How can we make church a space where people can talk?
This week is time to talk week (see https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/get-involved/time-talk-day). One of the amazing things about church is the potential it has to become genuine community, creating spaces where people from very different backgrounds can talk honestly about whatever life is meaning for them right now. Church is perhaps unique in the way it brings such a broad variety of people together - all ages, all backgrounds, all walks of life. But at the same time, it brings together people with a shared passion - an often powerful passion, and that can mean that there’s also the potential to get things very wrong - though often with very good intentions.
So what principles should guide our care - and our conversations - if we’re going to be real together and really explore what church family can be? How can we help someone we know needs to talk and share so that they actually take the plunge? How can we create relationships where we can truly share and be ourselves without fear of rejection?
Here are 6 guiding principles we’d suggest should guide us:
1 - Life is a journey! “Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God.” 1 Peter 1:18 The Msg
One of the biggest unintentional errors when caring for other people - whether it is physical or emotional health problems they are wrestling with - is to develop an ‘us and them’ mentality. Whether we’re professional carers, pastoral volunteers or just trying to be good mates, we are not people who ‘have it all sorted’, or who have ‘got there’. Some people may have had difficult experiences in life - experiences which have left them struggling to live effectively, positively or to grow and learn about themselves in healthy ways, or which are resulting in difficult thoughts and feelings, or triggering behaviours which are hard to understand and risking further damage to self or other relationships. But we are all on a journey - of faith and through life. Mental health - just like physical health is a line and as life throws difficulties at us we can all move up and down that line. So caring isn’t about one group of well caring for another group of ill - it is about us all being family, offering support as we are able to and knowing that the next week it could be us in need or grateful for someone else thinking of us.
2 - Storms come! “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house …” Matthew 7:25/27 NIV
Another misconception we can live by is that somehow, if we got everything right, lived life well, made the right decisions, were good enough followers of God, then nothing bad or unfortunate would ever happen to us. This simply isn’t true. It doesn’t matter who we are, what kind of start we had in life or where we are on our walk with God - storms inevitably come in life.
Matthew 7 tells the story of two guys with very different approaches to life. But both the people in this well-known proverb experienced storms - the difference was how they survived them and what happened next. It’s important that we recognise storms happen to everyone and are usually not an indication of anything else - not a sign of sin or weakness or failings. We can all learn to build our lives on stronger foundations. But we must never slip into judging those who are having to batten down the hatches when life has turned into an unexpected hurricane.
3 - Friends matter! “Friends love through all kinds of weather.” Proverbs 17:17 The Msg
Friendship, and the love that underlies it, has to be a core value of our caring - and the primary reason we do it. In church relationships, we offer something different to the various professionals who might also be caring for people precisely because we are friends to those we support. This doesn’t mean we have no boundaries - boundaries are important. But we recognise the strength of our friendship to people as part of our caring and we share more than just our advice, cups of tea or practical support. We share a part of our lives with people: they know something about us just as we know something about them. We’re real to one another, and we’re there for one another over the long term.
However, we need to be aware that right now friendship is something our culture struggles with. Many people do not know how to form or build strong friendships, or the depth of potential that the love of friendship can bring. Think about it: when Jesus talks about the example of the greatest kind of love a person can have for another it is not marriage he chooses, but friendship (in John 15:13). We need to explore the potential of friendship and push the limits our society tries to draw around it. We need to learn together, practicing intimacy and vulnerability, but also holding safe and appropriate boundaries and helping those who might struggle to do that naturally.
4 - Don’t Judge! “Every time you criticise someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one.” Romans 2:2 The Msg
It is so easy to slip into judging others. Actually, as humans, we often do it without thinking to protect ourselves. It's scary to admit that bad things can happen to good people - people just like us. So we like to believe these things would never happen to us because we wouldn’t act the way that person did. So, we criticise, nitpick, point out imperfections in others, and use them as reassurance that we’re ok. But the truth is we’re all imperfect. We’re all flawed. The Bible says we all fall short. So we must never get into making judgements of other people - even when we don’t understand what they are doing or why they have made the choices they have. We can support people to make better choices, help them to consider all the options or see the outcomes their decisions could have - but we must not slip into lazy judgement - and sometimes that means we have to deliberately and intentionally help each other not to do something which we might slip into naturally.
5 - It is GOD who heals! “… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26 NIV
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3 NIV
Today I sat with two women who had just held and comforted a colleague after they heard out of the blue that a family member had died. They were, understandably, distressed having witnessed her utter devastation and horror and grief. “It was so hard,” one said to me. “I was aware there was nothing we could do, we couldn’t change it, or make it any less awful, or stop her pain. We were useless.”
Of course, they weren’t - and actually I could reassure them that what they had done beautifully was sit with that person in their moment of pain. They had been willing to hold it with them, calmly, sensitively, compassionately. She’d had the worst news but she had known she wasn’t alone. Sometimes that is all we can do, and it is a very wonderful thing to do. Too many people avoid conversations or reaching out because they feel like to do any good they would need to be able to fix something. But the most important need any of us have is not to face things alone. And that is easy to fix if we can draw alongside someone or do little things to show we are with them in what they face.
Particularly as people of faith, sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it is GOD we reach out to for people - and to God we look for breakthrough and healing and all the things we pray for. The onus is not on us to come up with brilliant solutions, clever ideas or great treatments. We need not feel inadequate as mere humans - but we should remember our responsibility to connect people with something greater than ourselves.
6 - Hold hope! “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” Romans 4:18 NIV
And so we come to perhaps the most important principle. Many people we support or care for will be in situations where hope is difficult or feels impossible to believe in. Many of us will have experienced times ourselves when we felt like we were in places like these. Life can lead us to some very difficult times, where it feels impossible to see a way through. This may be compounded by struggles accessing treatment, the right help - or even by unhelpful opinions or diagnoses.
As people of faith, we can offer something unique - a source of hope and help that is beyond human rationality and limitations. Romans 4:18 talks about the amazing thing that Abraham managed to do when he had been told he would be the Father of Nations - but knew that he was unable to have any children. He faced a situation where in human terms there was no hope - and against all hope, he believed in a bigger hope.
Sometimes this is the strongest thing we can do for people we support. In situations where they may find it impossible to see any hope, we mustn’t deny that is how it feels to them - but we can reassure them that we do see hope for them. Sometimes it is much too hard to do it for yourself - but the knowledge someone you trust hasn’t lost hope for you can get you through.
Be stubborn in your hope and vision for the people you love. Never give up hope and resolutely hold it for one another.
And of course - it is Time to Talk day - but we mustn’t forget one vital last thing - to Listen!
“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” Matthew 13:16 NIV
Active, unhurried and spirit-led listening is a key skill and vital part of conversation and real connection. We need space to talk but we also need to know we are heard. Creating a generous, accepting and unpressured space for people where their difficulties, pain, experiences and worries can be witnessed is such a healing thing to offer. And all the more so if we can listen genuinely without judgement, without feeling the need to leap in and offer solutions or corrections, or our own stories of when this happened to us. Practice the skill of just listening, holding someone’s story and reflecting it back to them so they know you have heard them. Only in such safety to be truly heard can we risk being vulnerable enough to truly talk.