Mental Illness and Christian Worship
This topic showcase highlights resources for including people with mental illnesses in worship. Congregations that renew their worship to become more inclusive discover that everyone benefits.
Though many Christians are affected by mental illnesses, their struggles and gifts are rarely named or invited into church worship. Yet the Bible doesn’t shy away from difficult emotions. Elijah was suicidal. Psalms are full of despair and anger. Jeremiah, who wrote Lamentations, is known as “the weeping prophet.” Isaiah described the Messiah as despised, rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Jesus sought out and healed people whom others feared and shunned.
Will Van der Hart asks churches to develop a theology of mental health that “integrates mind, body, spirit, community, and family. . . . [and] sees people not as mental health problems to be fixed, but as children of God waiting to be loved.” He is the pastoral chaplain at Holy Trinity Brompton Church (Anglican) in London, UK. He is also a director at Mind and Soul Foundation, which educates, equips, and encourages churches and Christians to address mental health issues.
- Using psalms to name and express a wider range of emotions in worship doesn’t just help people with mental illnesses. It helps every worshiper because we all experience (or need to experience) love, lament, suffering, confession, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. We all need to learn how to worship when life is hard.
- Widening the worship circle means inviting more kinds of people to plan and lead worship, including sharing their stories. This move models that everyone has a valued place in the body of Christ.
- Worship planners can use music, sermons, special services or series, and every other worship element to connect with those affected by mental illnesses. “Those affected” means people with a diagnosis as well as their families, friends, coworkers, and care partners.
Using psalms to bring all our emotions to God
“My God, My God, Why?: Understanding the Lament Psalms”: Worship leader Stacey Gleddiesmith explains how depression led her to question whether God allows emotions other than praise in worship. Reading the psalms helped her feel included in God’s story.
Psalms in Worship: This topic showcase lists books and online resources to help congregations see that the psalms are God’s gift of permission for us to be honest in worship.
Psalms for All Seasons: This psalter offers multiple settings for all 150 psalms. Besides using music and languages from many eras and cultures, it has psalm-related readings, prayers, litanies, and worship suggestions. (Faith Alive, 2011)
“Bob and Laura Keeley on Lament Psalms and Children”: This interview with two church education specialists explains how and why to introduce children to psalms that voice sad feelings.
Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens: In case you wonder whether talking about lament psalms, depression, or mental health will put ideas in kids’ heads, this infographic shows that many are already struggling.
Songs of Praise, Lament, and Hope: Watch this workshop led by singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken at the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
Trumpets, Ashes, and Tears: New Psalmody for the Journey of Faith. Watch this vesper service to hear sung psalms expressing praise, confession, lament, and hope. It took place at the 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
Widening the worship circle
“Beyond Stigma to Hospitality: Creating a Gracious Space for People with Mental Illness”: A pastor who has learned to flourish despite depression explains that churches reinforce stigma when they say nothing about mental illnesses. Rev. Cindy Holtrop advises using person-first language to make people feel heard, included, and welcomed in worship.
“Warren Kinghorn on Mental Health and Christian Worship”: This conversation with a Christian psychiatrist tells how to appropriately include in worship stories about people who live with mental illness.
“Tips for Getting Ready for Mental Health Sunday”: A pastor and a psychiatrist explain how to help people structure their stories about mental illness. They also make the simple but powerful suggestion of asking people to lead different parts of worship with a brief introduction such as: “Good morning. My name is Mary Smith. I am a grandmother, a teacher at Anytown USA Middle School, a lover of nature, an avid baker, and someone who lives with bipolar disorder. Would you join me in the call to worship?”
Worship planning: Music, sermons, special services or series, other elements
Welcome and inclusion
“All Belong Here” by The Many (2017)
“Baptized in Water” by Michael Saward (1982)
"Blest Are They" by David Haas (GIA Publications, 1986)
“Come as You Are” by Ben Glover, David Crowder, and Matt Maher (2014)
“Come, Ye Disconsolate, Where’er Ye Languish” by Thomas Moore (1824) and Thomas Hastings (1832)
“O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” by S. Trevor Francis (1890)
Lament, suffering, crying out to God
“Does Jesus Care?” by Frank E. Graeff (1901)
“’Man of Sorrows,’ What a Name” by P. P. Bliss (1875)
“My God, My God, Why? (Psalm 22)” by Lee Ann Vermeulen-Roberts (2010)
“O God, Do Not Be Silent” by Wendell Kimbrough (2017)
“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (African American spiritual)
“Stay with Me” by Jacques Berthier (Taizé Community, 1984)
“Within Our Darkest Night” by Jacques Berthier (Taizé Community, 1991)
Hope, trust, and healing
“Gift of Christ from God Our Father” by David Mowbray (1999)
"Goodness Is Stronger Than Evil" by John Bell (Iona Community, 1996)
“ Chain Breaker” by Zach Williams (2015)
“Praise You in This Storm” by Bernie Herms and Mark Hall (2005)
“Pues si vivimos/When We Are Living” by Roberto Escamilla (1983)
“Take, O Take Me as I Am” by John Bell (Iona Community, 1995)
"Through It All" by Andraé Crouch (1971)
“We Cannot Measure How You Heal” by John Bell (Iona Community, 1989)
Theology and themes
“Mentally Ill Are Also Made in God’s Image”: This 1996 address by Pope John Paul II reminded international healthcare workers that being made in God’s image is always our deepest identity and is something mental illness does not erase.
