Be aware that in the midst of our congregants, viewers, and readers there are folks who are facing mental health issues, on a spectrum from moderate to chronic. An article by Hebert Palomino O.
‘Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well’ (3 John 1:2 NIV).
In this Epistle of the Apostle John, he is writing a personal letter of concern, love, and well-being to his beloved friend Gaius—a letter is a treaty of good wishes and encouragement to consistency in the truth.
The Greek version (peri pantōn euchomai; in English, ‘I wish above all things’) has the connotation of prosperity and the condition of being in good health. John is not implying a doctrinal practice, rather a deep desire of wholeness in daily living.
In our contemporary world, preaching is a powerful tool to express desire, love, and concern. Preaching should and must have a great impact on the welfare, present and future, of the human race. In the Old and New Testaments, the proclaimer/preacher /prophet played a key and remarkable role in the holistic wellness of the people.
In the Old Testament
Prophets were the representatives of proclamation in the Old Testament. Literally, they served as mediators between Jehovah and his people. Their messages could be presented as an affirmation, a rebuke, or a consolation.
The prophets’ messages were linked to the history of the people, their culture, customs, and political and social influences. They were an ever-present part of daily reality.
As I look at their role, I find a sense of ‘covenant’ in a polyfunctional relationship: God, the prophet, and the people. They acted as a walking ‘conscience’, in touch and in tune with God, and at the same time, in tune with the people.
They were prophets of that day, and not prophets of the day after. In the same way, preachers today need to understand and address the many complex issues faced by the world.
The prophets as proclaimers were tied to the culture to which they belonged. The dialogue between culture and message is dynamic and contextual. In other words, the message affects and influences people’s culture by shaping, challenging, or confronting their belief system, for the well-being of the people.
In Jesus’ ministry and message
The core value of Jesus’ ministry and message was holistic. The ‘wellness’ or ‘good news’ of the message was inclusive. In Matthew’s words, ‘Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness.’ (Matt 9:35 NLT)
It is evident that Jesus has an integrative and natural approach to caring for people. Centuries later, the dichotomy between ‘announcing the good news’ and ‘healing’ continues, although increasingly a new approach is taking place in religious and scientific circles.1
Jesus was aware of the cultural context in which he ministered, and his message was contextualized to the people and circumstances.2 Jesus’ preaching made a deep, healthy, and powerful influence in the holistic well-being of his listeners.
Today, Jesus’ preaching must and should be revisited, especially when there is a wide range of interpretations and methods of delivery in preaching.
The model impact of preaching on the mental health of an audience must be from our Lord and Master, Jesus.
His impact on the mental health of people was evident in his encounters with people such as the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, Bartimaeus, and his 12 disciples. He met them where they were, eg by the shores for the disciples because they were fishermen.
In the same way, preachers today must meet people with God’s message where they are, at their point of need. It is crucial to explore, deeply and hermeneutically, the theological composition of the message.
The imago Dei, God’s image, must be re-read and proclaimed. Men and women were created in the image and likeness of God. Such affirmation gives humanity a place, a position, value, a creational purpose, a reason for existence, a truth which affirms the identity of human beings as ‘the crown of creation’ and ‘his special treasure’.
It is understood that the presence of sin denigrates the original plan. However, when the main emphasis is about sin rather than the original divine plan, then the message is limited, incomplete, or mutilated, and as a result, not therapeutic for the hearers.
Jesus was intentional in emphasizing and rescuing the value and worth of men and women. In every instance, he let his followers know, see, and feel that life is a continuous process in which faith, love, compassion, hope, joy, trials, illness, and endurance were all part of the earthly pilgrimage on the way to an eternal destination. Jesus, as a messenger with his message, is a model for all of us.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US (43.8 million) struggles with mental illness in a given year. Similarly, approximately 1 in 25 adults in the US (9.8 million) experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. 3
Personally, as a mental health practitioner and Professor in Pastoral Care & Counseling, this topic deeply concerns me. Being a member of an interdisciplinary faculty at a School of Divinity 4 challenges me to see the reality that we live in America and in other parts of the world.
We, as a church, play a crucial role in the well-being of people. We have a divine obligation to represent God’s message well and to be healthy messengers.
Every day, as we come into contact with people at church, at work, or in the school setting, we will hear many dynamic stories.
Those stories, in themselves, are full of hurt, wounds, sadness, disappointment, frustration, pain, or possibly with hope, joy, and celebration. Each story is a mirror of how circumstances in life have touched someone at a particular stage of his or her life.
If those who celebrate their accomplishments and joys are given room to be heard, by the same token, how great it would be if those who face their ‘lows’ may also have the same space, setting, and opportunity to share their own experiences.
