I am convinced that fear drives most of the wrong decisions we make in life. I’m also convinced that many of us, if not all of us, do not recognize fear in our decision making. We are simply blind to it, even when it’s shining in neon like on a giant billboard, and others could effortlessly point it out in us. In relationships, fear of being alone in the world causes us ignore the red flags and marry a spouse to whom we aren’t well suited or who is an abuser. In parenting, fear of our children getting involved with the “wrong” group of kids or making the same mistakes we made in life causes us to be overprotective, overbearing, and oppressive. In churches, fear of false doctrine and apostasy among our congregation causes us to be narrow minded and closed off to anything that is not explicitly Biblical.
Of course, all of our beliefs should stem from Biblical principles and if anything is outlawed by scripture, it is off limits to us as well. However, there are so many areas in life into which the Bible does not explicitly speak and we must use our understanding of scripture as a whole to make wise decisions on those issues. We cannot blindly adopt things any more than we can blindly toss them out. These concepts apply directly to modern psychology and research into human behaviors and thought patterns as well.
There are many in the church who would toss out the findings of psychological research and therapies, simply because they are “secular”. Such practices are a grave misunderstanding of what does and does not belong to the Lord. I’ll add, it’s also a misunderstanding of what “sola scriptura” actually means, though sola scriptura may be used as the basis for their reasoning. If we believe God is the creator of all things, the sustainer of all things, and the worker of all things to his glory and our good, there is nothing that is out of bounds, unless is contradicts what he has already said. Therefore, reading scientific books or studies completed by doctors in the field of mental health and implementing therapies they have created based on those findings, are good and useful to Christians, just as they are to those who do not share our beliefs. Christianity simply fulfills these things, because it gives context to where context is lacking for the unbeliever. Christianity says “yes, that is how our brain was created” when we learn how trauma disconnects the right and left hemispheres from working in tandem during traumatic events. Christianity says “yes, I was created to be in close relationship with others” when we learn why children do not develop attachment or develop unhealthy attachment to neglectful or abusive parents / caregivers early in life.
The fear of secular ideas has led to a vacuum of helpful advice in churches. I’ve heard parenting advice doled out by well meaning parishioners that would cause attachment therapists to shudder. Telling moms to put their fussy babies in the crib and allow them to cry for extended periods of time does not create a healthy attachment. Rather, it instills the belief in the child that her mom cannot be trusted to help her with her needs. Telling parents to make their toddler who struggles with staying asleep at night sleep in a downstairs bedroom away from the rest of the family so you don’t have to hear her cry does not create a child who is able to trust her parent to keep her safe or calm her fears. Parents who have learned about attachment theory recognize this advice as troublesome, if not dangerous, but the vast majority of parents would follow it simply because it fits their need for silence and a break from fussy kids. Especially when it comes from the sweet, older couple at church who raised their own kids who seem to have turned out just fine.
Further, tossing out anything that does not come directly out of the Bible, and therefore, tossing out the idea of partnering with therapy centers or individual therapists who do not practice “Biblical counseling” is unwise at best and damaging to the church at worst. There is simply no way the church can effectively care for it’s people in mental health crises without outside assistance. Keeping everything “in house” as many are wont to do is often a disservice to those in need. Often, people will go to the church looking for help, expecting that the pastor will be the one to counsel them, but pastors are not equipped. They can offer support, yes. They can offer Biblical hope for healing, yes. But they cannot offer the therapy it will require for individuals who have experienced trauma to heal.
Some churches have counseling ministries, but sadly, most do not. Some churches are large enough with enough resources to financially support members who are gifted in helping others complete the necessary training to counsel others. This includes training in EMDR, biofeedback, neurofeedback, and other therapies proven to help people who have experienced trauma. However, in most churches, when congregants are in crisis, there is often no one there who is qualified to help them heal.
In the ideal world, churches would partner with therapy centers or individual counselors. People who share their beliefs about Christ and yet are well trained and understand how the mind and body must work together to heal from trauma. In the ideal world, churches would build this model before the crises occur and members feel isolated due to a lack of understanding. I’ll add that the same is true for disability ministries, which are desperately lacking in most churches. If one in 54 children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, there is a need. If Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is estimated to be more prevalent than ASD, there is a need. And those statistics count for a very small portion of families affected by disability, many of whom are going through their own trauma, day in and day out. If domestic abuse is as common in the church as it is in greater American society, there is a need. Like the Field of Dreams, I guarantee you, if you build it, they will come. Perhaps not right away, but they’ll come. Once people understand there is someone at church who truly cares and truly wants to help, they’ll come. And the church would be wise to be proactive in this area, rather than reactive after many parishioners have left due to lack of understanding or resources.
We cannot expect our pastors to be super human. They are fallible, just like the rest of us. We cannot expect them to know the needs of each person in the sanctuary on any given Sunday. We certainly don’t want them to tailor their sermons to the changing needs of each one of us. No, we want our pastors to preach the Word of God faithfully, week in and week out. And we want the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts to change us as we hear His Word preached. We must extend much grace to our pastors and elders, as well as our fellow believers, just as we would want as much grace extended to us.
But we can have some expectations of pastors, as they are also shepherds and good shepherds know their sheep. We can expect that they would be sensitive to the reality of trauma within their congregations. We can expect that they would think through how they perceive those who have been hurt. We can also teach them how to use words differently in order to avoid causing more hurt by what they say. I know my words have changed over the course of parenting a child with disabilities. I know I’m more sensitive to what I say and my heart is more sensitive to what others say about children like him. The same is true for trauma. And I would say, the same is true for everyone.
A few years ago, I invited a couple of boys over for a playdate with my son. They were about the same age and it was summer, so despite their differences in likes and dislikes, I thought they could do active things outside and just have fun together. I remember the mom talking to me when she dropped them off, asking if it was okay that she told the boys that Zeke has disabilities and he’s different. She wanted to be sure they understood why he might not talk like them or understand the things they do. Of course that was fine, but what I really wanted to say to her and sadly did not, was that I would have preferred she would have told them to just “be a good friend.” That’s all my son wants. That’s all anyone wants. We should all strive to just be a good friend.
Every person we encounter is different than us. Every person has unique challenges and strengths. We, as a society, have decided what’s “normal” and what isn’t. But in doing that, we’ve actually declared that what Christ has done in the lives of some is not “normal”. We have usurped his authority. We have decided the standard and we have decided how we should deal with those people outside of that standard. Yes, there are ideals and God has put those ideals, such as love, protection, stability, connection, etc., in our hearts. That is why it is so devastating when they are lacking or missing altogether, especially in families and especially in church. But our job, as fellow believers, is not to determine worth based on what’s lacking. Our job is to love one another in order to restore what is lacking. And loving those who experienced trauma means digging into the painful places, where sorrow dwells and memories of the past run deep.
As I said at the beginning of this series, I am not looking for a utopia. I’m very much a realist. But I’m also very much someone who loves people who are hurting. Probably because I know what that’s like. When society loves better than the church, there is a major problem with the church. God IS love. And the church must reflect that reality. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong to Christ; it belongs to itself, focused on itself, serving itself, and loving itself. The world doesn’t need that kind of church and isn’t interested in that kind of Jesus. They need the church the true Jesus created before he ascended into heaven over 2000 years ago. Let’s be that church to a hurting world.