“A Theology of Mental Health”: In this eight-minute video, Anglican pastoral chaplain Will Van Der Hart uses Elijah’s story (1 Kings 19) to develop an integrated, biopsychosocial theology of mental health.
“What Made Mental Illness a ‘Sin’? Paganism”: Christianity Today editors talk in this podcast about how some segments of Christianity (wrongly) criticize psychiatry and psychology as anti-God.
“Why the Church Should Turn towards Mental Health”: This essay by Christy Wimber, a Vineyard pastor, gives examples of well-known Christians who have struggled with mental illnesses. She suggests many churches need to develop a theology of suffering.
“6 Christian Mental Health Conversations”: This resource looks at helpful and unhelpful ways to talk (or preach) about mental illness. It comes from Time to Change, a UK-based social movement working to change how people think and act about mental health problems.
“Vertical Habits and Mental Illness in Worship”: This feature story tells how two worshiping groups used the vertical habits framework to bring every part of themselves, even mental illness, into worship.
Mental Illness & Families of Faith: How Congregations Can Respond: Download this excellent study guide by Susan Gregg-Schroeder, a United Methodist pastor who founded Mental Health Ministries. See pages 15–21 for sermon themes and Bible verses especially suited to sermons that address mental illness.
Hope for Mental Health: This ministry of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, offers dozens of free video clips about mental illness by people from various Christian traditions. Some videos are short enough to include in sermons, such as “We Are All Broken” by Johnny Baker, a Celebrate Recovery pastor.
Mental Health Ministries: This ministry also has short video clips meant to be used in worship. They’re taken from full-length videos that work well in church education or small group settings.
“Suffering and Comfort with Mental Illness.” Greg Sinclair, a Canadian ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), preached this sermon based on 2 Corinthians 1:3–7.
“Psalm 88: A Psalm for Realists not Optimists.” Cindy Holtrop, a retired CRCNA pastor and chaplain, uses Psalm 88 to show that it’s okay for people to say they feel abandoned by God, okay to admit to mental illness—and crucial for church members to listen to, accept, and pray with those who struggle.
Service and Series Planning
Special days, weeks, and months
World Day of the Sick: Pope John Paul II instituted February 11 as a day for Christians to pray for those who need healing as well as for their caregivers.
Mental Health Month: US organizations have been observing May as Mental Health Month since 1949. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) devotes the first week of May to children’s mental health issues. Mental Health Ministries offers church bulletin inserts, prayers, litanies, and other worship resources for this month. Many congregations within the United Church of Christ do Mental Health Sunday services on the third Sunday in May.
Mental Illness Awareness Week: In 1990, the US Congress established the first week of October as a time to affirm NAMI’s efforts. People around the world observe World Mental Health Day on October 10. The United Methodist Church has gathered prayers, sermon starters, and other faith and mental health resources.
During Advent, some churches offer annual Blue Christmas services (scroll down for six Blue Christmas service samples). Christine Sine’s Godspace blog post on Blue Christmas services has great visual and movement ideas.
Lifting the Lid: Six Bible Studies Exploring God’s Heart for Mental Health: Livability, a UK disability charity, developed this free download of six thoughtful Bible studies in partnership with Mind and Soul Foundation. It could also be used to plan a sermon series.
Other worship elements
Worship and Mental Health: John Witvliet’s succinct suggestions will help you think about how to regularly include people with mental illnesses in non-themed worship.
“Speaking Well in Worship about Mental Illnesses: A Beginner’s Guide to Language and Resources,” by Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet: This stellar article appears in an issue of Reformed Worship devoted to mental health. Her article explains why and how to share someone’s story about mental illness. It suggests using general language of human suffering so worshipers can connect whether or not they live with mental illness.
God of All Comfort: Mental Health Resources for Church Worship: Communitas, a Mennonite disabilities charity in Canada, created this sixty-page free download. It includes art ideas, sermon prompts, children’s book suggestions, video clips, and bulletin inserts.
Find solo and responsive prayers from the CRCNA chaplaincy, Mennonite pastor and theology professor Carol Penner, and Catholic Health Association of the United States (prayers for caregivers and petitions here). NAMI FaithNet has poignant prayers of confession for ignoring or rejecting people with mental illnesses.
Sarah Roelofs, the CRCNA director of chaplaincy and care, has found it’s helpful for those in the armed forces to combine movement with confession and assurance. For example, soldiers can physically write and offer their confessions.
Karl VanHarn, director of pastoral services at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, says that dealing with hope, shame, and forgiveness are important for recovery from mental illnesses. He suggests talking about those in connection with baptism and communion. A sacrament is the visible sign of invisible grace. Think about what it means that Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you.” Even in your brokenness, you are never forgotten, because Christ is broken for you.
Jesus on the Beach: This ten-minute segment (20:50 to 30:58) from a 2018 Calvin Symposium on Worship service uses dramatic reading, interpretive movement, silence, music, and congregational recitation to viscerally convey confession and assurance of Christ’s love and forgiveness.