Before Robin Williams Shows Up in Your Sermon, Think Again

By Allen White

Robin WilliamsMost people are well aware of actor Robin Williams’ passing this week. The public outpouring from every sector is tremendous. This man touched a lot of people’s lives. Whether they embraced him as Mork from Ork, or “Captain, my captain,” or a DJ in Vietnam, or a loveable, hope-inspiring doctor in Patch Adams, Robin Williams connected deeply in a lighthearted way with such a broad cross section of people. His inner child was his outer adult, which shows bravery most of us lack. But, pastor, before Robin Williams appears in your sermon, here are a few things to consider:

1. Suicide has had a Personal Effect on Your Congregation.

Somehow, someway, everyone’s lives are touched by suicide. For me, it was a friend who took his life during the last week of Bible college, because he lived in such turmoil he could see no way forward. Most people don’t consider suicide, but some do. Some of the people who hear your words will see a friend or loved one in Robin Williams’ coffin. Others will see themselves.

If you send Robin Williams to Hell, you are also sending their loved ones there. If you send Robin Williams to Heaven, what are you saying to those whose thoughts venture to suicide in their darker moments. I’m intentionally not saying where to take this, but I am encouraging you to think about this.

2. Finding Jesus is NOT the Cure for Depression.

God can heal physical and mental diseases. No doubt. Personally, I have prayed for people who have received miraculous healing. I’ve also prayed with people who received miraculous grace that got them through one day at a time.

If Robin Williams had died of cancer or heart disease, we might be more understanding. After all, many physical illnesses are incurable. Mental illness is also incurable. While mental illness can be managed and treated, it never goes away.

For some reason, especially in the church, we often judge people who are mentally ill as making poor choices in their lives or somehow not fully trusting in God. It’s almost as if physical impairments can’t be helped, but mental impairments just require people to simply try harder. If trying hard cured mental illness, then mental illness would be cured, because I don’t ‘know of anyone who tries harder to fit in or just function than people who struggle with these diseases.

There are plenty of Christians who love Jesus with all of their hearts and have committed their entire lives to him, yet they are Schizophrenic, Bipolar, Clinically Depressed or smitten with another illness. There are also Christians who love Jesus, and they struggle with diabetes, heart disease, obesity and a number of other mostly preventable conditions which are actually within their control. Their deaths may not be imminent, but they certainly will come sooner than they should.

Mental and spiritual matters seem more inseparable than physical and spiritual matters. The fine line between the soul and spirit is hard to navigate. Can our souls be saved, while our minds are “lost”? That doesn’t even make sense. We are whole beings. Yet, just as the Apostle Paul prayed for his tormenting illness to disappear, God offered grace instead of healing.

3. The Church Must Do Something.

People suffering from mental illness are often misunderstood and stigmatized. As hard as they try, they often don’t fit in. If they have a family, the family often feels like outsiders as well. Where can they find acceptance and understanding? If it’s not the church, then where?

What help and support does your church offer to those with mental illness and their caregivers and families? Are they welcome through your doors? When they come, are you prepared to accept them? Will you offer support? Are there organizations in your community that your church can partner with? At a minimum, could you offer a meeting room for a NAMI group for free? Are you familiar with Rick and Kay Warren’s conference at Saddleback called The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church?

People with mental illness are exceptional. Certainly every mentally ill person is not a comic genius like Robin Williams, but they are exceptional because they don’t fit into the norm. Institutions are best equipped to serve those in the norm — schools, government, even the church cater to the average Joe. Most institutions are either too small to have resources or are too large to deal with exceptions. Yet, there are families with autistic children (1 in 88 children now) who will never fit into your Sunday school without being a “behavior problem.” Should they just stay home? After all, there are 87 out of 88 to pursue.

No one is doing great work with the mentally ill. They are constantly shuffled back and forth from agency to agency. Most will end up in jail or homeless or dead. The church possesses the hope of the world. If anyone should care, shouldn’t it be the church? Begin to equip yourself, and God will use you. Be open.

Before you mention Robin Williams, do you truly understand his illness? It’s not easy to reconcile a life that brought so much pleasure to so many, yet was tormented by so much pain. Before you go there, what are you willing to do to help the next “Robin Williams” who walks through your church door?

It was probably too soon to write a blog post about Robin Williams. But, so many posts and comments are appearing that are condemning Robin Williams and judging him without truly knowing him or understanding his struggle. I felt I needed to saysomething. This is a tragic loss.

If you need a sermon illustration for Sunday, use something else. It’s too soon. Robin Williams affected many, many lives and means so much to so many. A trite sermon illustration does him a disservice. He was a very special person, exceptional even.

Allen White

Allen White

Allen White is a pastor, consultant, teacher, writer and speaker. He currently serves as Vice President at Lifetogether.com with Brett Eastman. In over 20 years of ministry, Allen has served at two churches: one of Outreach Magazine's Top 100 Largest Church for four years and for 15 years as Associate Pastor at New Life Christian Center, Turlock, CA, where he saw 125% of the adult congregation connected in small groups. Allen and his family live in South Carolina. Allen blogs at AllenWhite.org.