In 2013, we set off to Lincoln to plant a ‘chav church’ on a deprived estate – to reach people like us, from backgrounds like ours.
I wasn’t prepared for the education I’d receive; less from the psychology degree I’d enrolled on, but more from the people I would meet and the feelings I would experience.
Within 18 months, I’d walked alongside many hurting people and had myself fallen to the mercy of a crippling anxiety disorder.
In all honesty, the world I’d very much hoped to help ‘fix’ had gotten inside my head and torn down my lofty ideas. I’d been faced with people and problems I didn’t understand, conflicts I had no wisdom to deal with, and trauma that no amount of earnest prayer seemed to heal.
You see, with poverty comes dysfunction and with dysfunction comes trauma. Low socio-economic backgrounds and mental-health disorders are inextricably linked, although it’s unclear of the direction of cause: do mental health disorders lead to poverty? It’s likely. Is poverty a cause of mental-health disorders? Most definitely.
Regardless of causative direction, that’s one big problem for a church trying to minister in a deprived community; and making up a large wedge of the mental health problems we regularly encounter, are personality disorders.
Personality disorders (PDs) are described on the NHS website as “conditions in which an individual differs significantly from an average person, in terms of how they think, perceive, feel or relate to others” and are estimated to affect around five per cent of the general population. As with most mental health problems, PDs are associated with socio-economic status, but unlike ‘affect disorders’ such as anxiety and depression, they aren’t caused by chemical imbalance or stress; instead, they’re often caused by abusive or neglectful childhoods.
They can’t be treated with medication and are often resistant to therapeutic intervention; there is no quick fix. Marsha Linehan, the Christian creator of dialectic behavioural therapy and former sufferer of borderline personality disorder (BPD), describes living with BPD as “walking around every day with emotional third-degree burns”.
Personality disorders cause many sufferers to engage in risky ‘numbing’ behaviours – such as abusing alcohol or drugs, self-harm and suicide attempts. Sadly, I suspect rates of disorders such as these are far higher in our community than official estimates suggest.
So what does this mean for our ministry? For a church like ours, there’s no easy answer – individuals suffering with personality disorders are often written off as reckless, disturbed individuals. They may behave as if they don’t want Jesus. They may attempt to divide your congregation and challenge your leadership. They may be singing your praises one day and writing a letter of complaint the next.
But often what those with PDs fear the most is abandonment and rejection, and paradoxically, their behaviour is often a twisted outpouring of this fear. Disorders such as these are often caused by years of rejection or abandonment, compounded by further rejection in adulthood when the individual ‘acts out’ – confirming their deeply held beliefs that they are ‘bad’ or ‘un-loveable’.
Therefore, I believe, the only antidote is unconditional love – the kind that Jesus models, but we, in practice, find difficult to replicate. For only when we experience the unconditional love of a Good Father can we truly accept ourselves as broken, but redeemable creations. For those of us who were lucky enough to receive this love from our earthly parents, a balanced self-perception and healthy relationships aren’t too difficult. For those who have never experienced it, the world is a scary place and every relationship represents a minefield of proving one’s worth and, ultimately, inevitable rejection.
I believe that the Church today has a responsibility to better understand the mental-health needs of their congregations, as well as those outside of it. The stigma and mislabeling of the mentally-ill in churches as ‘demon possessed’, has only served to compound the rejection and isolation experienced by these individuals.
For too long we have failed to commit to educating the body of Christ about the emotional barriers to spiritual reconciliation. If we can carry the physically lame to the well, we must also learn to carry the emotionally lame. We may not be equipped to place broken bones in casts or to provide psychological therapies to the anxious or depressed – but we must be equipped to recognise and understand emotional and psychological pain in the way we would physical pain.
So far, the greatest and most important thing I have learnt during my time ministering in our chav church is this: if we are to truly reach the lost – all of them, not just the easy ones – we need a far greater understanding of mental health problems; a far wider embrace of grace, and a commitment to forgive ‘seventy-times-seven’. Because despite their anti-social behaviour, those with PDs are desperate for someone to save them.
Let it be Jesus.
The Church at large let’s a lot of people slip through the net, due to a lack of psychological education and grace. Maybe even someone reading this has themselves slipped through the net. You may have once attended church, but felt unloved and unaccepted.
Let me tell you – Jesus loves you unconditionally.