Christians and the pursuit of perfection: How can we talk about real things better in church?
We have all been to or heard about those churches. Churches which seem wonderful, amazing, even quite possibly perfect. Brilliant teaching, wonderful youth work, everyone knows everyone else and to cap it all after the service the coffee is freshly ground and cakes would shame Mary Berry.
And we think, how on earth would I fit in here with my doubts and worries and complete baking inability?
I joke of course, but you understand the point. In churches there has been a move away from muddling through and accepting mediocre to something better, more professional. So, our music is well produced, we present our sermons in a modern lively way and our pastoral care team are properly trained. And that's all good.
But how do people in seemingly perfect churches admit that their lives are messy and difficult and very imperfect? Where we can talk about our poor mental health? We know that there are people in our congregations who are mentally unwell. The statistics are frank: one in four of us will suffer a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Too often the Christian church reverts to churchy innuendo when we talk about mental illness ('she has trouble with her nerves', 'he is finding life challenging') rather than providing a place where people can openly admit their anxiety or depression or other mental illness.
The stigma surrounding poor mental health is alive in many churches. If we add to that the feeling that admitting to feeling depressed may be unwelcome in a church where we (quite rightly) proclaim Jesus as Lord of all, where healing is available, and we sing songs of joy and praise, then we force people to pretend everything is fine.
In churches we regularly pray for people with broken legs and we pray for people with broken hearts (both literally and figuratively) – but when was the last time your church prayed for someone's broken mind? When was the last time you heard a sermon about mental health in your church? And when was the last time your minister publicly admitted vulnerability, weakness or a mental health problem?
Yet the Bible is full of people who struggled mentally, whose journey with God was full of troughs and yet whom God restored, used and loved. There's Gideon, inadequate and anxious; Jonah who flees from God and for me most moving of all, Elijah who collapses mentally and physically after the triumph at Mount Carmel and whom God nurtures and cares for emotionally, physically and spiritually.
All of us need to take responsibility for our mental health. We need to protect family times, build supportive and authentic relationships, watch our work hours and practices. Some church leaders are notoriously bad at this self-care. I believe leaders need to have an answer to the question – if you were feeling mentally ill, who in your church leadership could you tell? If the answer to that is nobody, then maybe that's the first item on your next leadership team agenda. And church members have a duty to look after their leaders and to understand that, just like us, they are not perfect but flawed struggling and dearly loved children of God.
Because, wonderfully, God's unfailing love, his grace to us, is not based on what we are feeling on any given day, or on whether we have preached a great sermon or led an amazing youth meeting. His grace is perfect and solid and given with love and kindness and is a fact and not a feeling.
The writer of the book of Lamentations clearly struggled with mental illness. He talks of remembering his afflictions and how his soul is downcast. But then he intentionally calls to mind one of the great promises of the Lord: 'Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail...great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22).
We must start being real with God about our feelings. We must start talking about our mental health at church so the stigma will start to abate and we can start to carry one another burdens better. So let's try it: next time you're having coffee after the service don't just talk about last night's footie or the merits of the latest reality show. Let's talk about how we really feel. And let's make our churches places where it's OK not to be OK.
Chris Munday is chief executive of Christian mental health charity Crossways Community, based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.