The Modern Evangelical Church and Mental Illness

I think that for a long time it’s been a hard sell to say much about mental illness in the modern evangelical church. Mental illness has a way of challenging some of our evangelical tropes and the exaggerated conclusions we may draw form them:

  • “Jesus brings us joy”; therefore we should not feel sadness or grief, and if we do, something is wrong with us. Even more, whatever that is that may be wrong with us, I cannot speak truthfully about it because, my fellow believers will neither understand nor accept me because of it.
  • “Jesus brings us peace”; therefore we should not feel anxiety or fear, even though Jesus told us that in the world you will have tribulation.
  • “Jesus brings us love”; therefore if we are rejected and experience heartbreak, there’s something wrong with us – even though Jesus said that the world would hate us because of him.
  • “Jesus changes our lives”; therefore there is something wrong with us if something goes wrong with our thinking processes, even though Jesus told us that we will enter into the kingdom of heaven through many afflictions.

Over the years pastors and churches themselves have often followed the trends of the psychiatric and psychological community, and pastors have often seen themselves as or acted like a kind of junior varsity mental health worker. So they have often enough followed the trend of the psychiatric and psychological community in pathologizing problems of the ‘worried well’  — which we could easily call life adjustment problems –as in the same category as true brain and cognitive disabilities such as the many varieties of schizophrenia and manic depressive illness. Then, too, the casual use of much psychological terminology among proud, intrusive and ignorant people in our churches has often led to real travesties of those who try to play medical doctor or psychiatrist with second hand bits of knowledge and labels. Then again, there has often been real ignorance and actual cooperation of well meaning and compassionate believers with abusive people in the abusive practice of gaslighting.  Then again, any ministry to the poor and homeless will come to an awareness of the role of mental illness in poverty and homelessness – estimates are that in the USA 1/3 of the homeless have severe mental illness and that many of those in our prisons and jails have treatable mental illnesses, and much of this has been attributed to the desinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that took place since the 1960s. Even more, the causes of the kinds of brain diseases and cognitive impairments which are now called mental illness are not certainly known, but much of the current medical community believes that many of those who currently have twill be found to have either an environmental, bacterial, viral or other physiological origin.

I think that the first thing to do is for many to get a handle on where the current state of research is. It is now generally conceded that Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, among others who dealt in talk therapy and investigating what they thought was happening in the subconscious or as a result of a person’s past were wrong. And it’s unfortunate that many, many pastors, who may not have had much in the way of counseling courses since the 1970s or 1980s, may be attempting to minister with now discredited or superseded theories and understanding of mental illness.In addition, the consensus is growing that there are a number of problems which cause people deep grief, sadness and anguish which are not related to brain dysfunction. Furthermore, when I consider the experience of Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, I can only think that our understanding of the prevalence of the experience of sorrow and grief in a godly and holy person in our sinful and broken world has been sadly underestimated and often misdiagnosed. So, I offer the following links only as a starting point to get information.


On a personal note, I’ve had contact over the past decade with many others who qualify as intellectually gifted in terms of IQ. One common theme in the stories of so many is the misdiagnosis of giftedness as a mental disorder even with trained medical professionals. Here’s some more information about this tendency.

Fashionable Compassion and Making a Real Difference

Back in the 1980s, a young boy who lived in the Philadelphia area, Trevor Ferrell, felt a great deal of compassion for the homeless people that he saw in the various streets and parks in which they lived. He persuaded his family to take them some food and blankets. Some others joined in, and there was for a while a ministry to the homeless, Trevor Cares, that was featured on local television stations, and the center was Trevor. Eventually, though, he and his family left that ministry, which still solicits donations through a website. The last news on Trevor is that as an adult he runs a thrift store in the Philadelphia area.

Trevor and his family were evangelical Christians, and certainly they and many others believed that they were following Christ when they were handing out food and blankets to the homeless. I think that that kind of ministry became kind of fashionable back in the 1980s, and tended to die off in the 1990s. First, it became apparent that a number of people who were claiming to be homeless and soliciting funds were actually not homeless. In fact, in a number of cities investigative reporters traced many of them back to fairly well to do homes. Second, it became clear also that many of the genuinely homeless were suffering from much deeper problems than a lack of food and shelter: namely, severe addictions to drugs and alcohol and severe mental illness or a severe combination of the two. Certainly it was compassionate to give them food and blankets but it was evident that they needed much, much more.

In the cities and towns in which I ministered as a pastor, usually the churches developed some policies to deal with those in need of ministries of compassion. Usually there was some kind of partnership with local rescue missions and food pantries. In the last small town in which I served as a pastor, the churches had in fact joined together to sponsor a food pantry. There were some limits placed on the handouts. While there would be emergency help, usually churches would sponsor families if they were known to the pastor, or, if the family had no church connection, someone from that family would need to come to a church building (not necessarily a church service) to receive their monthly food basket. There was the hope that this would give that person or family some kind of awareness of the possibility of a church connection through which they could receive more than simply a handout of a food basket. There was never the expectation, though, that anyone would ever need to sit through any kind of spiel to receive a food basket when that person came to a church building for a food basket.

