Dr. David Lose: Preaching on Mental Illness


When is the last time you heard a sermon on depression? Or for that matter heard anything about depression or other mental illnesses even mentioned in a sermon?

I ask because I readlast week of the death of Rick and Kay Warren's son Matthew of an apparent suicide. Matthew, 27 years old, had long suffered from bi-polar disorder and, as part of that, suffered from intense periods of depression that included suicidal impulses. The Warrens' response to this heart-breaking tragedy has been forthright and faithful at a time when most of us would want only to huddle together in grief. My heart breaks for them even as I admire their grace and faith in such circumstances.

Because of their tragedy, the question of mental illness is again before the public and, in particular, before the Church. I raised the question about mental illness and preaching because the sermon is the most regular, public, and communal witness of the Church and if depression isn't being mentioned there then whatever else the church may be saying, it probably isn't reaching most of its members.

As a culture, we are not comfortable talking about mental illness. Even in 2013 there is a stigma about admitting you struggle with depression or any other mental illness. We've come along way in not verbalizing that stigma, but I know too many people who are embarrassed, or even ashamed, to admit they struggled with mental illness to believe for a moment that we've overcome our biases. All too often we think of mental illness as a character flaw or as a weakness, a sign that something is deeply wrong with the person suffering.

Recent discussions of mental illness in relation to the mass shootings of the last year haven't always helped. Yes, they have raised the issue of the profoundly inadequate resources available to persons suffering from mental illness. But they have also connected mental illness to violent behavior, potentially deepening the cultural dread of mental illness.

So I'll come back to the question: when was the last time you heard a sermon that took up the issue of mental illness in any detail? Odds are such a sermon would help us view a pervasive condition from the perspective of faith. A study from the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that 1 in 4 adults suffers from a diagnosable form of mental illness in any given year, while a report by ABC News says that 1 in 20 adults suffers severely enough that it regularly disrupts their work and relationships. Which means that most of us, even if we haven't suffered ourselves, know and love someone who has.

Why do I think a sermon that dealt with mental illness would help? Actually, I don't want just one sermon, I want mental illness to be a part of our regular congregational conversation. And so I hope that preaching that regularly names mental illness along with other challenges we face will do two things in particular.

1) Normalize mental illness. Depression, bi-polar disorder, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, bulimia and other eating disorders - these and other struggles are not things to be ashamed of but rather are elements of our human condition. The more we can talk about these things in the everyday venues of our congregational life the less peculiar or aberrant or dangerous they will seem.

2) Address faith to life. One of the leading reasons I hear people give to explain why they have stopped going to church is that they describe the Bible and faith as irrelevant. They don't say this to be harsh or to make excuses. Rather, they just don't see how the time they spend in church - and what they hear or talk about there - relates to the everyday issues of work, home, family and all the rest. So the more we can view the challenges of life in our world from the perspective of faith the better.

Here I should be clear. I'm not looking for "application" sermons that teach us how to apply principles from the Bible to managing stress or having a better marriage or dealing with depression. Such sermons are all too often superficial and turn the gospel into good advice and render the Christian faith as merely a recipe for "your best life now." Rather, I want sermons that help me look at, think about, respond to, talk about, and in general make sense of...my life - all of my life, including the hard and challenging parts as well as the beautiful and wonderful parts - from within the framework of the Christian story.

Do I know how to do that? Not yet, but I'm trying. Moreover, I know lots of good folks are already working at this and I want to learn from them. Which is why I'm suggestion that more and more of us give some thought to how our life in church - including the sermon - helps us not only hear that God loves us - the message of central importance - but also how that love shapes and guides our living in the world. If we can do that then we will, I believe, help to create an environment that surrounds people like the Warrens and all of those who suffer from, or love someone who suffers from, mental illness with a community of faith that believes that Jesus came "to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, ”¨to let the oppressed go free,  and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19).

Note: No doubt there are lots of resources for those interested in reading further. Please feel free to suggest one's you've found helpful in the comments below.

Taken with permission from David's blog, "...In the Meantime"