5 ways churches can support members’ mental health during the holidays

November 24, 2020

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year are commonly associated with spikes in emotional distress. According to a 2014 survey from the National Alliance for Mental Illness, nearly two-thirds of adults with diagnosed mental health conditions said the holidays made their symptoms worse, with nearly 25% describing themselves as “a lot” worse.

What might we expect with the holidays falling in the middle of a pandemic? How can churches promote connection and provide support during the most unique Christmas season most of us have ever experienced? Here are five ways churches might support the mental health concerns of members and attendees in the days and weeks ahead.

1. Prepare to offer mental health support, especially during the two weeks after Christmas. An article in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience examined the scientific research on psychiatric symptoms associated with the Christmas holiday. While more people report feeling sad or unhappy over the holidays, reductions in mental health service utilization and decreases in self-harm, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations are observed in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But this is followed by a spike in psychiatric emergencies of as much as 40% above baseline rates shortly thereafter, when many church offices close and staff take time off.

Consider how someone from your church might access help in a crisis. If your church doesn’t have a current referral list of mental health professionals, treatment centers, and facilities for individuals or families in need, this is a great time to compile such a list. According to LifeWay Research, only 27% of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, even though the church is often the first place families turn to for help. 

2. Seek to maintain as many of your church’s Christmas traditions as possible during the pandemic. While most evangelical churches don’t have lots of rituals, customs and traditions are especially important in unpredictable times, providing relief from anxiety by promoting a sense of order. Consider how your church might incorporate collective rituals in special events during the holidays. An example of a collective ritual is the tradition of everyone holding lit candles while singing “Silent Night” at Christmas Eve services. Such rituals promote connection with others engaged in the activity. Consider how families unable to attend in person because of COVID-19 might meaningfully participate in these rituals during online services. 

3. Prepare regular attendees and guests for modifications to their customary church experiences. Children and adults with anxiety disorders have brains that are “hard-wired” to overestimate the risk involved with new or unfamiliar situations. A picture is truly worth a thousand words in relieving anxiety. One strategy for reducing anxiety with in-person services is to take pictures or video of the cleaning crew keeping worship spaces as safe as possible and post the images prominently on your social media platforms. Take lots of pictures during worship services in the weeks leading up to Christmas for your website, especially pages guests search for information on special holiday services. 

Given that attendance at in-person worship services is running at 36% of pre-COVID levels, many people haven’t yet returned to church—especially attendees with anxiety disorders. The more your members and guests can visualize their experience at church, the easier it will be to overcome their anxiety about attending live services.

4. Consider the unique emotional needs of college students and young adults during COVID-19. Young adults represent the population most affected by mental health concerns during the pandemic. This study reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression among adults ages 18-24 during October. More than one-third described suicidal thoughts—10 times the rates observed as recently as 2013-14. Many college students will find themselves back home for two months or longer, disconnected from the support of counselors and campus ministries. 

There’s never been a more important time for us as the church to share the hope of Christ with a fearful and uncertain world. And we’re most effective in doing so when we care for and support one another.

The Grace Alliance offers Redefine Grace, a 10 session, Christian-based mental health education and support group model to encouragement young adults with mental health struggles. Student and young adult ministries might consider how they can address loneliness and social isolation experienced by youth home for an extended time. 

5. Finally, take steps to ensure the people of your church aren’t forgotten in this unique season. The children’s ministry team at my church is calling every family they haven’t seen since indoor worship resumed in early October. How many attendees have left your church since the onset of the pandemic without being noticed? Some may have stayed away because of medical vulnerabilities or the need to care for someone at high risk. Others may be withdrawing from church and other important life activities because of depression. Consider how the people of the church might mobilize to look after one another. 

Cards, notes, phone calls, letters, e-mails, texts, and offers of prayer all represent important touch points. Encourage seniors to call one another, small groups to check in on members who live alone, Bible study leaders to reaching out to folks who have dropped off Zoom sessions, children’s ministry to make cards for the elderly, and student ministry to run errands for individuals with disabilities or medical conditions that have left them homebound during COVID-19.

If you’re a church member, consider how you might encourage and support your ministry leaders. Ministry demands upon pastors and church staff are overwhelming in a “typical” December. Factor in discouragement from lower attendance, economic concerns from diminished offerings, and disruptions in family routines, and our leaders are especially vulnerable. Take the initiative to check on others in your church and encourage others to do so to relieve some of the burdens on your pastors during this season.

We have what hurting people most need: hope! It’s a hope that comes from knowing and believing in Christ. There’s never been a more important time for us as the church to share the hope of Christ with a fearful and uncertain world. And we’re most effective in doing so when we care for and support one another.

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