How the church can be a community to those with depression

April 29, 2019

The blues. A black hole. The dark night of the soul. Whatever you call it, depression is a resourceful thief that seeks to steal any semblance of joy, happiness, and peace from those who suffer.

Depression is a devious and duplicitous agent. Given the specific situation, it can be a cause or an effect of substance abuse, ranging from alcohol to prescription and illicit drugs. It can also initiate a litany of other unhelpful and even destructive coping strategies.

Of course, one of the major things we frequently attribute to this condition is suicide. It is widely believed that more than half of suicide victims battled some sort of depressive disorder. Some of the better known victims include Kurt Cobain, L’Wren Scott, and Kate Spade. Difficult seasons of life can affect anyone. In recent months, several pastors, including Andrew Stoecklein and Jim Howard, took their own lives after battles with depression.

While depressed pastors receive more attention in today’s social media culture, they are not a new phenomenon. You’ve likely heard of renowned English pastor Charles Spurgeon’s lifelong struggle with depression, which he described as “extreme heaviness,” “the shadow of death,” and “my great horror of darkness.”

But there’s a clear disconnect in play. When we look to pastors and faith communities for guidance on how to deal with depression, the responses are a mixed bag of everything from hyper-spirituality—essentially, be a better Christian—to complete outsourcing. As an understandably frustrated former church member once put it, “Pastors don’t want to fool with brokenness. They just want to grow with healthy people.”

The cause of depression can be issues within us, the hormonal, biochemical, or organic. But depression may also be triggered by external issues like family and relationship conflict, grief and loss, or workplace difficulties. In reality, there are usually confluent factors for a large number of depressed individuals. Unfortunately, none of us is immune to the myriad life issues that wreak havoc on our emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Why “pray more” isn’t enough

For most depressed individuals, causality is a mixed bag. That’s why more often than not, a two-pronged approach to treatment that includes both counseling and medical intervention is warranted. And that’s precisely why Christians must not be told to simply pray harder, be better, or just have more faith. A 2013 study by Lifeway Research found that nearly half of evangelicals “believed that people with serious mental disorders can overcome their illnesses with ‘Bible study and prayer alone.’”

Many of those who are depressed already pray, read their Bibles, and attend church regularly. And not just any church—your church. Shrouded beneath robes, they sing in our choirs. Hidden behind lecterns, they teach Bible lessons. Lost among toys, they serve in preschool worship care. They sit inconspicuously on pews or in chairs right beside you and me. They sing the words of the songs. They laugh awkwardly at the bad jokes of the preacher. And they mask their depression by responding “Fine, thanks” five or six times during the meet-and-greet piece of the service.

In a culture that is increasingly disconnected and unsupportive, church is often a depressed person’s last real hope of finding a community of truth and grace to walk with them through the cavernous valleys, oppressive shadows, and turbulent storms of life. Imagine carrying that prodigious burden yet finding no considerable connections.

Inconsistent and shame-based messaging within church families is one of the primary contributors to the ongoing stigma associated with mental health struggles or mental illness. Author and speaker Amy Simpson, in her book Troubled Minds, writes, “The church allows people to suffer because we don’t understand what they need and how to help them. We have . . . ignored, marginalized, and laughed at the mentally ill or simply sent them to professionals and washed our hands of them.” That’s a pretty strong indictment, but in my experience, it’s spot-on.

When confronted with hard stuff that is outside our comfort zone, our tendency is to gravitate to our safe place. We speak Christianese. We spiritualize. We wax eloquently, speculating about the reason and purpose for the pain. Our approach should be more personal and empathic, closely resembling the humble Christ, who time and time again met people on their turf, in their torment, and on their terms.

Far too often, in our quest to focus on them, we make it more about us.

Depressed people don’t just need Bible verses; they need compassionate companions who regularly live out the “one anothers” of Scripture.

Let’s look at three pragmatic benchmarks:

  1. Love one another: It’s awfully easy to fear or judge those we don’t understand. But it’s our responsibility to show his love.
  2. Pray for one another: We don’t have to know all the details of someone’s struggle in order to lift them to the Father in prayer. Stopping to pray with another is a particularly powerful demonstration of love and care.
  3. Bear one another’s burdens: There are so many ways to serve those who are depressed. From the practical day-to-day needs of meals and laundry to providing childcare during counseling sessions, support groups, or doctor’s appointments, you can be a blessing to someone in need.

It’s important to realize that ministry is messy, especially when mental health issues are involved. Ministry takes time, attention, and follow up. It requires intentionality and invariably invites interruptions and inconvenience.

Church pastors and staffers, be courageous enough to talk about depression, and assure those in your congregations and communities that this Jesus we preach and teach about has real hope to offer, hope that is often found within the skill sets of counselors, doctors, and psychiatrists who have spent a lifetime preparing to help people. It is also found in the friendship and nurture of the church family.

Garrick D. Conner

Garrick D. Conner is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock, Ark. Garrick and his wife, Michelle, have two children. You can find more of Garrick’s writings at www.garrickdconner.com. Read More by this Author

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