Oftentimes we see that the church has become the last resort that people go to, in order to find help and hope for their problems. When in reality what we should see based on the Scriptures, is the church ought to be one of the primary places that people go whenever they experience brokenness. That is a huge burden of mine as I think about the culture at large.
I can remember being on staff at a local church, and my primary duty was to lead family ministry, discipleship, and counseling. I can recall on many occasions in the office that we pastors were the last to know of problems that were going on in the lives of some of our people. I was often—maybe at first—as a pastor, a little bit hurt that there was not trust between us. I was wondering what the aversion was, for this person who was very faithful to our church and was coming consistently. Why do they not want to talk to us? Why did they not want to let us know what was going on? There could be a myriad of reasons why something like that may be true, but I began to realize part of the reason is the church in general has demonstrated that we ought to be a last resort with many human problems.
A Faulty Categorization
When a person is dealing with something like anxiety or depression, oftentimes we do not think about those problems in the category of the spiritual. We don’t see those things in the realm of the church. We’ve categorized them in such a way that there’s another place that you go to; whether that be the psychologist, or the psychiatrist, or the general practitioner. And I’m not saying with certain physical issues that you shouldn’t go see a general practitioner. Please don’t hear me say that, but what I am saying is that what’s now become predominant is some of these “emotional issues” or “psychological issues” are not seen as primarily the responsibility of the church. Now, I think that’s quite unfortunate because as we categorize these types of human problems, these are domains that we see very prevalent in the Scripture. We see expressions of these things in the Scripture.
For example, we think about depression, or deep sadness, or even suicidal ideation. We see very clearly in the Scriptures, expressions where people who are very mature in faith were experiencing deep difficulty and deep struggle, deep despair, extreme vexations of the soul. And that’s not something that’s foreign to Scripture. It’s demonstrating that this is common to our human experience. And the beauty of God revealing these intimate details of the lives of very mature people in the Scriptures, indicates that these are problems that are in the spiritual domain and that God is intended to be our help, our hope, our rock, our fortress, our defense, and our deliverer.
We see these terms in this particular way, and I think it’s really critical for us to shift back into this re-categorizing what God says is absolutely true about us; that our experiences ought not be categorized in such a way as to push them away from the church. Even physical issues that we deal with, there are physical aspects, but we cannot divide man to such a degree to where something is a physical issue only. We are a holistic being, which means that even when we encounter physical problems, the church is intended to be a haven. The church is intended to be a place where people can go to receive encouragement, help, and hope that’s found in the Lord Jesus relative to their particular issue. That’s intended to bring peace, that’s intended to bring comfort, that’s intended to lighten their load. I fear what’s happened is we’ve been deceived in our culture to look outward and we’ve said, “No, that’s the domain that exists outside of the church.” We’ve categorized these problems, or allowed them to be categorized, as non-spiritual issues or simply as “psychological issues.” I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s dangerous for us in the church to allow that to happen, and to allow that to continue to happen.
A Shift in Pastoral Duties
I think there’s a second reason though: The way in which we’ve thought about pastoral duties. Beginning in the 20th century, you really began to see a shift in the role of pastoral duty. Now some of that was just the ebb and flow and change of the way people try to describe the functionality of the church, and that the church needed to catch up with the times to be more relevant. But we saw a distinct way of thinking about pastoral duty shift. And the church began to function more like an organization, more like a business, and pastoral duty needed to be restructured to have someone who would lead and manage this organization.
Even in theological training, we began to see a shift in the way that we train pastors. We train pastors theologically and we train them about the New Testament, the Old Testament, how to preach, and things like that. But now, we’re not talking about how to shepherd. We’re not talking about particularly pastoral duties like the private ministry of the Word. We talk even in conservative churches very heavily—and praise be to the Lord for this—about the power of the Word in expository preaching. And praise the Lord, we should think about the Word being that strong that when we corporately preach the Word, we see hearts and lives discerned and convicted and changed—that their mind and heart become illuminated to the problems that they face and they find hope in the Scriptures. That is a part of the duty of the pastor, but I was also submit that part of the duty that we’ve left off is the private ministry of the Word. And that has really sent a message not just to our people in the church, but even to the world outside.
I think this has led to a misunderstanding that’s trickled down to the people in the church, that it’s not the pastor’s primary duty. He’s not trained to do that because we’ve stripped that from theological education to a large degree. But not only is he not trained to do that, he’s not trained in counseling. He’s not trained in how to think about those intimate problems of people. I think that sends a message to people in the church. This says first that if the pastor can’t deal with this issue, then I need to go elsewhere to find out how to deal with this issue. The other thing it communicates is that if the pastor can’t deal with these issues, then what does that mean for the laity? Can the laity deal with this?
