Monday, August 10, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: Book reviews, part 2

Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, Amy Simpson

            Mental illness is the invisible plague of our times; according to Simpson, around 25 percent of adults in our country suffer from some mental illness, more than the number of Americans who suffer from cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and diabetes combined.  Yet very few churches have any ministry to people who suffer from mental illness, or their families.  It’s rarely, if ever, talked about.  Simpson calls mental illness the “no casserole” disease: We rush to the aid of people who suffer physically, bringing them meals, mowing their yards, sitting with them in the hospital.  But we don’t know what to do with the mentally ill and those who love them.  We fail to show them the love of Christ.
            Simpson writes from experience.  She is an editor at Christianity Today magazine, but she experienced her own mother’s schizophrenia, and the lack of response from her church, as a teenager.  She tells her story in the first chapter, and it is eye-opening and heartbreaking.  She describes a day when her mom drove her to a dental appointment.  When Simpson was done, she went back to the waiting room and found her mom catatonic, having suffered yet another psychic break.  The other people in the waiting room merely stared at her, offering no help.  When she asked the receptionist if she could use the phone to call her dad, she was told to use the pay phone outside.  This was a microcosm of her life in those days; facing a confusing and terrifying situation, and feeling no support from anyone.  Simpson’s mother, the wife of a pastor and a woman who led Simpson herself to faith, became so delusional she rejected faith in Christ and turned to the occult.  She later ran away from their home and was found months later in a homeless shelter. She then was sentenced to prison for a crime she had committed during this period.  Reading Simpson’s story helped me understand what it really is like to have a mentally ill person in one’s family, and the struggles that presents.  Simpson also tells the stories of many other mental illness sufferers and their families, bringing into reality the difficulties they have faced, as well as churches which have struggled with how to help them. 
            I was drawn to this book because I increasingly encounter mental and emotional health issues in my ministry.  I am at a loss as to how to help.  I refer people to professionals, but is there more I--and the church--can do?  Simpson believes there is, and tells the stories of churches which have started groundbreaking helpful programs.  In the next-to-last chapter she lists things churches can do: Church leaders can get help for their own mental illness struggles and tell their own stories; get educated about mental illness; make a determined effort to remove the stigma of mental illness in the church; talk about mental illness in sermons, lessons and prayers (and never, ever joke about it); encourage supportive relationships and small groups for the mentally ill and their families; ask what you can do to help; be present for them; radiate acceptance by refusing to make them feel ignored or rejected; be patient--many mental disorders are chronic, so helping them will be long-term; help with practical needs (including using benevolence funds to cover the cost of treatment and medications); confer with counselors when you refer someone, to find out what more you can do; draw boundaries and stick with them (helping the mentally ill doesn’t mean overlooking inappropriate behavior); know when you are in over your head; use the available resources (many hospitals have support groups); consider starting a support group in your church.  Simpson says most successful support groups are led by people who have experienced mental illness in their own lives or their families. 
            In short, this is an important, helpful book for Christians today.  If you take the time to read it, it will change the way you look at the “difficult” people around you, and make you determined to help families who struggle with mental illness.  Hopefully, it will help change the way we relate to mental illness in the Church today.

The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, James Emery White.

            “The Nones” is the confusing label given to people who, on surveys gauging religious affiliation, mark “none.”  As has been widely reported, this group is growing faster than any religious group in America, and is largest among young people. Clearly, this is a cause for concern for the Church.  I have read numerous blogs and magazine articles about the causes of this trend, and what the Church should be doing about it, but nothing as comprehensive and effective as this book.  White is a former seminary president and the long-time pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, a fast-growing church in which 70% of new members come from non-religious backgrounds.  Most churches I am familiar with these days--including my own--rarely see conversions from no faith to commitment to Christ; most of our growth is biological (the children of members getting baptized into the faith), transfer (people from other churches joining) or prodigal (people who have wandered, then recommitted to Christ and the Church).  So White’s research bona fides and his experience in reaching this group give his words here a powerful credibility. 
            The first half of the book describes the Nones (most of them still believe in God and consider themselves “spiritual,” but rarely think about spiritual things; nearly half say they never wonder if they are going to Heaven when they die).  It also details the reasons for the rise of the Nones.  Among them: Disillusionment with the politically charged “culture wars” much of Evangelicalism engaged in for the past thirty years, a drastic change in public morality (White does a good job showing how this took place), and the failure of churches to find new ways to appeal to new generations, without changing the core tenets of the Gospel.  As White says, almost all evangelical churches say they want to reach non-Christians, but most are unwilling to adapt the way they do things.  In his words, “We say we want them in Heaven, but we act like they can go to Hell.”  This wasn’t exactly new information to me, but it is stated so well, I wish every Christian who has ever grumbled about our country “going to Hell in a handbasket” would read this and see the responsibility we all bear. 
            The second half of the book is far more hopeful, though just as challenging.  White crafts a tested roadmap for reaching irreligious people.  There is too much good stuff here for me to effectively summarize, but here are some highlights: Learn to think like missionaries (since we now live in a post-Christian culture), learning the language and priorities of our neighbors, loving them as they are instead of trying to force them to live the way we think they should.  Change the way we share the Gospel (We can’t begin with the assumption that people want to know what the Bible says; we have to first show them why it matters).  Engage in righteous causes, and give unbelievers a chance to work alongside us in changing the world for good, before they ever make a commitment to Christ.  Love each other (nothing turns people away from the Gospel more than Christians fighting amongst themselves).  Invite them to church (82% of unbelievers say they would visit a church if a friend invited them).  And make sure that, if they come, they will experience something they’ll want to experience again (That part is mostly the responsibility of leaders like me, but all churches should hold their leaders accountable to that standard). 
            Here’s the best endorsement I can give White’s book: I am strongly tempted to buy enough copies to give to every member of my church.  That’s how important I think this is. 

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