We’re facing a mental health crisis in this country. It’s a problem that’s been growing for a long time. Ever since the 1950’s publicly funded psychiatric care has dwindled, and the availability of hospital beds for psychiatric treatment has nearly disappeared. A USA Today article from 2014 does a good job of outlining the deficiencies in our current mental health system.
Even beyond the problems associated with the care of those who need extensive mental health treatment, we have constructed a culture that habitually taxes otherwise healthy people beyond their mental and emotional limits. Some people will always need professional medical care to deal with mental health issues, and the church should NEVER try to take the place of sound medical care. But the church does have a role to play in helping otherwise healthy people cope with the unhealthy environments we've created.
Remember when you heard that advances in technology would simplify our lives? You heard wrong. Technology is advancing, there’s no doubt about that. Your smart phone has more computing power than the combined abilities of NASA’s computers when we landed on the moon. But life hasn’t gotten any simpler. If anything our lives are growing more complex.
Think about how our lives have changed in the last 30 years or so. Constant access to email makes it more difficult for us to be “away” from the office, and smart phones and laptops make it less likely that we will experience any significant periods of mental down time during the course of the day. We’ve developed habits that fill every free moment of our lives with some sort of electronic interaction.
We work longer hours. Most households now require two incomes to get by. Families are finding it challenging--if not impossible--to save for a rainy day. And material and emotional support from extended families has declined as families have grown more dispersed. All of that combined means that the peace of mind associated with both financial security and the availability of family support continues to dwindle.
In short, at the same time that the merry-go-round of life has been speeding up, the costs and consequences of falling off the ride have increased. And we know it. And it’s leading to a growing undercurrent of existential anxiety. Anxiety has become the constant background noise of our lives, and our collective mental health is deteriorating as a result. 70 percent of Americans now take prescription drugs, and the second-most prescribed group of drugs are anti-depressants.
As individuals and as a society we’re finding it increasingly more difficult to nurture and support healthy minds.
Since 1994, anti-depressant use has increased by almost 400%. Not coincidentally, connection to religious institutions and adherence to religious practices have experienced historic declines over the same period.
Churches haven’t always promoted healthy attitudes about mental health, but churches can be—and ought to be—places that promote mental well-being and emotional balance.
As church attendance continues to decline many people have decided that the church is well on its way to irrelevance. But the church is one of the BEST places for people whose lives grow more mentally taxing and emotionally stressful every day. Healthy minds need human connection, holy interaction, and spiritual centeredness. And churches do those things really well!
Church is a place where you can connect with real people—people just like you who meant to exercise yesterday but ate a bacon cheeseburger instead. At church we connect with people who share our interests and draw support from people who share our struggles. Church is a place where face-to-face interaction is still the norm. Healthy minds crave authentic human interaction, and church is one place that still consistently offers that.
Worship is in part the acknowledgement that there’s more to life than we can measure—that who we are and where we are and when we are is not by accident. Worship at its best offers each of us the opportunity to embrace the mystery of creation and the animating power of the Spirit. Healthy minds are minds that recognize the power and creative energy of a God whose world overwhelms our senses. At church we stop for an hour a week to worship so that the holy isn’t entirely crowded out of our lives.
Your health magazine might call it mindfulness and meditation. At church we call it prayer, and it’s a cultivated habit that helps us regularly unplug and disconnect. Healthy minds are minds that pause to go inside themselves sometimes, and healthy minds find emotional well-being in prayerful connection to their souls.
Of course church is about more than self-improvement and stress management, but we would be remiss if we didn't include self-improvement and stress management as Biblical functions of the church. Just read Romans 12 or Philippians 4 or 2 Peter 3:14, all passages written to encourage churches worried about outliving their relevance. We'll be using 2 Peter 3:14 as our organizing theme for Lent as we focus on purity and peace in preparation for Easter.
Christian faith is about more than soothing and healing overburdened egos. But eventually the practices that promote healing communicate the content of the faith. And in the content of the faith we experience the presence of the indwelling Spirit and the hope of Christ, and we are convicted and inspired. And healing and inspiration are the ingredients of transformation. That's what we're aiming for, right?
So can the church still be relevant? More so than ever. As the world grows more complex, stressful, imbalanced, fractured, and excessive, we have a few things to offer. Simplicity. Wellness. Balance. Wholeness. And holiness. All through human connection, holy interaction, and spiritual centeredness. And all elements of salvation to a world in desperate need of them.
"May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ." -1 Thessalonians 5:23