There has been much news in recent days regarding the suicidal death of Jarrid Wilson, a pastor of a megachurch in California. A year ago another pastor’s suicide was in the news. As it was then, so it is now that articles and tweets are being posted about the need to realize Christians, especially pastors, are not immune to suicidal thoughts and depression, that prayer and Bible study are not cures in and of themselves.
Here is the thing: depression, anxiety, and the awful results they often inflict upon people and those who love them are not the problem we need to solve. Rather, they are symptoms of a much bigger problem. I have been a campus pastor for more than 35 years, and what I have been witnessing over the past 10 years is a dramatic increase of depression and anxiety in students. A few years ago, three students in one semester committed suicide on our campus. And the answer is always proclaimed to be faster, more effective treatment. If only these students, or pastors, could have received the treatment they needed, these tragedies would not happen. Suicide hotlines are established, suicide prevention days and months are declared, more peer counselors are trained. These measures have been increasing year after year, but suicide rates remain on the rise. Why would that be?
Before I answer that, let me share a brief story. The campus ministry association at my school meets annually with the Counseling Center director in order to get a sense of what is going on with students emotionally and mentally, to get a sense of the trends. A few years ago, he began to report a significant increase of anxiety among students. It eventually superseded depression as the number one presenting problem. Last year, at our annual meeting, he said something startling. When asked if hiring more counselors would help, he said there would never be enough counselors to solve the problem.
Why won’t an increase in resources make a significant difference? Because depression and anxiety are symptoms of a larger societal problem. Treat the symptoms all you want, but it will never solve the problem. Yes, there will be successes, just as there are successful treatments for cancer. However, the incidence of cancer will not be changed until the causes of cancer are determined and addressed. In the same way, some suicides will be prevented, many with depression and anxiety disorders will be helped, but we will not come close to reducing the incidence of them until we start looking at the causes and seriously addressing those.
What is happening in our culture is that we have begun to normalize depression and anxiety. I once had a student who was prone to panic attacks. This was her normal and she couldn’t see anything different for her life. The Church once resisted that and many erroneously proclaimed that prayer and Bible study were the answer, but at least there was a belief that a relationship with Jesus could make a significant difference. No more. Now the Church is falling in line with the rest of our society and treating these things as normal for believers. How then do we deal with the commands of Scripture not to worry, or to take our anxieties to the Lord? In this day and age, are they just to be seen as ridiculously naïve? I don’t think so.
No, the problem as I see it, goes much deeper, and while we do need to responsibly take care in treating the symptoms, we need to double our efforts to treat the problem. In the case of the increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide in our culture, research is clearly pointing to a lack of connectedness of people to other people—in person, not through social media. In other words, a lack of true community. And sadly, the Church by and large in this country has thrown its lot with the culture. Megachurches, TV worship services in order to make it more convenient for folks to hear the sermon without having to leave their homes, pastors assuming roles that look more like CEO’s than shepherds tending personally to their flocks.
When I think about the two pastors mentioned above, I don’t think depression or anxiety were their real problems. I think they were trying to fill a role that no Christian man or woman was ever meant to do. Imagine them, instead, in a small house church where they are surrounded by loving fellow believers and perhaps some seekers. The emphasis (and pressure) is not on how they perform, but rather on loving one another, helping to carry one another’s burdens, and serving the Lord without fanfare, but with devotion. Would they still have mental issues? Perhaps. But I think they would have been much more manageable because the pressures to perform and meet unrealistic expectations would be drastically reduced.
The church model today is a foreign concept to the Church of the New Testament. And it is a model that does not serve its leaders or congregants very well. The statistics regarding mental disorders are not much different between those who believe and those who don’t. We are no longer a community with true leaders leading us in humble submission to God; rather we are an audience that has gathered to see a performance, rave about it (or complain), and then go back to our isolated and disconnected lives.
The Apostle Paul was highly critical of people “having the form of godliness, but denying its power.”(II Timothy 3:5 NIV) I think that is where so many are today, gathering on Sunday mornings, appearing godly, but there is no transforming power. I am with Francis Chan that it is time to rethink the way we in America and other western cultures “do church.” I believe it is the only way to solve the problem of depression, anxiety, and suicide among Christians, and the best resource for those in our society who are struggling with those same issues.
I empathize with the families, congregants, and admirers of Jarrid Wilson, Andrew Stoecklein, and many other pastors who have taken their own lives. Their suicides were terrible tragedies with life-altering consequences for their families and congregations. However, let us not merely look to our society for the solutions, because it is focused on the symptoms of a problem that only the Lord can solve. And he has given us fairly clear instructions. Just read the Book of Acts and implement its practices.
Many will say this is naïve, that it’s impossible to do. To them I would quote these words of Jesus: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27 NIV) The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Do we trust God? If the answer is yes and we know what he commands, then what is preventing us from changing what our churches do and what we expect from them?
Let me be clear: I am not saying that mental disorders of Christians will magically go away if we return to a New Testament model for our churches. We are fallen human beings who will struggle with many things, just as the New Testament believers did. But these afflictions are best dealt with in authentic community where we are surrounded by people who truly know Jesus and love us, and where we have a sense of purpose beyond serving ourselves. This is the Church as God designed it.
© Jim Musser 2019