Suicide Risk in the Christian Church Day 5: Attacking the Problem Broadly
“Bear one another’s burdens.” Galatians 6:2
It is important to begin by clarifying that the local church is not the primary cause of suicidal ideation. There are some who find the local church an easy place to lay the blame and focus all their hurt and frustration. Please exercise caution with anyone who claims to be victimized and abused even though there is no intentional harm being done. (Remember that in most cases, in order for abuse to be on the table, it has to include intentional harm.) Often, their bitterness blurs the broader picture. Individuals like this need to take into consideration a larger perspective with a variety of causes, including their family sphere, outside influences, and their personal relationship with the Lord. I say this specifically in the context of mental health and suicidal tendencies.
It is also important to note that while the local church is not the main cause, it can, without contradiction, be a significant contributor. These will be noted below. For the rest of this post, I’d like to make some practical suggestions on how to engage this issue of suicide and look at it from a broad context, keeping in mind our verse in Galatians 6.
Create a non-judgmental and approachable atmosphere. Keeping in mind the input of the six individuals who helped us understand the struggle, we need to flip the script on the narrative that we will be shamed if we don’t measure up to unspoken ideals. Here are a couple of important considerations:
What we wear in the local church. It is a fact that overemphasizing a certain style of dress promotes unreality. For example, I may have kicked the dog on the way out of the house, yelled at the kids in the car, and expressed frustration when the ATM machine was out of order on the way to church, but then appear to be in the finest of attire when arriving to remember the Lord. This is where the culture of “looking pretty on the outside and glossing over problems” begins to take hold. Our dress should reflect both reverence for the Lord and also a cultural awareness that we are real people who live in the community. A brother or sister should not feel “fake” if they have to dress up to a non-scriptural standard. (Note the difference between non-scriptural and unscriptural.) A young person once reflected the following sentiment: the elders in her local church cared more about her skirt than her hurt. Respectful but genuine attire in the local church increases approachability.
Our prayers in the local church. Do we pray with reality? General, repetitious, cliché-filled prayers promote “fakeness” in the local church. I suggest that there are only minor differences between corporate and personal prayer. We need to pray for each other and situations with a great deal of feeling and heart because we love each other. We also do this because we love God and want His purposes to bring Him the most glory. Brothers—does your voice change to mimic a PA announcer or an infomercial pitch when you pray? Brothers and sisters—when we pray in the home, could our children quote our prayers before they happen because we repeat the same things every time? In our personal prayer—do we confess and pray with sincerity? Real, authentic prayer increases approachability.
Our shepherding in the local church. This is a very real need. We need overseers who are able to dedicate time to visiting and personal relationships. I feel deeply for elders who have real family and work responsibilities and then also have the responsibility of shepherding a local church. What an overwhelming task! If we want to have impact on the emotional needs of our fellow Christians, there is no way to achieve this without time for building relationships. We continue to need elders who are approachable because we have solid, deep relationships with them. We, the sheep, also need a greater understanding of our need for shepherding. One approach that might give pause for consideration is suggested by a fellow Christian who grew up in Malaysia. There, elders had scheduled appointments all day long, each Sunday, with every member in fellowship. By doing this, each member of the congregation had real “facetime” with their overseers.
Our teaching in the local church. Our teaching must come across with love. It can be challenging to deal with difficult and charged topics and not come across as condescending or harsh. I recently had a situation in which a well-meaning person confronted me on an issue. His opinions were inserted forcefully and presented as either black or white—wrong or right. His claims were based on his convictions (opinions) from Scripture, but not actually supported from the text. He suggested that people who disagreed with him should not be elders and should not be teaching in a local church. Furthermore, he suggested his thoughts on the matter were higher than others and implied that he loved the Lord more than those who opposed his views. Now if you were to ask this person if he really thought that much of himself or if he meant to come across like that, he would likely say no. However, if that is the way our words are heard, then the message is lost in the method. We must not continue to use shame or guilt as a motivator if we want to cultivate an atmosphere of approachability. Please take the time to read 1 Corinthians 13. If you teach without love, you are just an annoying sound…
What We Learned Today: Four general ways to improve the emotional health of those who attend our local churches by increasing approachability.
What We’ll Learn Tomorrow: Considerations in attacking this problem individually.