If this is outside the realm of the pastor and his spiritual duty to minister to people, if the Word is not powerful enough for the pastor to be able to employ it, how is a layperson going to engage in that type of ministry? We can have a very loving fellowship, but even in that loving fellowship, what begins to happen is people start to categorize problems wrongly. They say, “We love you. We want to take care of you. We’re glad that you’re here, but this is not our domain.” And no matter how much we want to love them, we’re not really engaging in ministry to them, because there’s a disconnect in thinking that the ministry of the Word, and the hope that Christ gives us through the Word, and the ability of the Word to discern problems, won’t really help them walk through the darkness of life. As the Bible promises, we will have trouble and this life is full of darkness. If those things are true, then the pastor should be equipped and ready to minister the Word not just corporately, but also privately.
And then secondarily we see, through a myriad of texts in the New Testament, how we are to want to do the “one anothers.” We’re to live with each other, communicating the Word for purposes of encouragement, admonition, confrontation, love, gentleness, mercy, and help, as we see in the Scriptures.
But we’ve categorized these problems in such a way that now we’re disconnected from that. Part of it is that we really enjoy in the church a sanitary environment. We like it when we think there are no problems, but that is a facade. And we all know that because Paul makes very clear in Romans 6 and 7 that he still lives in a body of death. He still struggles with the flesh to a great degree and he’s a saved man. He’s writing Romans—this is toward the end of his journey. And so we think about life in the church and we want things to be sanitary, but the reality is we’re a bunch of broken people fellowshipping together because we have deep needs. We have deep difficulties. And so for us to desire a sanitary environment is not welcoming to people. It’s not helpful for people when they see that it looks like on Facebook and on a Sunday morning that these people have it all together.
When in reality, we know the truth. We know the truth that we all struggle in many ways. We all fight temptation. We all struggle with mortifying the flesh and pursuing the Spirit. The church is actually not a very sanitary place. It’s to be a holy place, we’re consistent to pursue holiness and we do that together. But when a person is broken, the primary place that we ought to see them is running to the church as a place of care and hope.
One final thing is that we’ve acted as though the gospel is sufficient for justification, but we’re not sure if the gospel is quite sufficient for sanctification. And so that causes two problems. The first is it continues to build a narrative that there are problems in human life that are non-spiritual at base. That there’s no spiritual responsibility within certain problems that we have, and that begins to disarm the means by which God says human change happens. We have to bring back the idea in the Scriptures that if we’re all in process of sanctification, we’re all broken. If we’re all in process of sanctification, we all still need the gospel, which was powerful enough to justify—and praise be to God through his Holy Spirit—and is also powerful enough to change us, to make us new, and to provide comfort in difficulty. Not just to address sin and help us to mortify it, but also when life is dark and difficult.
The burden that Christ gives to us, it’s an easy and light burden and there we can find rest for our souls. We have to properly categorize human problems. And I think this is a way in which the church has continued to perpetuate some of these problems. What I would see in the New Testament is that the church, in all of its essence and in every function that the church is called to do (whether we’re talking about evangelism, discipleship, one anothering, the preaching of the Word, or one-on-one discipleship) what should be happening on all those levels is the ministry of the Word is employed. Sometimes it’s in a public forum. Sometimes it’s corporately. Sometimes it’s privately. But all of it is for the purpose of soul care. Discipleship is really for the purpose of soul care, to help utilize the Word of God to recover what’s been broken, or what’s been lost, or stolen by the evil one.
The Church as a Haven
It’s important for us to think about the church. What kind of church do we have? Do we have a church that really pursues and promotes that it is a haven for the broken? This is the body. This is the institution that Christ has given for broken people. I think today we should be cautious because we’re sending a message in a lot of different directions that we’re not the first place that people should come. We’re actually functioning often as a last resort.
I do hope you’ll consider the things that we’ve talked about today and even consider the Scriptural relevance to the things that we’ve talked about. As we see in our world today, there’s a continuing growth of difficulty and problems. And people in our world are becoming more forward about some of those problems. This is the hour. This is the day that we could see the church rise to recover our identity as the primary place where people who are broken can come. They are welcomed, they are called to be obedient to the Word, they are ministered to, they learn about who God is in his character to find that he’s their protector and shield. He’s their provider. He’s their deliverer.
This is the way that we see people ministered to at a deep level. This is a moment for the church and I pray that we would continue to build the church and build the identity of the church through the Lord Jesus Christ, that we would learn to minister in the same way He as the Good Shepherd has ministered to our souls.