Andrew Nicholls writes about his recent trip to speak in Birmingham, Alabama at the 2019 National Conference of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF).
Mental Health is trending in all media outlets because people are waking up to the ubiquity and seriousness of mental illness, and because the royals and other public figures are setting such a clear example. There is, as ever, the possibility that the Church will respond in any number of unhelpful ways – striking a note of either belligerent criticism or unquestioning acceptance of all categories – but it is still more likely that many churches will not respond at all, or at least not until the secular boat has long since disappeared over the horizon.
CCEF in the US, and younger cousin Biblical Counselling UK, exist in part to help the church see the multiple and rich connections between issues that often attract secular labels – like depression and anxiety – and the good news of Jesus Christ.
At a recent Edinburgh conference for BCUK, for example, (God and Depression) we considered the prevalence of clinical depression (and anti-depressants) in churches, noted that the experiences of the depressed are not alien to the Bible writers (Psalm 88 is a potent example of this), appreciated that being a depressed Christian can be particularly challenging and heard of ways that ordinary church can be a distinctive and critically important blessing in the life of a depressed Christian. Feedback was positive, not least that such huge issues are beginning to be addressed meaningfully and empathetically within God’s people.
And more recently, I had the privilege of sharing a platform in Birmingham, AL - America’s ‘deep south’, in a conference titled “Anxiety and the God of Peace”. Biblical connections with this topic are not hard to find, especially if to anxiety we add its near-synonym, fear. The conference addressed topics such as fear of death, anxious children, scrupulosity, social anxiety, panic, post traumatic stress disorder, FOMO, and so on. In no case was secular wisdom ignored – quite the reverse - but in every topic our relationship with God is the most important consideration. All these fears can be an occasion for considering God more closely. Some involve repentance, others faith, and most point to both in various ways. All these fears can change when we consider God more deeply. And the church is the only place where this most critical dimension of human life gets explored.
The church needs wisdom of many kinds, always. Right now, it needs wisdom to reach a world where many feel overwhelmed by mental illness – and it needs the love to do so, as well as to care for those of its members for whom mental illness is part of their daily struggle. CCEF and BCUK are places where many UK Christians are finding wisdom and love strengthened, with the potential to make their churches a better place for all its members. The Pastoral Care curriculum here at Oak Hill aims, among other things, to equip trainee ministers in just these ways.
In all this we are not aiming at strengthening a therapy culture, by which people sometimes mean making church into the kind of place that makes us feel better. Rather it is about helping churches be places where, in mental illness as in all other moments of life, we discover more of God’s glory and his goodness.