By Tyler McKenzie
A pressing need exists for the church to focus discipleship efforts on emotional health, which is something the church rarely touches.
It’s been over two years since COVID-19 first shut down the United States. Since then, leading a church has felt similar to being a frontline worker. I won’t pretend that our challenges have rivaled those of an emergency room doctor or a COVID-unit nurse. Still, pastoring a church has felt like a heavyweight boxing match that never ends. There has been heavy pressure, many needs, and relentless controversies. We have felt constantly embattled in fights we cannot win.
Psychologists say America is recovering from emotional trauma. After the last two years, most of us are not emotionally healthy. In September 2020, a counselor friend was a guest on our weekly staff Zoom call. He trained our staff on pastoring people through post-traumatic stress. It was insightful. But throughout the call, I couldn’t help thinking he was talking about me, not teaching me about others. At the end, I asked our staff, “I know this is to train us to serve our people, but who just self-diagnosed?” Almost every hand went up. Ministering right now is hard.
FOUR POINTS OF EMOTIONAL TRAUMA
Here are four points of trauma I’m seeing on the frontlines in the church.
Loss—Over the last two years, we all have lost things of great significance. Maybe you lost a relationship, friendship, or a marriage. Maybe you lost your job, financial stability, or a treasured career dream. Perhaps a loved one died. Maybe you lost a sense of control. Here’s the thing: Loss always results in grief, and grief is traumatic.
Extended Ambiguity and Uncertainty—Nothing has been predictable during the last two years—not with shifting mandates, lockdowns, job furloughs, vaccines, conspiracies, and virtual worship. Businesses closed but then reopened with shorter hours and fewer workers. There were weeks of protests in our cities and even an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Among the unknowns: Will our food supply chains meet demands? Will our kids go to school? Will our government survive? Will someone we love die? It’s been disorienting. Our routines were disrupted. When we feel a total loss of control, it can cause crippling anxiety that results in trauma.
Extended Isolation—We weren’t made for isolation. Our nation was already facing a loneliness epidemic before the virus. When we are alone too long we begin to doubt our self-worth and lose our sense of purpose. We’ve been cut off from loved ones who are among our greatest sources of joy in life. It’s all very traumatic.
Betrayal and Abandonment—The major question of the last two years might be, “Who did you lose?” I’m not talking about someone who died, but those people you no longer have anything to do with. Yes, I’m talking about the polarization, politicization, and seething rage that has resulted from COVID-19 and politics.
For some of you, moments are popping into your mind now. Maybe it was clashing with family members via text or an outburst with an old friend on Facebook. Others of you may not even know there is a disagreement; you (or they) saw a post on social media, took umbrage but never said anything, and just quietly unfollowed that person and have been ghosting them ever since. Was it a coworker or adult child? A parent or friend? Was it a pastor?
When lots of people abandon you or when people you deeply love leave, you can begin to distrust everyone. You start operating from a place of suspicion. You withdraw from new relationships and distance yourself from old relationships. You become relationally insecure, constantly wondering when the next person will leave. You go through days of self-loathing and blame. You churn in anger and repeatedly relive conversations. You feel disposable. It all exacerbates loneliness that already is there. The trauma is deep.
IS THE CHURCH READY TO MEET THIS MOMENT?
Most people in our churches are in this same boat. We are dealing with deeply wounded people who have suffered emotional trauma. I’m concerned whether we are ready to meet this moment. The church—including my own—has been regrettably apathetic toward emotional discipleship.
Most churches focus their efforts on intellectual and relational spiritual formation. They teach, preach, and catechize. They do kids ministries, marriage retreats, parenting seminars, and fellowship gatherings. Far fewer churches work at forming people socially. The idea that social flourishing, the common good, and communal shalom are the church’s responsibility is considered—by some—as “woke” or “liberal.”
Far fewer churches do anything to form people physically and emotionally. Even though our bodies are the temple of the Spirit, a gift from God we’ve been called to steward so we can both maximize and elongate our ministry, no one wants to preach to this. Church leaders may protest that the human body is complex, we’re not doctors, and so much secrecy, shame, and judgmentalism is baked into the topic. It’s the same with our emotional health. It’s incredibly complex, we’re not counselors or psychologists, and there is so much shame and stigma.
Christians are supposed to be happy, right? The trend toward “soft prosperity” is among my greatest concerns about the state of preaching in our largest churches. People attending worship want something hopeful and positive each week. They expect the preacher to “fill their cup.” They want the message to be practical. (“Help me make better decisions, have better relationships, and live my best life!”)
When we give them what they want, they come. They choose our church over the one down the street. It fits with the sort of self-help, therapeutic, spiritual-but-not-religious vibe folks are looking for. We win the attendance battle, which is the key to being perceived as “successful” in church leadership circles. Yet, when we bend our preaching in that direction every week, we create a liturgical crockpot that cooks people into thinking the Christian life is one of self-actualization, continual progress, better decisions, better relationships, and better lives. Happy and healthy is the default.
What happens when life isn’t happy? . . . When lament is needed? . . . When we’re feeling a little angry?
What happens when the church must make challenging decisions or preach on polarizing topics? What happens when the soft prosperity formula stops working for the flock? Best-case scenario, they stop showing up. Worst-case scenario, they give up on God altogether.
This is one challenge of the hour. Preachers contextualize the grace and truth of Jesus for their cultural moment, and this moment is one where a lot of people are beat-up, burnt-out, sad, lonely, and afraid. Here’s the good news: Scripture has much to say on walking through troubles and pain. We forget that much of Scripture was written to a poor, enslaved, persecuted, or suffering audience. God can use these seasons to grow our intimacy with him, but we need a movement of leaders who recognize the moment.
I’m reminded of Philippians 4:13: “I can do all this through [Christ] who gives me strength.” Is there a more ripped-out-of-context verse in Scripture? As you know, Paul was not saying you can actually do all things through Christ. Hey, want a job promotion? Want to improve your love life? Want to do good in your ballgame? Philippians 4:13! Write it on your eye black! Inscribe it on a necklace. Drink coffee from a mug with that verse printed on the side, and you can!
No! This was in a prison letter. Read it in context. Paul was saying he could find contentment in all things, even great suffering, through Christ who strengthened him. This was the discipleship need of the hour.
God doesn’t cause evil, but he uses it to create intimacy and surrender. Are we helping our people draw nearer? Are we helping them find a peace that passes understanding, a joy that transcends circumstances, and a love deeper than their insecurities? Are we teaching that the poor, weary, and broken are blessed? That God’s power is perfected in weakness? That holy mystery in times of disorientation is worship? That waiting on God breaks the hurry and achievement idolatry in us? That a holy indifference to the things of this world is spiritual maturity?
Most importantly, are we simply showing up and helping people heal? This will be the hard work of a post-COVID-19 world, but we have all the theological and spiritual resources necessary to do it well.
Tyler McKenzie serves as lead pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.