  If the church doesn't play a role in mental health, we will see more suicides, not less. The spiritual dimension that churches bring to the healing process is absolutely and critically essential.  But if the church wants to play a role, we have to be more approachable than recent research would indicate we are perceived to be.  

We don't stigmatize people with heart conditions or diabetes.  We pray for them, and we urge them to get the medical attention that we all know they need.  Those who suffer from mental illness should be treated in exactly the same way, and mental health professionals who love Jesus can help us take a badly needed and new approach to these precious image bearers of God.  

Together, we can create the kind of church environment that causes the mentally ill to see open arms everywhere they see a church.  Let's work toward that day!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why You Should Read "When Heaven and Earth Collide."

I've had the honor of knowing Alan Cross for about 9 years, and every time I'm around him, I learn something new, and I'm encouraged by both his wisdom, and hope in the Gospel.  For this and many other reasons, I was pleased to write an endorsement of his newest book When Heaven and Earth Collide.

Alan is a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama--where slavery, racism, segregation and the subsequent civil rights movement all found their epicenter for a period of about 100 years.  His book takes a hard look at how many southern evangelicals were a willing accomplice in the atrocities that plagued this part of our nation.

We speak often today about the temptation followers of Jesus face to simply ignore Scripture and capitulate to the prevailing views of culture, even if those views are contrary to Scripture.  Alan's book illustrates that these are not new temptations.  It also speaks honestly to a period in our history where the church in the south twisted the meaning of God's Word in order to prop up a sick and twisted view of humanity.

I'm a native southerner who was born in a time when these issues were beginning to finally be resolved.  The "new south" I see now when I visit extended family is a very different place than the one in which I spent my formative years, and that's a good thing.  I think Alan's book is important primarily because an entire generation is now coming of age that really doesn't understand how that history continues to affect not only race relations, but also social policy, demography, and economic disparity.  But most importantly, Alan is frank and honest about how southern evangelical capitulation to "Jim Crow" has affected the perception of the Christian Gospel by so many we seek to reach with the message of Jesus.

Here is my endorsement, that appears in the preface of the book.  Every human culture reflects both the image of God and the effects of the fall.  My friend Alan Cross vividly describes a 100 year period in which southern evangelicalism's theology and culture collided in a violent way that continues to affect economics, demography, social policy, and race relations.  Alan writes of an evangelical church largely unaware of how its own history has affected the perception of the Christian Gospel by so many.  The hard questions he asks come from the humility of one who lived through some of that history, and the boldness of a Christ-follower determined to change it.  Be prepared to be changed yourself! 

The foreword was written by Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, TX and author of Beyond Roots: In Search of Blacks in the Bible.

This book will be an invaluable tool toward understanding the history of your culture if you live in the south.  But regardless of where you live, the book will serve as a solemn reminder of the consequences that come each and every time the church rejects the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of the prevailing cultural presumptions that surround it.  Buy this book to inform yourself, and to be encouraged by a faithful and hopeful pastor who is committed to changing history.

Available here:

Monday, March 03, 2014

On Wedding Cakes and Religious Freedom

A few weeks ago, I had a hard conversation with someone who wanted my pastoral counsel.  A woman who owns a remodeling company was contacted by a family who wanted her to renovate a building they use to celebrate something she strongly opposes.  If she accepts the contract, she will, in her mind, be serving the interests of people whose lifestyle clearly violates her deeply held beliefs.  If she refuses, and the reason is discovered, these individuals could take her to court, and she could lose her business.

Thankfully, I had just finished reading this piece,  and in the same spirit, told her that remodeling a building isn’t an endorsement of what goes on in that building.  It’s just a job.  Furthermore, she should not first consider her convictions, but instead think of others and serve their interests.  Finally, after about an hour of back and forth, I honestly got tired of her struggle and told my transgendered friend to “suck it up” and say yes to re-modeling the WestboroBaptist Church.

That story not end the way you thought it would?