Perhaps this could be our challenge—to create a new way of doing community and proclamation.
In our contemporary world our ‘pulpit’ must be movable. The inference is that a movable pulpit is a sacred sanctuary in which theology and pastoral care encounter each other.
The only purpose is to bring people’s stories into God’s story. If we do not do that, the message for a vast majority of hearers will continue to be irrelevant to their reality.
I grew up as the son and grandson of preachers. I responded to a call to obedience as a minister and as a missionary.
As a theologian and mental health clinical counselor I have been challenged in my own pilgrimage to ask myself questions which have brought me to understand the power, validity, and relevance of the good news in the midst of people’s various moments of life.
This intentional exercise has caused me to explore more deeply my own biases, my own theological presuppositions, my own prejudices, and even some doctrinal statements of beliefs which, in the name of ‘good hermeneutics’, have alienated others as not being valued and worthy before God.
It has been a long, but enjoyable, and meaningful path. On my journey I have met the pain of people who, in the name of the ‘right’ belief or doctrine, were ostracized, not included, or simply ignored.
I have tried to make my pulpit a movable one, interpreting what the Lord did, listening to the stories, and learning from them. This has been therapeutic, not only for the storyteller, but for the listeners as well.
As we deliver a message with accurate and precise rules of homiletics, we must not forget to find a sound and healthy message beneath the foundation of the Scriptures and hermeneutics.
My emphasis on ‘healthy’ is because I believe that this is one of the main challenges, but at the same time, opportunities that we face today.
As a caregiver who wants to impact people with the message, allow me to share some insights that may be helpful:
Keep in mind that people want to experience how the Word of God has relevance in all the passages of their personal stories and history. Some life stories are full of shame, frustration, fear, anger, sadness, unfulfilled dreams, broken relationships, anguish, and alike. As the messenger and the message come closer to their realities, the impact of them becomes a healthy triangle of awareness, hope, meaningfulness, purpose, and growth. Therefore, make room to connect with people’s needs.
Give space in showing people how God’s unconditional love is ever-present. Sometimes we communicate and articulate the biblical truths very well, but the concepts seem very cold and distant from what people are experiencing in their own reality. Therefore, they alienate themselves from God. From Genesis to Revelation, we see God’s unconditional love and presence. He has shown constantly a nearness to humankind. He reminds us repeatedly that he is not distant from our personal story.
Be sure that our message presents a man and a woman who are still in a process—not a finished product. Paul visualized it in his healthy personal experience: ‘I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.’ (Phil. 3:12 NLT)
As a messenger, be realistic with the message. One of the key responsibilities of a caregiver is not to generate false expectations or promises, but to lay a foundation of health, love, and care. There are no easy answers for life’s complex issues. However, do not avoid, dismiss, or ignore them. We can listen and accompany those we care for in their pilgrimage and trust God that in his given time he may answer.
Be aware that in the midst of our congregants, viewers, and readers there are folks who are facing mental health issues, on a spectrum from moderate to chronic.5 There is hope for them also. It has been researched that ‘. . .most pastors, family members, and individuals with acute mental illness agree that Christians with acute mental illness can thrive spiritually’. 6 In spite of their personal or family situation, structural or functional change or healing is possible. A word of encouragement, hope, God’s presence, and unconditional love during their treatment and care is like water in the wilderness.
Preaching is an art. The use of the right tools in God’s hands is a vehicle of healing, affirmation, healthy admonition, restoration, change, and hope. The words of the Apostle John still have validity in our contemporary world: ‘Dear friend, I am praying that all is well with you and that your body is as healthy as I know your soul is.’
Hebert Palomino O is originally from Colombia, South America, PhD, BCCC, BCPC served as a Baptist missionary for 25 years in Peru and Paraguay. He is Professor of Pastoral Care & Counseling in the School Of Divinity at Gardner Webb University, Boiling Springs, North Carolina, USA .
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at www.lausanne.org/analysis.
1. For more in this area see: Cobb, M.R., C.M. Puchalski and B. Rumbold, eds., Oxford Textbook on Spirituality in Healthcare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Koenig, H.G., D.E. King, and V.B. Carson, eds., Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Puchalski, C.M., and R.N. Ferrel, Making Health Care Whole. Integrating Spirituality into Patient Care (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2010).
2. To explore more about this concept see: D.A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing, 2008). Besides, H.Richard Niebuhr, The Responsibility of the Church for Society and Other Essays (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
4. School of Divinity, Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, NC (USA)
5. Editor’s Note: See article by Gladys Mwiti & Bradford Smith, entitled ‘Turning the Church’s Attention to Mental Health’, in the November 2018 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/turning-the-churchs-attention-to-mental-health.
6. See complete LifeWay Research, www.lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-1.pdf.