A new study published by Lifeway Research opens with the sobering reflection: “Suicide remains a taboo subject in many Protestant churches, despite the best efforts of pastors.”
That opening statement contradicts the belief of the majority of the pastors who were polled by Lifeway Research. When the statement “our church is equipped to assist someone who is threatening to take his or her own life” was posed to pastors, 80 percent expressed agreement. Similarly, 92 percent of pastors expressed agreement with the statement “our church is equipped to care for a family that experiences the suicide of a loved one.”
Looking at the responses from pastors gives an optimistic picture. Pastors believe that their churches are ministering to broken people who are hurting because of the suicide of a loved one or contemplating suicide themselves. However, it’s when Lifeway Research reveals the polling data from the people in the pews that the picture begins to look bleak. From the perspective of the church members, their church is ill-equipped to deal with suicide.
Part of the disconnect can be explained by a lack of knowledge and understanding by the general membership of how their church operates, as the following numbers demonstrate:
51 percent of pastors vs. 16 percent of churchgoers say their church has a list of mental health professionals who can treat those considering suicide.
46 percent of pastors vs. 12 percent of churchgoers say their church regularly addresses mental illness.
36 percent of pastors vs. 22 percent of churchgoers say their church has a lay counseling ministry.
29 percent of pastors vs. 23 percent of churchgoers say their church has a trained counselor on staff.
18 percent of pastors vs. 12 percent of churchgoers say their church has a crisis response team.
As the above numbers show, pastors tend to be more optimistic about their church’s ability to minister to those hurting because of depression and/or the tragedy of suicide. On the flipside, the membership tends to take a more cynical view. In fact, according to Lifeway Research,
More than half (55 percent) of churchgoers say people in their community are more likely to gossip about a suicide than to help a victim’s family. And few churchgoers say their church takes specific steps to address suicide or has resources to assist those experiencing a mental health crisis.
A quarter (24 percent) of churchgoers say their church has shared a testimony in the past year of someone who has struggled with mental illness or thoughts of suicide. Fewer (22 percent) say the church has used sermons in the past year to discuss issues that increase the risk of suicide. Thirteen percent say their church has taught what the church believes about suicide, while 14 percent say the church trained leaders to identify suicide risk factors. Thirteen percent say their church shared reminders about national resources for suicide prevention.
For good or ill, the popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, along with the suicides of celebrities like Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington this past year, have brought suicide to the forefront of the public consciousness. Churches are called to minister to the broken and the hurting, and to offer the glorious hope and joy found through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Chances are, the truth is probably found somewhere in the middle between the pastors’ responses and those of the membership. That’s still not good enough. Churches as a whole as well as individual church members need to strive to be better equipped, both internally and externally, to minister to those suffering because of depression and suicide. Pastors need to expend energy educating their churches about the resources available, as well as preaching a gospel that offers healing to all. Members need to do a better job of listening and being proactive in ministering to the hurting in word and deed.
In closing, I want to recommend this sermon preached by theologian Michael Horton at the funeral of a pastor friend of his who committed suicide. It’s both heartbreaking and beautiful, and most importantly, the sermon offers hope that only can be found in Jesus Christ.