Note: This article is excerpted from Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission.
If counselors, social workers and psychiatrists are well equipped to treat people with mental illness and to help them manage and even heal, why is people's experience in the church so important?
Because God cares deeply about the sick and marginalized.
He judged the people of Israel harshly because they "deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans" (Isaiah 10:2, NLT). Who is more needy than people suffering from disorders that distort their perceptions of reality itself?
The church matters because Jesus said he came to bring good news to the poor: "He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord's favor has come" (Luke 4:18-19, NLT). Then he sent out his apostles with instructions to "heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!" (Matthew 10:8, NLT).
The church matters because Jesus said, "God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs" (Matthew 5:3, NLT). Who is more aware of their daily need for God than the depressed, anxiety ridden, befuddled, lonely, and emotionally unstable among us? God sees these people, loves them, calls them to him, and calls us to love them.
The church matters because it is the first place many people go when they need help of all kinds, including help with symptoms of mental illness.
And it matters because it represents God and is equipped by the Holy Spirit to pour out Jesus' love on this world. And when someone is rejected, ignored, or marginalized by the church—representatives of God—they feel rejected by God.
Providing a Safe Place
The church also matters because it is a powerful instrument against darkness in the hands of a God who loves the light. The church can and does make a difference. While my family's church didn't really reach out to us, meet our needs, address our questions, or assure us it was safe to be the floundering people we were in the midst of Mom's struggle with schizophrenia, at the same time our church and youth group were my lifeline. Literally. God used them to keep me from life-ending despair. I never believed God had abandoned me, and the church provided a sane place to grow up spiritually. God used the church powerfully in my life to redeem the challenge of growing up in the shadow of schizophrenia.
And I'm not the only one.
My sister Cheryl said, "I felt like church was a haven where I was safe, and that God was my only true comfort. Church and youth group were an escape where we had fun, removed from the weird life at home, and could laugh, think about normal things, feel a part of something good and feel safe since there was no safety at home."
Scott agrees: "My faith has been key for me all through these years of mom's illness. My own personal convictions as well as sermons, Bible studies, and theological classes have been very important to give me the strength I needed to live through this experience."
For one girl, the church was literally a lifesaver, providing not only spiritual but also physical sustenance. Church was where she often got food as a child.