by Carolyn Bramhall.
In the article “Your church – a place of healing for the broken“, we took a peek at the idea that perhaps ordinary Christians, without training in mental health issues or counselling can help the most wounded and damaged individuals in our churches and communities. There is such a huge amount of information out there to grasp, but do we really need to know that much in order to effectively help hurting people?
Pain from past trauma, pain from inadequate parenting, and pain from fractured social networks appear at the top of the list of today’s personal struggles. There seems to be an almost unmanageable demand for expertise in pastoral situations where people receive long-term emotional and spiritual support for abuse and neglect issues, particularly those related to childhood experiences. Most churches, it seems, contain people who are victims of abuse, broken homes, unjust treatment, cruelty or manipulation.
However, it is our enormous privilege to see ordinary Christians not only daring to believe that God is able to set the most broken captive free from their chains, but using them to do just that!
The Church in the twenty-first century is now faced with the task of finding a way of helping comparatively large numbers of traumatised and broken people find freedom and wholeness. Let’s look briefly at how the early church dealt with this challenge.
The early church
There is not much in the New Testament about how to specifically help those who have been abused. People were definitely unfairly and cruelly treated in those early years of the church; all the social triggers which set the scene for desperate people to do desperate things were there, and the vulnerable would be the first ones to suffer.
The kind of social issues facing those first Christians included occupation by a foreign power (the Romans), religious and racial hatred, poverty and persecution. We can safely assume that some members of the early church would have suffered from trauma and abuse leading to such things we now label as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, depression and dissociative disorders. Added to that, the early church knew what it was to be hated for their faith. Reading about their steadfastness under trial it is clear that, in the words of Ivo Lesbaupin, “Persecution forms the backdrop of all Christian reflection”. Severe suffering and trials were simply part of everyday life for those early Christians. Just read the books of Acts and James and you get a picture of a church under fire.
Are we then to assume that those who had to cope with the pain of rejection, abuse and injustice were stronger than today’s victims? Perhaps they didn’t need the kind of help we come to expect to be available for us today! I don’t think that would have been the case at all. However I do believe that if we follow the example of the early Christians we will go a long way to seeing real change occur:
1. Refocus on the solution rather than the problem
2. Place survivors and vulnerable people in an environment of safety
3. Provide evidence in our words and actions that they are secure and accepted – until they believe it for themselves
4. Teach survivors to understand what they have to do in order to be free of the past.
I believe then we will see phenomenal results in our churches. Indeed, it is already happening.
So what needs to take place in order to provide a way to introduce the four points above? I suggest two areas in which we can set the scene for God to come and do His work of restoration.
Works of love
The first area is to pay attention to the very practical needs that the wounded person has. It is no good pouring in truth and offering good counselling to people who are in need of a good meal, or a home in a safe neighbourhood. We can minister to their minds, but if they don’t own a decent bed, they may not sleep in peace.
Some Christians are very good indeed at practical, hands-on help, offering to go to the hospital or court hearing, cook a nourishing meal or mend their car. This is a down to earth approach and shows love in a way that all the world can see.
Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate a number of points, not least I believe, that loving someone is as much to do with actions as words; “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him” Luke 10:34. Jesus was making us aware that most people require help that is practical as well as spiritual; a point taken up by James “As the spirit without the body is dead, so faith without deeds is dead”.
So if we are to lead people to a place of emotional healing we first of all have to ensure that their basic needs are met. Neither a psychiatrist, nor a counsellor can do this, but you and I can as a good neighbour and loving church member.
Words of truth
The second area is of course their emotional and spiritual welfare. This is sometimes less easy to identify, but not necessarily, particularly if you know what to look for and where to go because you have met the same issues in yourself. Things like insecurity, fear or self-absorption are common to us all, and we can reach an understanding amazingly quickly when chatting with someone about their pain, or their “stuckness”, even while we do the shopping or weed the flowerbeds together!
As I pointed out in the previous article, it is not the bad experience that gives us such trouble, but the message we take from it. It follows that if we can help a wounded person to understand the wrong thinking and untrue assumptions that they have developed over their lives, and stand alongside them as they replace them with the truth, then they can and will begin to change. Not only will they experience freedom from the cruel and debilitating lies which have formed the backdrop of their lives, but they will learn new strategies of thinking which will equip them to deal with other wrong ideas they encounter in the future. We want to equip them rather than rescue them.
