B06: Nurturing Relational and Caring Communities in Asian Churches
Updated: Jan 17
Charunee is a youth leader in a medium-sized local church in Thailand. At age 24, after coming out to work upon completing her university studies, she went through a major episode of depression. She sought help from her church leaders but all they did was pray for her. She was so disappointed at their inadequacy to help her more effectively that she left her church to seek help elsewhere.
On a personal note, my first wife died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2005 and I was deeply devastated. A week following her death, my church pastors visited me, and in my time of grief when I could not distinguish between day and night, all they talked to me was about our domestic church problems. To help myself, I eventually took up a counseling course.
Since then, I have been seeking to promote Christian counseling in our churches because I discovered first-hand the glaring incompetency in caring for and supporting others in their emotional and mental difficulties when Christians are not equipped with some mental health knowledge and skills.
Authentic relational communities
Chadwick Samuel Mohan, lead pastor of a megachurch in India, noticed that while many people are coming in to join his church through the front door, many others are also leaving through the back door. So, he conducted a study by interviewing his church members and found that church leadership roles, programs, and discipleship materials are not effective in shepherding or training their members to nurture and support those who are newer in the Christian faith.
In particular, many of the younger generations have emotional and mental struggles, besides spiritual and physiological ones, and their needs are often not met. So, in their helplessness, they stopped attending church to try something else. We better know that we are now living in an era of abundant choices through the click of a mouse.
Rev. Chadwick concluded that his church can better nurture its members through smaller but authentic relational communities where older Christians model to the newer ones what it is to do life together as committed disciples of Jesus through the ups and downs of daily living. This is different from the cell group system where cell leaders mainly follow instructions from the church to implement specific programs at the cell level.
He avers that in authentic relational communities, leaders will more adequately attend to the spiritual, emotional, and mental needs of those they are discipling through deeper involvements in their lives. My contention here is that when the body of Christ is equipped with some mental health knowledge and skills, they will understand human nature better, and thus they will be more effective in ministering to the people.
What Jesus modeled to us
Indeed, as we read through the Gospels, we see that Jesus promoted the Kingdom of God by first meeting the needs of the people. Not only He healed the sick and delivered others from demonic oppression, but many a time, He also counseled them when they were struggling with psychological issues.
For example, Jesus counseled the Samaritan woman in her shame as she came to draw water at the well in the hottest part of the day when no one else was there. She tried to avoid the people as she was living an immoral life, cohabiting with someone not her husband and having five previous husbands.
Jesus did not pray for her to be healed of her shame nor cast out the demon of shame from her. This is contrary to what I have seen several times where church leaders prayed to cast out the demon of depression from people who are depressed. No, Jesus merely counseled the Samaritan women. As the “wonderful counselor” (Isa 9:6), Jesus recognized that besides our spiritual and physical needs, we also have psychological problems since we are made up of spirit, body, and soul.
Likewise, Jesus did not pray for healing nor cast out the demon of grief from the two grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus. Neither did He pray for healing nor cast out the demon of rejection from Peter who had earlier betrayed Him. Over a meal to reinstate their close relationship, Jesus counseled Peter and assigned him to take care of His sheep to signify his restoration.
If we are taking care of His sheep as a body of Christ to one another, then we ought to be relevant in meeting the people’s needs - spiritual, physical, as well as psychological. For their emotional and mental struggles, not only do we pray for them but we also attend to their psychological problems if we are equipped with some mental knowledge and skills.
Missing our precious opportunities
For certain reasons, many churches still consider mental health as outside the domain of their ministry which the leaders consider as essentially spiritual only. The assumption is probably that as the spiritual realm of the human being is put right, then our physical and psychological needs are taken care of. While it is true that our human spirit does influence our physical and psychological dimensions as the three components of spirit, body and soul are interrelated, direct and appropriate interventions are most effective.
For example, if someone has a toothache, we can pray for supernatural healing to occur, and at the same time, encourage the person to see a dentist for direct treatment of the tooth decay. Likewise, if a person has an emotional or mental problem and we are equipped with some mental health knowledge and skills, we can minister to the person more effectively besides praying for him.
As a common practice, many church leaders will often refer a mental health problem to an outside professional and after that, wash their hands. The problem is that besides the high cost, we cannot be sure what our referees will be getting from outside. Professional counselors can be practicing merely psychological counseling with humanistic values even if they are Christians.
In reality, only those serious emotional and mental problems (perhaps 5%) need to be referred to outside professionals. The bulk of them can be effectively attended by caring Christians who are equipped with some mental health knowledge and skills. By not attending to them, we are missing out on precious opportunities to minister to the people’s needs and nurture a caring culture in our churches.
Equipping Christians with mental health skills
For the last 12 years, as the Founding President of the National Association of Christian Counselors Malaysia and the Founding President of the Asian Christian Counselors Association, I have been seeking to promote mental health literacy in our churches. Although we have made huge inroads, I found that many churches are less than eager to open up and embrace Christian counseling as an essential part of their ministry skills. I can understand that most churches have different priorities and their resources are already fully committed.
In view of this, I have created a website to provide a permanent avenue where teaching videos and case-study blogs are freely available to anyone interested to be equipped with mental health knowledge and skills. There are also weekly Zoom meetings for sharing and consultations. It is a valuable resource that one can access at any time, whether to learn or refresh what we already know before attending to specific issues.
Equipping ourselves with some mental health knowledge and skills will help us in better self-care while we can also minister to others more effectively when we understand more about the human nature. I hope that the Safe Space Community for Asians (SSC) website (https://www.safespacecom.org) will be widely promoted to all Christians so that more people will benefit from it. Do subscribe to follow and commune with us in SSC.
3 Dec 2022
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