Understanding the Times – Part II

17 Apr 2018

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This article is the second in a series of four, designed to prompt and motivate church leaders to practice reflective discernment on important themes. 

Theme Two: Complex societal anxiety, depression and dislocation.

The rate of change within Australian society and culture is escalating exponentially, thereby causing a series of baseline complex mental health symptoms that can best be described as a dislocation of community.     

For the first time in 16 years of reporting, the annual youth survey[1] of Mission Australia shows mental health emerging as the top concern for our young people. The report highlights at least 40% of young people flagging an inability to cope with stress and are concerned or extremely concerned about its impact. Similarly, around one in five respondents were concerned or extremely concerned about depression.

Another key organisation Headspace[2] surveyed thousands of students aged 17-25 and revealed that close to 70% of respondents flagged their mental health as fair or poor. Students highlighted the following issues impacting their study in the last 12 months:

  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide: 35.4 per cent
  • Feeling stressed: 83.2 per cent
  • Lack of energy or motivation: 82.1 per cent
  • Feeling anxious: 70 per cent
  • Low mood: 75.8 per cent
  • Feelings of hopelessness/worthlessness: 59.2 per cent
  • Trouble sleeping: 55.6 per cent
  • Panic: 52.7 per cent

While recorded as percentiles, we need to remember these are reflective of real young lives, struggling to make sense of how to function, survive and thrive in this changing world.

Some might well be perplexed by the notion that with all our intelligence, capability and global networking, that the incidence of mental illness and broader societal anxiety continues to haunt us. Recent research in the Medical Journal of Australia among working Australians shows a 50% increase in those now not working and receiving a DSP (disability support pension).[3] 

While the data is not fully clear as to how mental health is impacting culture more generally, is it present, complex and debilitating. Each of these research ‘windows’ is but a small piece of the larger jigsaw; itself a cameo of a dislocating somewhat chaotic world.

For the Christian church within Australia, we must surely reframe our paradigms of how we respond to these issues. No longer can we simply open our doors, hopeful that our worship, preaching and prayers will provide the salve necessary to arrest the trends underpinning the stressors around us. For those of us who are well and resilient, how we offer community, hope, hospitality and safe places for people to belong provides a key for the church’s functionality into the future. At its heart, this is the mission-role of the church. 

Perhaps too quickly we have delegated this responsibility to mental health professionals without considering the important value that true community brings with encouragement, support, love and care. 

I cannot prioritise community if I am not immersed in community where I model maturity by my willingness to help cultivate community.

I’d like to suggest three orientations for leadership discernment and action.

1.     We need order to arrest the chaotic dislocation of the age!

When Jesus began His public ministry in the Galilee, his primary message was about ‘change of mind’ (metanoia) because the Kingdom of God was nearby. The essence of the Kingdom is: God reigning and ruling to bring order to lives and communities. Changing one’s mind is more than repentance, it is seeing things through the perspective of God’s lens, so that we understand that God is leading the Universe, the earth, the nations and our communities. Surprisingly He chooses to engage us in helping Him bring the Kingdom of God to fruition here on earth.

For the church to be salt and light in community, we must prophetically engage with culture and the pressing issues within society. This engagement is less about our relevance and more about what we offer from our Christian perspective. We must unashamedly present the Gospel of the Kingdom – a message of God’s order impacting the chaos of our age.

What would it look like if in and through our churches we understood a bigger mandate was present to help ‘order’ society (in each case the community where church is located)? What might it mean for our discipleship to bring maturity and perspective to lives, so that we help those less fortunate discover true purpose in God’s economy? How might ‘change of mind’ (metanoia) or ‘renewal’ of mind help those who struggle with mental health issues, to reframe perspectives and outlooks going forward?

2.     Our personal anxiety diminishes proportionally to our ability to surrender and submit to the Sovereignty of God.

Without diminishing the multi-faceted causes of anxiety and its consequences, I have come to believe that surrender and submission are helpful postures to empty us of control, of distorted self-importance and of unhealthy behaviours precipitating fear and anxiety.

The notion of surrender is embodied in ‘turning to God’ and God then responding. Here the Psalms are helpful: ‘Turn to me and have mercy, for I am alone and in deep distress’ (Psalms 25:16). ‘I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry’ (Psalms 40:1)

Within Western culture, meekness and ‘deferring to the other’ have become symbols of weakness. There is an art-form around being present without being domineering that reflects Christian practise and informed discipleship.

Could our faith communities precipitate environments that are counter-cultural and collaborative in design so that people are respected, empowered and encouraged to be together in team? What would it look like for your church to develop a theology of surrender and submission? How could you improve the overall baseline of your church’s anxiety by intentional conversation and deliberate learning about God’s Sovereignty? What intentional strategies could you develop to assist those who struggle with anxiety?

3.     True community is restorative.

The ecclesia or church of God must be restorative for hope to be manifest, anxiety to diminish, life to be given and chaos replaced with order. It’s a given that our church communities reflect the sum total of our discipleship communities – we are the living breathing body of Christ. Maturity in discipleship is an urgent priority.  
In a wonderful book titled: ‘The Field Hospital’ William Cavanaugh orientates the restorative church beautifully:

‘The church, though, is not just a hospital, but a field hospital. Unlike a stationary Institution that occupies a certain territory and defends it against encroachment, a field hospital is mobile, and event more than an institution. A field hospital is unconcerned about defending its own prerogatives, and instead goes outside of itself to respond to emergency.’

The word ‘equip’ used by Paul in prepping the saints for works of service also means restoration, healing and mending. What would it mean for your church to see itself as a kingdom outpost offering wholistic healing to a hurting world? Do you think that there is an emergency happening beneath the cultural dislocation we are seeing? What training and resources might help shape your church to include a world-view that is restorative and healing in design?

Being in community is both a joy and a challenge. I pray you have the grace and courage to engage realistically as you discern how you might respond to the challenges of the age.

Dr Andrew Ball
Executive Ministry Director
Recommended References:

[1] https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/what-we-do/research-evaluation/youth-survey
[2] https://headspace.org.au/news/majority-of-aussie-students-stressed-depressed/
[3] https://www.mja.com.au/system/files/issues/206_11/10.5694mja16.00295.pdf