By David Murray
In a church of 100 people, 20 people will likely experience an episode of depression at some stage in their life. If you are in a church of that size, there are probably 5-10 people struggling with anxiety or depression right now. But instead of finding comfort and consolation in the preaching of God’s Word, these suffering souls often find themselves battered and bruised by insensitive preaching.
What kind of sermons harm depressed and anxious Christians?
Sermons that over-stress the moral evils of the day. They are anxious enough through hearing the daily news without every church service ramping up the “we’re doomed” rhetoric. A steady diet of gloomy sermons is not going to lift up the head or heart of the cast down.
Sermons that include graphic descriptions of violence. They are deeply traumatized by preachers reciting the gory details of shooting massacres, abortion procedures, persecution of Christians, child murders, etc.
Sermons that extol constant happiness as the only valid and virtuous Christian experience. The deep pain of depression is multiplied when a depressed person is repeatedly told that sadness is a sin.
Sermons that question the faith of anyone who doubts. A lack of assurance is not necessarily a lack of faith. Believers who hang on to God despite feeling no assurance sometimes have the greatest faith.
Sermons that demand, demand, and demand.The depressed person already feels like an inadequate failure. To be regularly berated for not doing this ministry, or failing to engage in that Christian service, only crushes what’s left of their spirit.
Sermons that are too loud for too long. When a preacher pours out high-decibel words with hardly a breath between them for 45 minutes, it’s not just the nerves of the depressed that are frayed.
Sermons that condemn anyone for using meds to treat depression or anxiety. These are often preached by pastors whose medicine cabinets are overflowing with pills and potions for every other condition under the sun!
Sermons that overdo the subjective side of Christian experience. Depressed people need to focus most on the objective facts of Christianity, the historic doctrines of the faith. Facts first and feelings follow. There’s a place for careful self-examination, but remember McCheyne’s rule: “For every look inside, take ten looks to Christ.”
And that really brings me to the best way to preach to the depressed, and that’s to preach Christ. Preach His suffering and sympathizing humanity. Preach His gentle and tender dealings with trembling and timid sinners. Preach His gracious and merciful words. Preach His beautiful meekness. Preach His miracles to demonstrate His power to heal. Preach His finished work on Calvary. Preach His offer of rest to the weary. Preach the power of His resurrection-life. Preach His precious promises: ”A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.”
Preach Christ! Preach Him winningly and winsomely. Preach Him near and ready to help. Preach Him from the heart to the heart. Preach Him again, and again, and again. Until the day dawn and the shadows flee away.
In what other ways can preachers inadvertently damage the depressed? And how can preachers better minister to them?
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, blogs at Head Heart Hand, and is author of the books Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work.