Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the Gathering on Mental Health and the Church at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. The event was co-sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Orange County. To learn more about what the event was like, I recommend Christine Scheller’s excellent and touching recap on Christianity Today.
As for my reaction, I’ll say wow. This was a powerful step toward changing the way the church responds to mental illness. The unique power of this event wasn’t really in the messages–all the speakers, like me, said things they have said before. It wasn’t in the ideas presented, which were practical and time-tested. It was in the fact that so many of us were gathering in one place, speaking up together. This simply does not often happen among people with a unique interest in mental illness. The power was also in the size of the audience: roughly 10,000 people in attendance and watching online. And it was in the partnerships represented: between evangelicals and Catholics, people in need and practitioners, people who needed to share their stories and those who needed to hear.
For me, this was a tangible and joyful ministry opportunity. While I’ve addressed thousands as a writer, I’d never before stood up to speak in front of so many. And while I receive many emails from people looking for advice or just someone to hear their story, I’ve never had face-to-face conversations with so many hurting people in one day. There was something marvelous about seeing thousands come together around the issue of mental illness and its relationship to the church, the very obvious evidence that people were not hiding anymore. And it was awesome to be among those in position to help break the silence and minister to them.
But this wasn’t just a ministry opportunity. Like about half the attendees, I am a member of a family profoundly affected by mental illness. I am among those who need ministry and those whose hearts were strengthened by the presence of so many people who could relate to our experience. I got to hug a lot of people who’ve been there and who get it. Frankly, I never thought it would happen in an evangelical church. And it was profoundly encouraging to me.
This event was not perfect or globally effective. It did not feature the voice of every person who has something worthwhile to say about mental health and the church. But no event could accomplish the work by itself. It was not a capstone or a culmination; it was a catalyst. Thanks to this event, we’re talking about mental illness in places we haven’t discussed it before. This was a big conversation, and I hope it will multiply into many more conversations. I hope it will embolden people to share their stories and make their needs known. I hope it will empower church leaders to ask questions, ask for assistance, and seek help when they’re the ones who need it.
As I said in one of my presentations, 25 percent of people who have sought treatment or help for mental illness have first gone to a member of the clergy. This is more than have gone to psychiatrists or general medical doctors or anyone else. Not just anecdotally, but statistically, the church is the number-one place people go for help with mental illness.
Responding to mental illness is not just a nice thing to do. It’s not just an idea that will make us popular with people who like to see churches doing good in this world. Helping people affected by mental illness is part of your mission and calling. This is true not only for church leaders, but for every Christian. It’s also a tremendous outreach opportunity. People still come to the church for help in suffering. Even a small light can make a big difference in a dark place. And through our loving response, we carry the light of Christ with us. This kind of loving ministry is what the church is here for.
Thanks, Saddleback, for using your influence to mobilize people toward this need. Followers of Christ, let’s be the church.
© 2014 Amy Simpson.