So this two pronged approach, the works and the words, will provide so much more together than separately. Any community can offer this, but only the Christian community can do it in the light of God’s love and with the dynamic, energising and miraculous healing power of His Spirit.
But I can hear you saying that you do all this already. The survivor you are working with goes to church, perhaps are in a home-group. You do offer practical support when they ask for it. My response is to honour you for your love and faithfulness, and to suggest that if the learning and help they receive was joined-up, was structured, was consistent over time, and was co-ordinated you would see less of the “one step forwards two steps backwards” scenario and far more reward for your work.
Heart for Truth has been working with churches for five years now by helping them set up what we call “Truth Teams”. As I said in the first article: It is when a safe environment is coupled with a safe way of thinking, and then offered to God for His in-filling, that lasting healing occurs. Truth Teams are a vehicle for that safety.
Truth Teams are small groups with not only the purpose of bringing an individual to a place of healing, but much more than that, to include them in a small “micro-church”. The group is not a support group. It is not an opportunity for everyone to air his grievances, or for everyone else to stop everything in order to concentrate on one person. Rather, it is a smaller version of church, church in microcosm, with each member doing what he or she is called to do, but offering that gift to the wounded person in appropriate amounts of time and commitment. It is also temporary, and will need to be reviewed regularly. While it exists however, it functions as a small community, a group of friends with particular attention paid to the needs of the identified hurting person.
What each contributes is entirely up to them. It may only be a once a month outing, or a ten minute regular phone call. It may be to cut the grass, or pray with them after church; or perhaps to see them at the same meetings or ring every other day. Whatever it is, it is given in co-ordination with the other members of the team. So any previous manipulative behaviour is immediately stemmed because each member is in touch with the others. They may meet together occasionally, though not necessarily. But there is a good amount of communication between all members – including the wounded person who is a part of the team and who will also be expected to contribute. They are asked to pray for and support the other members however they can.
To illustrate: the first thing to happen at the outset of a Truth Team formed in the south east was the cleaning of the hurting person’s flat. A team somewhere else helped to find better accommodation, and in a team in the north the survivor was given a small cleaning job by a church member. In several teams help was extended to family members too.
In this safe environment spiritual and emotional needs are also assessed and addressed. So in several Truth Teams a course of study was arranged to help the survivor understand who they are in Christ, which gave them confidence to move on out of the place of self pity.
This kind of approach is not new. Community Mental Health teams and Occupational Therapists do this too inside the constraints of NHS time and budget. But the local church will not have their limitations, rules and regulations. Not only that, we are also able to demonstrate agape love, the unconditional, affectionate, and intimate love which can only come from God himself. No agency can even come close to doing that. Church can be there long after the mental health professionals have gone home, or have come to the end of their resources.
Anyone can be a part of a Truth Team as long as they are prepared to work as part of a team. You will end up learning to give within your ability, challenged to put your faith into action and learn to love in a way that you have never loved before!
People who are struggling and in need of this kind of support will probably have a history of receiving all kinds of help – maybe have had counsellors, psychiatrists, pastors, friends and family; all with a different agenda, with different approaches and bringing their personal baggage into the relationship. Most people in need come with a patchwork of good deeds and kind words wrapped around them like an ill-fitting garment; although well meant it didn’t quite go far enough; didn’t quite fit their needs.
Now here you are, proposing yet another way of helping them. But what if it isn’t all about them – the needy person – after all? Supposing it is more about them and you, together, learning to be “church”? Supposing we are not dolling out sympathy but instead asking them to rise to the challenge of offering who they are to you as well as receiving from you?
These are exciting ways of loving and being loved, given to those who have forgotten how much they are wanted and needed – or perhaps have never experienced real love before. It is high time we as caring Christians were able to be bold in the way we approach people with needs and have the confidence in knowing that absolutely nothing is too hard for God. He is especially good at putting broken people together again and he chooses to use you and me to do it!
Find out more about Truth Teams and how we can help in other ways as well.