5 marks of a mental health-informed church

May 22, 2019

The church struggles to meet the needs of persons with mental illness. LifeWay Research published a detailed study depicting the unmet ministry needs of adults with mental illness, and recently published research demonstrates that families of children and teens with common mental health conditions (depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder) are significantly less likely than their neighbors to ever set foot in a church.

So, what advice would you give a friend or family member in another city searching for a church for a loved one with a significant mental health condition? And how might we identify what’s called “a mental health-informed church”?

What is a mental health-informed church?

Finding a church well-equipped to minister with someone with mental health concerns is challenging. The need for mental health-informed churches is critical, especially if we are to minister effectively with individuals hurt by past experiences. A Baylor University study noted that three of 10 attendees who approached their church for help related to a mental health condition for themselves or a family member reported negative interactions counterproductive to treatment. For one in eight who approached their church for help, the experience was so distressing that it resulted in them leaving the church for good. This isn’t how it should be.

Instead, in a mental health-informed church, persons serving in leadership positions would recognize signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions. Pastors and ministry leaders would be aware of the effects of mental illness on church attendance, ministry participation, and spiritual development for children, teens, adults, and families. They would be equipped with a basic knowledge of mental health treatments and be familiar with facilities, clinics, and professionals in their communities qualified to provide needed care to church members and attendees. They would appreciate the effects of mental illness on work, school, family life, and social relationships and tangibly share the gospel through responding to the most heartfelt needs of individuals and families affected.

5 marks of mental health-informed church

Returning to our original question, how would someone go about finding a church prepared to minister effectively with an individual or family member with mental health concerns? Here are five marks our ministry team would include for identifying mental health-informed churches. Any church characterized by all five marks would almost certainly develop a reputation as a place where children and adults with mental health concerns will be cared for and valued.

  1. Intentional planning: Leadership can demonstrate an intentional planning process for outreach to children and adults affected by mental illness and plans for including them in the full range of worship experiences and ministry activities offered by the church. The mental health ministry model developed by Key Ministry, however, intentionally avoids the creation of new programs that may compete for volunteers and resources with established ministries and departments. Special programs or stand-alone ministries don’t usually work because most persons with mental illness will flee activities or programming that draws attention to them or causes them to feel singled-out for their differences. The goal of an effective mental health outreach and inclusion strategy, therefore, should be to involve individuals and families in the activities and experiences already offered by the local church that win people to Christ and make disciples.
  2. Education opportunities: The church provides opportunities for pastors, deacons/elders, ministry leaders, key volunteers, members, and attendees to become better educated about the effects of common mental health conditions in children and adults. This might take the form of mental health first aid training or becoming a trauma-informed congregation. Other options might include training for pastors and ministry leaders that helps them recognize challenges to church participation and spiritual growth, and increases awareness of the care and support needs of individuals and families affected by mental illness.
  3. Communication strategy: The church develops and implements a mental health communication strategy. In the LifeWay study, family members reported one of the most valuable supports their church could provide was for pastors and other leaders to talk regularly about mental illness so that existing stigma is diminished. Ed Stetzer reported findings of a related study in which a majority of unchurched adults disagreed with the opinion that churches would welcome them if they had a mental health issue. In light of this, changing communication regarding the church and mental health concerns is a precondition for effective outreach.
  4. Practical help: The church offers practical help to individuals and families affected by mental illness. Mental illness is often referred to as the “no casserole” disability. If your church provides food to families when a child gets admitted to the hospital with a broken leg, would they get a casserole if their child were admitted to a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt? Does your church maintain a current list of mental health practitioners and resources for members and attendees in need? Furthermore, more and more churches are offering respite care to families of kids with disabilities, including mental health disabilities.
  5. Support groups: The church sponsors or hosts mental health-specific education and support groups. For example, The Grace Alliance was launched by a Baptist pastor and a Baylor neuropsychology professor and offers small group models for individuals, families, and college students. Fresh Hope is another ministry with a national network of churches offering peer-led mental health support groups for adults, teens, and incarcerated persons.

These five marks are the fruits of a well-conceived mental health outreach and inclusion strategy and represent an ambitious goal to which churches might aspire. While your church might lack the resources to attain all of the marks, every church can do more than they are doing now to share the gospel with the children, adults, and families affected by mental illness and to include them in the life of the local church.

Stephen Grcevich

Stephen Grcevich, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, serving as president and founder of Key Ministry, an organization that promotes meaningful connection between churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. He is the author of Mental … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24