For several weeks now, I’ve followed the banter on both sides of a national discussion that is nearly out of control.  Though a number of legitimate issues have been raised from religious freedom to compassion and understanding, to tolerance and Christian servitude, this conversation predictably, and regrettably, became incredibly polarized. (We Americans are getting really, really good at that)

I’m not a pundit, a news commentator, a pie in the sky blogger or a politician.  I’m a pastor who currently serves a network of churches, all of whom are asking serious questions about these issues.  After the cameras are turned off and all the online news and blog sites cool down from this recent controversy—after Jonathan Merritt and Rachel Held Evans have moved on to other pots to stir--our churches will still be left to navigate the minefield that is left behind, and they will do so with both a desire to honor their convictions, and an equal desire to serve people in the name of Jesus.  And if we don’t start admitting that these issues are far more complicated than current discussions suggest, we will do neither.

Where this issue is concerned, my convictions as a follower of Jesus lead me toward two unavoidable conclusions that, on the surface, would seem to conflict.  On the one hand, the Scriptural concept of the imago dei brings me to conclude that no individual should be denied essential services, or otherwise treated as “subhuman,” regardless of who they are, or what they may be involved with that I might find objectionable.  As I understand it, the recently debated Arizona “religious freedom” law would have potentially created that kind of environment, and so I was disappointed that so many Christian leaders would thoughtlessly stand behind such a reckless piece of legislation.  I don’t want to live in a country where someone could be denied service in a restaurant because they are gay anymore than I want to live in a country where a cab driver can refuse to take me to a Baptist church because he thinks we are all ‘full of hate.”  Additionally, I tend to agree with Andy Stanley, who has recently stated that serving people who are not like you and disagree with you is, in many ways, the essence of what it means to be Christian.

On the other hand, I’m very concerned that religious freedom is being significantly diminished.  For 238 years this nation, with few exceptions, has been a model for complete and unfettered religious freedom.   I also believe that faith isn’t something that can be merely confined to what happens on a Sunday in a building, but spills over into one’s daily life and includes one’s vocation.  Contrary to those who contend that baking a wedding cake, taking pictures, or any other service-oriented task is “just a job,” 1 Corinthians 10:31 would seem to indicate that nothing a follower of Jesus does is “just a job,” and should be undertaken with this solemn realization in mind.  In light of that recognition, I want people to be able to think deeply and meaningfully about how their faith is best expressed without the outside compelling influence of Caesar—or fellow blogging Christians screaming “hypocrite!”

To be sure, some of those bloggers are asking some VERY legitimate questions: “Why would you photograph the wedding of a heterosexual couple who lived together, but not a gay couple?  Aren’t we all sinners?  Isn’t there something in Scripture about ‘going the second mile’?”  These deserve deep, prayerful reflection for churches to formulate a response.  Unfortunately, the same folks asking these questions are also insisting that those they ask be forced by law to simply comply.  To be sure, there is something quite ironic about telling your brothers and sisters in Christ to “suck it up,” and not be concerned about freedom of conscience.  “Just do what a follower of Jesus should do.  And in the event that you don’t know what to do, never fear.  We will tell you.”

Trouble is, religious freedom and the Christian responsibility to serve others aren’t mutually exclusive enterprises, and I’m alarmed at the dismissive approach to this issue that seems to be taken by more progressive evangelicals.  As a follower of Jesus, my mandate is to serve both conscience and people, and legislation from either side of the aisle won’t bring about that end.

