In a church of 100 people, 20 people will likely experience depression or an anxiety disorder at some stage in their life. If you are in a church of that size, there are probably 5-10 people struggling with depression right now. If you add in the family, friends, and employers of sufferers, something approaching 25% of an average congregation will be impacted to some degree. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the US among people aged 15-44, with suicide being the second leading cause of death in the same age group.
But when was the last time you preached or heard a sermon on depression, or any mental health issue for that matter? Given its prevalence, why is it so rarely even mentioned?
One reason is that there is so much ignorance and misunderstanding around mental health issues. Many pastors simply do not feel equipped to address the subject. Their seminaries did not train them and they have not pursued further training to help them understand and minister to people with such problems.
Many pastors are also unaware of just how common the problem is. Perhaps fearing a lack of sympathy or understanding, Christians with depression will often seek help from outside the church. The result is that there can be many depressed people in a church but the pastor does not know about it.
Other pastors may have decided that it’s entirely a medical problem and therefore something to be left to the medical profession. For these and other reasons, depression is rarely addressed in sermons and the effect is that depressed people feel isolated and ignored, exacerbating the problem.
But even worse than neglecting the subject is insensitive preaching that unintentionally makes the suffering even worse. From counseling depressed Christians, I’ve discovered that these types of sermon actually harm more than help:
– Sermons that over-stress the moral evils of the day. They are anxious enough through hearing the daily news without every church service ramping up the “we’re doomed” rhetoric. A steady diet of gloomy sermons, or graphic descriptions of violence, persecution, and other moral evils, is not going to lift up the head or heart of the cast down.
– Sermons that extol constant happiness as the only valid and virtuous Christian experience. The deep pain of depression is multiplied when a depressed person is repeatedly told that all sadness is a sin.
– Sermons that question the faith of anyone who doubts. A lack of assurance is not necessarily a lack of faith. Believers who hang on to God despite feeling no assurance sometimes have the greatest faith.
– Sermons that demand, demand, and demand. The depressed person already feels like an inadequate failure. To be regularly berated for not doing this ministry, or failing to engage in that Christian service, only crushes what’s left of their spirit.
I’m not suggesting that these themes should never be preached but I am calling preachers for greater sensitivity towards the depressed and anxious in their sermons.
If that’s what harms, what kind of sermons can help depressed people? One of the simplest and best things a preacher can do is preach sermons that at least mention depression, anxiety, and other mental and emotional disorders. Just to have such suffering publicly acknowledged can minister deeply to sufferers. It can help them to come out of the shadows and into the open, to sense that this is a safe place to share, and to believe that it’s okay not to be okay. It can also be helpful for the preacher to mention statistics that show how common the problem is, how this is a normal abnormality in an abnormal world.
The preacher may also demonstrate from the Bible that true believers often suffer with depression (e.g. Elijah, Jeremiah, David, Job). The Psalms are an excellent vehicle for showing believers the dark depths that believers can fall into (e.g. Ps. 88) and also give hope of recovery showing that there is a way out (e.g. Ps. 77). Sermons on Job should not just focus on the passages of triumph but also the passages of despair. Idealism must be tempered with realism. Other examples from throughout church history might also be added. For example, even the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon endured long periods of depression.
Sermons should also promote a holistic approach to mental health struggles. It’s very easy for preachers to take a simplistic approach – it’s all physical, or it’s all spiritual, or it’s all cognitive, etc. However, it’s very rarely that simple. There’s usually a complex mix of issues – the physical, the situational, the relational, the financial, the spiritual, the emotional, the mental, etc. This is true not just in terms of tracing causes but also in suggesting cures. One size does not fit all. Those relying on just meds should be encouraged to explore other dimensions of the problem. Same with those who are fixated exclusively on finding a sin to repent of.
Preachers with a tendency to preach on the more subjective side of Christian life should remember that depressed people need to focus most on the objective facts of Christianity, the historic doctrines of the faith. Facts first and feelings follow. There’s a place for careful self-examination, but remember Robert Murray McCheyne’s rule: “For every look inside, take ten looks to Christ.”
And that really brings me to the best way to preach to the depressed, and that’s to preach Christ. Preach his suffering and sympathizing humanity. Preach his gentle and tender dealings with trembling and timid sinners. Preach his gracious and merciful words. Preach his beautiful meekness. Preach his miracles to demonstrate his power to heal. Preach his finished work on Calvary. Preach his offer of rest to the weary. Preach the power of his resurrection-life. Preach his precious promise: “A bruised reed he will not break, and smoking flax he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3)
Preach Christ! Preach him winningly and winsomely. Preach him near and ready to help. Preach him from the heart to the heart. Preach him again, and again, and again. Until the day dawn and the shadows flee away.
Dr. David Murray is a pastor and a professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology. He is the author of a number of books including Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture. He blogs at HeadHeartHand.org and you can follow him on Twitter @davidpmurray.
Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture is a book for us. We move at a blistering pace day in and day out. We may take a vacation once a year, but is that really what it’s going to take to allow us to sustain a break-neck pace for the rest of our lives? This book confronts us with the sobering fact that if we do not slow down, if we do not reset our focus, then the constant red-lining could turn to engine failure. Check out this book and come back to a sustainable pace of life that God has called us to live.