Mental Health and the Modern Megachurch Movement
This week, we had the pleasure of meeting with a dear friend and Pastor of a church in the south of Sweden. The conversation started quite light-hearted with banter back-and-forth about this and that but later turned to more serious matters.
Contemporary church culture. Now, I know that every church, whether small, large or super-sized has its good and bad. In my 13 years as a congregation member of a very, very famous church, I feel like I’ve seen and heard it all. The music is too loud. The lights are too low. The coffee shop is full of hipsters. The teaching is watered-down. They talk about money and buildings too much. Yep. Every complaint under the sun, I have either heard or uttered under my breath.
But, there is one thing, one very notable aspect in modern church culture that irks me. It’s like a fire wells up inside me and I want to scream, “NOOOOOO!! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!!”
Enter the go-go-go faced-paced culture of church. We have to stop this notion that people in leadership, in position of prominence, power and influence are impenetrable. Unshakable. SUPERHUMAN. Our church is known worldwide as the church that never sleeps. While it’s commendable, it’s pretty far from the Jesus I know. In the Gospels, I know of a Jesus who slept in a boat while a storm was blasting and made time to withdraw from the crowds to retreat, rest and pray.
That same night we were discussing such pertinent matters, my heart was heavy with the news of megachurch pastor Andrew Stoecklein, who had sadly lost a crippling battle with depression and anxiety. The sense of hopelessness he must have felt to have resorted to taking his own life is nothing short of heartbreaking. He left behind a young widow and three gorgeous boys. (You can read his beautiful wife’s letter written in the wake of his death).
Only two years ago, I was admitted to a mental hospital for a few weeks because I had suicide ideation. The doctors insisted I stay in a facility where I could be under psychiatric supervision 24/7 because I was a danger to myself. To put it bluntly, I was on suicide watch. Phone chargers and laptop cords were confiscated from all patients in the ward because somehow through life’s circumstance, each one of us had hit rock bottom. They had to eradicate any possibility of someone taking their own life because most of us longed to end our suffering.
It’s time to wake up and stop pushing people into the ground
The recent news of Andrew’s suicide has sent shockwaves throughout the contemporary church. While I am deeply sympathetic towards the family, friends and church community, my hope is that this wake-up call will bring conviction to the Christian conglomerates that drive Pastors, leaders, college students, volunteers and church members into the ground.
I make no apology for offence that is taken over the uncomfortable truth that we are facing. While megachurches grow and ground is gained, let us not forget at what cost this is happening. If everyone is balanced, sober of mind, peaceful and happy as Larry, then keep going. If people are burnt-out and stressed, it’s time to take inventory.
I’ve had one conversation too many with burnt-out college students that run from class to women’s meeting, to church service to kid’s ministry, writing papers on effective leadership, holding down a job to pay their way through college and oh, trying not to have a mental break-down because they never get a minute to rest.
Or, how about the high turnover of staff because they’re over-worked, under-appreciated and under-paid? Yes, I get that frontline ministry is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not for everyone. When you accept a position as a staff member, you don’t do it for the money, but the passion, purpose and calling. But again, at what cost? You can’t afford to make house repayments? You have a disconnected relationship with your kids because you never see them? You are run-down, exhausted, stressed to the max and are starting to present with physical symptoms of depression and/or anxiety?
Let’s live with a humble understanding of our human limitations
A well-respected and highly-esteemed member of our college faculty once explained to a bright-eyed and ambitious class of college students about a time he had the flu and rebuked the sickness by walking around his neighbourhood praying in tongues. Apparently, it worked and he went back to work the next day. When I was sitting in that class 10 years ago, I remember thinking, “Why don’t you just take a rest?” Though common sense was booming through my head, I dare not say a thing because of the social implications of speaking out.
It’s no wonder why well-meaning, hard-working, Jesus-serving Christians are struggling with mental health issues. We’re being fed with so-called theologies that don’t line up with wisdom and are guilted into resounding a big yes to everything. Team night, women’s ministry, the creative conference, the annual conference, the kids camp, the prayer meeting and so on.
These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. Not in the slightest. In some seasons, I’ve attended everything from weekend services to church conferences and the opening of an envelope. However, there are times, such as now while I have very young children, where I am deeply aware of my limits (lack of sleep being one) and do the bare minimum.
I would even dare to say that I come to church – not to serve, but to be served. Because holding a six-month-old while trying to worship and listening to a message that inspires and encourages me, whilst also trying to feed a baby is the best I can do right now. And I am totally fine with that. I won’t accept that I’m a “bad Christian” because all I know is that Jesus loves me despite what I do or don’t do.
Not everyone, however, is OK with saying no. Either they feel incredible guilt that they cannot give give give in gushing volumes 24/7, 365 days a week or, they impose pressure and shame on others because they are working within their limitations. Either is not ideal.
Mental health is everybody’s business, even if it makes you uncomfortable
I don’t care what anyone on platform says, we have limitations, we are human, we are fallible, weak and hot messes. We can step into what God has for us with a conscious knowledge that God shows His strength in our weaknesses. Or, we can live deluded and believe we are rock-solid, charging forth with little consideration of the heavy toll that long-term stress can take on our bodies and minds and suffer the consequences. I’ve been there and look where it landed me – in a mental hospital. At the time it was horrific, dark and lonely, but I’ve come out of it with one important lesson – that it’s completely OK to be weak and fail. It happens to EVERYBODY.
Church, stop running away from uncomfortable topics around mental illness because it creeps you out or you don’t have the answers. Stop burying your head in the sand because of the discomfort you feel. Depression and anxiety is uncomfortable for everybody. The one who walks around tormented day and night with these thoughts feels worthless and lonely enough as it is.
Stop with your shallow and superficial talk about who’s wearing what, who has how many followers, who’s modelling outside of church for their latest Instagram post. This stuff, as enticing as it is to talk about is not important. People in your congregation, in our congregation are suffering. I have been there and it’s the worst feeling in the world putting your church face mask on because you can’t deal with one more person brushing you off.
Church leaders, take note. Mental illnesses are increasing within our church walls and outside. You/we must be the answer, not the source of the problem. Stop parading around in your fancy pants, posting about your perfect lives on social media and ignoring the real issues. WAKE UP. There are lives at stake here. Please, let’s keep constant dialogue going in your Sunday messages, at conferences, in your newsletters and over social platforms. NEVER STOP TALKING ABOUT IT and opening up conversations between leaders, teams, within connect groups and in youth ministry.
We have a mission to fulfil and that is to save souls. But first, we must save lives so that everybody has the opportunity to say yes to Jesus and make heaven their home.
If you feel distressed, please reach out to LifeLine by calling 13 11 14.