There was one church, though, that scorned this kind of ministry, and said that they were going to put up their own food pantry with no limitations on who could come, how often they could come, or how much they could carry away. In two days their pantry was cleaned out and had nothing left to give anyone. So they then learned the lessons that the other churches had learned and joined together in the sponsorship of the food pantry to which the other churches were giving both money and people.

During the month in which my church had its turn to hand out the food baskets, there was one woman who insisted that no one from her family could come to the church building to pick up the food basket. So I drove to her house to deliver the basket. It was obvious when I came there that she was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and that her family was also suffering because of that, since every inch of the floor was covered with her children’s toys. It was pretty difficult even to find a path to a place where I could set down the bags of food which I brought.

So, these stories are to show some of what may happen when someone tries to take the commands of Jesus seriously in ministries of compassion to the poor. There may be, though, too much of a misperception among people who have grown up in the evangelical church that their churches and denominations have not really done very much to show compassion to the poor. Much of this may be due to personal ignorance – perhaps their own experience has been lacking in actual exposure to and understanding of these ministries. Or, if they have come through the secular university experience, they may have been exposed to and may be giving far too much credence to the ignorant claims of the hostile critics of academia and left wing, antiChristian organizations that evangelical churches and denominations have been doing nothing. In fact, though, local churches and local church joint ventures have often doing much more than is known even among people who regularly attend evangelical churches.

The truth is that evangelical denominations and churches do have centuries of a strong and often ignored track record in dealing with actual problems that plague society, and often what is done is quiet and unheralded. Compassion for the poor? World Vision, Compassion International, World Relief, Samaritans Purse …and church food pantries in almost every city and town. Dealing with addicts (the real cause of much poverty and abuse)? The Salvation Army, Teen Challenge, and rescue missions in almost every city and town. Prison ministry? Prison Fellowship and many other prison ministries. Could more be done by Christians and churches? Probably — and I personally think that there could be more done with the severely mentally ill. Have the churches delivered a utopia? No, but that was never their mission – and there is no other ideology or religion that will deliver any kind of utopia until Jesus returns. Is there any truth to any charge that little to nothing being done by Christians in North America and around the world to address the ills of society? Absolutely not!

So here are the kinds of questions that need to be asked if we are to move beyond fashionable compassion to making a real consistent difference in the lives of others.

  • What is being done now in the body of Christ locally, nationally and internationally?
  • What can be done locally, nationally and internationally?
  • What are the lessons of experience that others involved in ministries of compassion have learned and from which I can learn?s
  • What are my expectations of what the end result of ministries of compassion will be?
  • Am I willing to participate in ministries of compassion even if I receive no earthly recognition or, even worse, no earthly financial recompense myself for this ministry?
  • What are the possible root causes of the problems that I see?
  • What is the most reasonable understanding of the teaching of the Old and New Testaments regarding poverty and social justice and what are the most reasonable applications of this teaching in our culture?
  • Do I understand that ministries of compassion can and should be kept in balance with ministries of evangelism and disciplemaking?

Certainly mercy ministries and giving in the name of Jesus are good things. But certainly also those who encourage, follow and labor in those ministries will always need to grow in wisdom, particularly if they pursue these ministries in their youth. There will still be many, many lesson that they all can learn over the years, especially when they may pursue these ministries with naiveté of personal and spiritual immaturity and arrogance of inexperience. Again, the compassion of Jesus is more than a pure emotion of pity for those in difficult and harmful circumstances but it is a compassion which is tempered with wisdom. The compassion of Jesus for this world is a love with wisdom. And more and more this will mean a wise redirection of starry eyed youthful enthusiasm – the wholly commendable drive to ‘change the world’ – away from any kind of magical thinking and naïve utopianism into actual ministry. And the growth of experience will, I think, bring about the realization that compassionate handouts need to be accompanied with lifechanging ministries that address and deal with the long term patterns that contribute to long term poverty. This will mean that there should be more mobilizing of the effort from fashionable compassion to more long term ministry involvement. And that will mean understanding that sharing the life changing gospel of Jesus, his healing power and ability to deliver from the following long term patterns will always be part of a compassionate ministry to the poor:

  • Addictions
  • Financial and moral irresponsibility
  • Mental illness
  • Abusive and broken families

In these circumstances then, by the command of Jesus himself, the mission of his church remains the same:

  • Evangelism
  • Discipleship
  • Compassionate and generous interventions

Salvation Army: Amazing Grace