So, here’s an observation on my blogging. When I wrote about music – music in the Christian community, as participated in by practically countless Anglo-Saxon practising Christians, not academic obscurities but how the every-week Sunday service works, could work, should work – I attracted a certain small number of readers and followers. When I – finally, reluctantly, with a feeling that it was somewhat irrelevant and unnecessary – I did a few posts relating to my history of mental illness, suddenly the level of attention shot up.
Why? Unless I much mistake, the number of people who take part in congregational singing of a broadly ‘worship’ nature is not going to be significantly smaller than the number of mentally ill Christians. To be honest, I suspect the number of practising Christians with mental illnesses is probably not that much greater than the number of people actively involved in creating / producing / leading / etc. congregational music. So I don’t think the answer lies with groups of people.
I think it lies with need. At the end of the day, most of the time, most people, even most songwriters or church musicians, are not feeling any sense of needing advice or reflections or ideas about church music. They’re just getting on with it, and probably quite happy with the traditions, genres or norms they’re working in. I may feel that there are problems with the writing and singing of music in worship as often practised today, but they don’t generally share those concerns and they’re certainly unlikely to pursue the arguments of someone suggesting they’re doing something wrong.
Whereas, anyone with a mental health problem, just like a physical one, knows something is wrong. You pretty much always know when you’re ill. But mental illness doesn’t have as predictable fixes as most medical ailments. It’s a bit like cancer (with better life expectancy, obviously): you try this treatment, that one, different people recommend different ones, there’s no definitive best one though you probably shouldn’t mix several at the same time, you may have remission, relapse, full recovery – you can’t really tell in advance, you just have to suck it and see. And one of the consequences of that is that a lot of the relevant people are open to new ideas, new possible answers to some of the questions, a lot of the time (I think we all suffer some levels of information or rather suggestion overload at least at times!).
I am profoundly grateful to God and my neighbours that the following has not been my experience. But it is also true that some significant portions of Christian theology, believers, leadership and spirituality have not dealt well with mental illness. It has been too often (to be honest, even once would be too often) said in my hearing that churches, expressed beliefs and leaders’ words and actions have added to the pain and confusion, the sense of shame, guilt or worthlessness of mentally ill believers, rather than affirming their status as beloved children of God regardless of their mental health and their ability to behave or feel like the majority of members of their congregation. Clearly, there are some Christians with mental illness who are more urgently seeking a new answer to the paradox of the thing they most follow and trust seeming to deny that the situation they are in should ever really be able to happen unless through either hypochondria or religious hypocrisy.
So perhaps I should try to keep writing about mental health and faith instead of songwriting. Because people are reading, and it seems for some people it is helping. But there’s a wider question here for the church rather than bespectacled middle-class bloggers.
Trying to impose my own agenda didn’t work. In the age of narrowcasting and vast consumer choice of media voices, you can say what you like but if it doesn’t form part of a conversation people are already engaged in, they won’t listen. No medium is unignoreable today. In which case, are we listening, as a church, to the conversations people are having? Are we trying to work out what we can talk about that is on people’s minds, that they are talking about, or are we trying to impose our own agenda? Because I know what happens if you write about songwriting when really you have an audience for posts about depression …