Church and Mental Health. A place for the 5 percent

Church and Mental Health. A place for the 5%?

Church and Mental Health? How about sitting with someone and being gently curious about the struggles of their soul. Now that is what I call ‘Church.’

I once sat in a church service and seated in front of me were two men. One was a highly paid lawyer, a partner in a central city law firm. Next to him was a man who struggled with addictions, wore clothes from a second-hand shop, and his income was based on a sickness benefit.

They were both looking towards the stage, listening to the preacher, enjoying the show.

I marveled at how this was probably the only place where these two would be near each other every week, know each other’s names, and be brothers in faith.

And yet they still knew nothing of the struggles in each others soul

The lawyer was able to understand what the preacher was saying, but my friend didn’t understand any of it and required me to unpack the sermon with him later.

He loved Jesus, and that’s what mattered most.

Extra Grace Required

People had categorized the man in the second-hand clothes within the church as being in the ‘E.G.R.’ group – ‘Extra Grace Required.’ This was the group of people who needed more help than most.

Some other acronyms I have discovered are

  • E.C.R. – extra care required
  • E.B.H. – emotional black hole
  • V.D.P. -very draining person.

I have discovered though that the ones needing grace are probably more aligned to being like the lawyer.

They are the ones who have the best masks to hide their struggles. With cultivated smokescreens, they avoid being known, explored, discovered, and touched.

They have too much to lose if ever their real worlds are exposed.

What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you,
the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? Mark 8:37

The 5%

Statistics tell us that 1:5 people (20%) at any one time will be experiencing some sort of Mental Unwellness. It might be depression, anxiety, grief, addiction issues etc. 

For most of them, they can get on with life and not be too disabled by their illness.

For some, they may not even know they have an illness.


Digging deeper into statistics, we find that 5% of the population will be experiencing a serious mental health disorder that disrupts work, family, or social life.

Serious mental illness is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. National Institute of Mental Health

So for every one hundred people, there will be five experiencing a serious mental illness.

The odds are that you will at some stage in your life will be part of the 1:5.

You also could become part of the 5:100 group. I was in the 5% for a brief period, and the church did nothing.

Church for the Five Percent

In 1999 I was called to create a church fellowship for the five percent. I was to provide pastoral care and spiritual leadership for a community we later went on to call ‘The Living Room.’

We had a service on Tuesday night where we had all the usual components of a regular church service – worship, prayer, teaching. The focus of the service was to be the spiritual needs of those with disabilities, particularly related to Mental Illness.

By the end of my ministry in 2012, we had around 60 – 70 people coming each week with two-thirds of them having a serious mental illness. Many of the others were volunteers helping out with transport, or they just liked what we were doing.

Here is the thing.

Those volunteers frequently said that ‘The Living Room’ was their ‘church.’ Yes, they would go to Sunday services, but for them, Tuesday night was their home. The people were real, and it was light, fun, comfortable, and down to earth.

There is much talk about making the Church more friendly to people with a Mental health disability. But you can’t just tack on an accessible toilet like you can with the physically disabled.

Typical tack on’s

Most often, churches respond to the need with adding on various programs.

  • Food banks
  • Community Meals
  • Second clothing
  • Counseling services
  • Budgeting agency
  • Housing
  • Twelve Step programs
  • Drug rehabilitation centers

All of these have value, but there is always a disconnect between the 80%, the 20%, and the 5%.

The upside-down world of Jesus

Jesus came into this world to flip our thinking upside down.

In a story from the book of Mark, we find him shaking up the world views of his followers.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.

Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”  Mark 12:41-44

True ministry to the 5% takes you out of the comfort zone.

You have to listen to the poverty of the soul and find Jesus already there just waiting for you to connect.

Standing close

One of my favorite authors, Jim Wallis, writes this

‘Whom do we listen to and whom do we trust? Trust is essential to listening. Why do we believe the myth that the poor people don’t know anything and can’t be trusted? Where do you really find more truth about society – at the top or the bottom? Are the best solutions conceived in the corridors of power or in the neighborhoods? Jim Wallis

Only those willing to stand close enough to listen will ever hear those closest to the problem. Jim Wallis

Jesus invites you to come and sit with him in church.

It might be on a park bench with someone homeless. Maybe with your neighbor next door too depressed to get out of bed. It could be with the lawyer when the masks of self-reliance come crashing down.

It’s there, in that zone of poverty of spirit, that you discover what church and mental health truly does mean.

Quotes to consider

  • To say “I am going to church” both reveals and promotes bad theology.  Marva J. Dawn
  • The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose. C.S. Lewis
  • There are no little people and no big people in the true spiritual sense. Francis A. Schaeffer

Questions to answer

  1. What structures in our culture need to be totally flipped upside down if we are to bring Christ’s love to the 5%?
  2. Tack on’s can provide a comfortable, safe ‘tick box’ to say we are doing something. What would it take to truly listen to those closest to the problem?
  3. Where is the park bench church in your community?

Further reading

Whatever You Do, Don’t Learn Their Name

‘The Greatest Showman’ goes to Church

Do Christmas Community Meals Really Help?

Barry Pearman
Image: Leonardo de Pearman