The reason this issue is more complex than most in the media recognize is four-fold:  First, evangelical Christians hold to a sexual ethic rooted firmly in Scripture that speaks clearly to a number of things, including homosexuality. Sexuality isn’t the center and circumference of who we are, Jesus is.  But among the innumerable things over which Jesus has declared His Lordship, our sexuality is included.  As His follower, I can’t simply play the M.C. Hammer game of “can’t touch this” if I’m going to be faithful to His entire counsel, and on this issue, His counsel is clear.  I’m amenable to discussions of Biblical authority.  Send me a Dan Savage who saysthe Bible is “full of B.S.” any day and I’ll have an open, honest conversation with that guy.  But please, let’s have no more of the laughable hermeneutical acrobatics some in the evangelical world are attempting in order to harmonize a high view of Scripture with the affirmation of gay relationships.  The sheer exegetical incoherence and academic dishonesty inherent in those discussions makes me nauseous.  Disagree if you want with what the Bible says.  We can have radically different views of the authority of Scripture and still be friends.  But first let’s be real and admit that on this issue, Scripture speaks clearly.

 I love people, and I love to be loved by people.  In our current environment, I recognize that it would be much easier on me to capitulate on this issue—or to simply say nothing.  I have gay friends.  I have lesbian friends.  I have transgendered friends.  They are precious, image-bearers of God that I believe Jesus died to save.  My affections for them, combined with what I know God has revealed about this issue in His Word, compel me not to roll over.  Instead, I’m commanded to take “every thought captive” as I contemplate how to interact with those who are different from me.   The result of this will be obedience to my conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, as well as a God-given desire to reach out and love all people.  Followers of Jesus, don’t have the luxury of choosing one of these over the other.

Second, there is a broad way in which the balance of conscience and service will be struck among churches and those who are a part of them.  if asked by one of the roughly 10,000 people who attend our churches what they should do, I would encourage them to seriously contemplate “baking the cake.”  Personally, I’m in agreement with others who contend that there is a marked difference between solemnizing a ceremony and providing the accoutrements for that ceremony.  Additionally, I don’t know of any other way that people can feel the love of Jesus unless they are around people who belong to Jesus.  At some point, we have to think about how people can be surrounded by Gospel communities that not only preach, but live, a message of loving both God and neighbor.  So as I’m consulting with churches on this issue, I encourage them to have these conversations at a much deeper level than they experience in American media or on internet blog sites.

Third, I want our churches and those who are part of those churches to come to their own conclusions as to how to respond to this without outside coercion, because freedom of religion means, well, freedom.  We have a number of churches in our Association who have policies on things like divorce, ordination, et al that I personally disagree with, but if I know that the local body of Christ has come together and, within Scriptural boundaries, come to a consensus on an issue after long, mature and prayerful discussion, then I stand with them.  My role is to encourage them to think deeply and prayerfully.  Some may take my advice above, and some will disagree. For those in the latter category, I wouldn’t want them lending their resources to something they believed to be sinful any more than I would want my transgendered friend in the hypothetical example above forced to work for Fred Phelps.

Unfortunately, the rushed discussion around these issues doesn’t allow for that.  In the face of gay marriage being legalized in my state, many churches were quickly advised by attorneys to add language to their governing documents that on the one hand would protect them from a potential lawsuit that could drive them into bankruptcy, but on the other hand, has shut down the conversation altogether.  I want people in our churches to talk with homosexuals, not with attorneys about homosexuals.  It is tragic that our current environment actually encourages the latter.  We need a better, more mature, less trite conversation than the one we are currently experiencing.

And the more I listen to the voices on all sides of this discussion, the more I’m convinced that legislation and/or enforcement from either side won’t solve the problem.  Regardless of which side prevails in a battle of this nature, the inevitable result would be that the problem gets worse, not better. 

The simplistic logic, reactionary judgment, and vitriolic division that surrounds this current discussion illustrates clearly that this is a distinctly American argument.  Our realpolitik has, for decades, created the very culture in which conversations like this one naturally turn sour.  Followers of Jesus must aspire to a higher form of dialogue.  But to do so, our clear mandate to love our neighbor must continue to be informed by and balanced with our prime directive of loving our God.  Harsh, reactionary legislation on one side, and litigious efforts to put people out of business under a “Jim Crow” mantra on the other will ensure that love is the absolute last thing that characterizes any of us.