Each year, 44,193 Americans die by suicide which, on average, amounts to 121 suicides per day.
For many of us, these figures don’t feel too far off. We can picture the faces and remember the names of those in our own communities who’ve taken their own lives.
As a young pastor, I too came face to face with the harsh realities of suicide and the pain brought on by watching those I loved experience such deep suffering. Particularly, I remember a man named Jim in our congregation who was struggling with mental illness. For a while, he fought the good fight and did what he could to spend time in prayer and read Psalms to find comfort. Eventually, however, filled with despair, he took his own life.
I was devastated.
At the time, I was unprepared, idealistic, and largely unsure how to handle the events that had just transpired in the church community I was shepherding.
Unfortunately, I think many churches today fit that same description. They are trying to figure out how to help people struggling with mental illnesses and care for loved ones in the aftermath of loss but don’t really know quite what to do.
But, if we’re honest, we must know that our unpreparedness is actually hurting the very people we care most about: our church communities. If we—as pastors, leaders, and churchgoers—really want to offer help, it’s time to look at the facts.
The American Association of Christian Counselors, Liberty University Graduate School counseling program and medical school, and executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention recently partnered together to produce important new research on the topic of suicide in Protestant church communities.
Some of their survey findings:
- 55% of churchgoers say that they hear about a suicide in their community about once a year or more
- Personally, 32% of churchgoers would say that they have had a family member or close acquaintance take their own life
- Looking at these figures, it shouldn’t surprise any of us that 76% of churchgoers would say that suicide is a problem that needs addressing in their communities
Now comes the important question: What is our role as the church of Jesus Christ in confronting this reality?
First, we need to step in and be a place of refuge for those experiencing mental illness and contemplating suicide.
Although we might not realize it at first, our congregations can quickly start to feel like places where a bunch of happy, peppy people come to celebrate how joy-filled and worry-free their lives are.
When this happens, we send a message to people who are struggling that, because of their pain, they are somehow not welcome; in doing so, we turn away the very people who need to be invited in.
Romans 12:15 tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” but also asks that we learn to “weep with those who weep.” This is our call as Christ-followers: to meet people wherever they are, welcome them, and make a home for them in our communities. After all, a church without the broken is really a broken church.
Second, we need to be more aware of the things going on in our communities.
Protestant churchgoers who have had a family member or friend pass away due to suicide were asked to share who was aware of the person’s struggles at that time. Unfortunately, only 4% said that church members or church leaders knew anything.
How could this be? If the church is Christ’s body and we are all truly a part of this fellowship, why are we still so oblivious to the pain and personal trials of others? It’s time for us as congregations and followers of Jesus to re-engage. We need to say “no” to the desires we might feel to retreat into our own circles and instead say “yes” to caring for the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Third, churches need to be more engaged in the prevention of suicide.
Churches as they currently stand seem to be doing a much better job helping family members recover from a loved one’s suicide than they are at helping the person in pain handle the hurt he or she is experiencing.
When family members and friends of the suicide victim were asked what type of assistance was offered to them by the local church, 49% said they were prayed with and 41% said they were visited by church members. The results could be better, but overall it looks like church attendees are doing something to help.
But, when Protestant pastors were asked whether or not their churches were equipped to help assist someone who was threatening to take his or her own life, only 30% felt comfortable answering “strongly agree.”
This is a problem.
Prioritizing on the Front End
I don’t know about you, but I would much rather counsel someone in pain instead of waiting to counsel their family members after a life has been lost. To accomplish this, church leaders need to offer more small groups and counseling opportunities for those struggling with mental health and suicidal thoughts. Serving these members of our community—beloved children of God—and entering into their stories really is an enormous privilege.
As followers of Christ, we get to be a part of the restorative work that the Lord is doing in people’s lives. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the day to come when they’re no longer around, it’s time for us to stand up and step out in faith to serve those in need.
We might not be able to fix everything and save everyone, but we can still trust that God will honor the faithfulness of our labor and that the lives we can touch matter deeply to him.
Dr. Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.