Mistakes You’re Making in Your Weekend Experience (Bonus)
If you knew that 90% of your congregation was struggling with an issue, how would you address it?
Over the last four weeks, we’ve been talking about the common mistakes churches make when it comes to their weekend experience:
- 5 Mistakes You’re Making with Your Weekend Services – Episode 303
- 5 Mistakes You’re Making with Your Guest Services – Episode 304
- 5 Mistakes You’re Making with Your Physical Space – Episode 305
- 5 Mistakes You’re Making With Your Children’s Ministry – Episode 306
One of the mistakes we addressed was offering sermons/teaching that provide no real life application. After all, felt-needs teaching isn’t just for unbelievers and reaching the lost. Felt-needs teaching is also critical for discipling believers and equipping the saints.
INTERVIEW WITH PASTOR RICK ATCHLEY
Believers need to learn how to have difficult conversations within their homes and among their family and friends in a way that demonstrates both truth and love. In other words, we need to help believers learn to love God and love others within our current cultural context.
In today’s bonus episode, I’m sitting down with Pastor Rick Atchley (The Hills Church in Fort Worth, Texas) whose church did just that: they embraced felt-needs teaching by identifying the needs in their congregation and developing a nine-part sermon series on mental health.
You can watch Pastor Rick’s series, Let’s Talk About Mental Health, here.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. According to recent research, one out of every five U.S. adults is experiencing a mental illness. Many churches, though, either from feeling unqualified or just unsure, never address the topic within their congregation. On this week’s bonus episode, Tony sits down with Pastor Rick Atchley of The Hills Church in Fort Worth, Texas, for a conversation on how their church addressed this important topic of mental health. If you’re brand new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, stop before you listen, and go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe to get the episode show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to support each week’s episode, as well as resources from all of our past episodes. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, here’s Tony’s conversation with Pastor Rick Atchley.
Well, Rick, we really appreciate you joining us for today’s conversation. I know a lot about you and The Hills Church. Great church. We’ve had an opportunity to work together over these last several years. But for those that may not know you, can you share a little bit about who you are and your ministry?
Oh, thank you, Tony. Okay. My name is Rick Atchley. I have been the teaching minister and senior pastor of this church, The Hills Church, in the Fort Worth, Texas area for 34 years. I’m not a founding pastor. Our church is, I think, 66 years old, but for 98% of the church, I would say I’m the only pastor they have ever known. And so that is our reality. We are a multisite church. We currently have three campuses and hope next year to launch a fourth. And we are your basic, solid-evangelical, Bible-preaching, Christ-exalting church that your podcast reaches so many of.
Well, it’s, it’s been fun to work with The Hills primarily around your multisite strategy, which you referenced, and we’ve worked with you around discipleship and in some other areas. But actually, you and your team have been an encouragement to me, too, because it’s just, it’s an example of when a, a leader, a pastor, pursues the heart of Jesus and then carries out the mission that he has been called to. There’s gonna be fruit on the other side of that, and your ministry is definitely evidence of that. But the reason why I reached out is the last time I was at The Hills Church, you were ready to start a new series, and the series was called Let’s Talk About Mental Health. So before we get into some of the specifics of that series, what prompted you to focus on mental, mental health for this teaching series?
Well, it was a journey, Tony. So last summer, during a study break, I, I began to be burdened for what I would call the soul-health of my church. It just seemed like, since covid especially, people are anxious. People are fearful. People are angry. I was convicted by third John in verse two, where he prays for his friend. I pray that you are healthy and that all is well with you, even as it is well with your soul. And I thought, how many of my members would want their pastor to pray that prayer over them? I hope everything else in your life is as healthy as your soul is. And my thought was, most people would not want me to pray: I hope my kids, I hope my marriage, I hope my job, I hope my health is as healthy as my soul right now. So I began to do some study and prepare a series in January on soul care. So in the fall, as I was wrapping up my study for that series, God began to prompt me to realize the primary way that our unhealthy souls are being manifest is in mental health and mental health challenges. So during that four-week series in January, I decided to take a quick survey of my church and ask, how are you doing in terms of your mental health? Tony, we had over 2,500 responses, and 90% of the responses reported in the last 12 months they’d had a struggle with some type of a mental health challenge.
That’s 90%, you said? Yeah, 90%?
Yes. The, the top three challenges were 70% anxiety, 60% depression, 58% burnout and stress. And by the way, 10%, no, excuse me, 6% reported thoughts of self-harm. And so I knew at that point it would be pastorally irresponsible for me to know that and not address that. Now, I will say this. When God prompted me, Tony, my first response was to say, no—that’s not like me. When God gives me a revelation, my first response not, is not usually trepidation. I was afraid. I was afraid, number one, because this is not my lane. I’m not equipped or trained. I don’t have a lot of letters after my name in the area of mental health. And I knew it would require me a tremendous amount of homework and research. And second, I was concerned that in my ignorance, I might say something that might cause someone in pain to suffer even more. But God got me through that. And it’s basically because of this, Tony, I said this over and over in our series. The mental health crisis is real, and not talking is not working.
And it’s in our churches. It is in our pews, and not talking is not working. And so that’s how I came up with the incredibly creative title. Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Well, with that, it was, it was a nine-week series. I mean, that, that’s really a long series. But help, help us understand what were some of the specific topics that you taught on over those two months?
Okay. That’s a great question. And that is a longer series than I typically preach or even intended. The first week we just addressed the issue. I walked through the survey and said, the, the, it is real. And I laid out three goals for our church. Could we de-stigmatize people, mental health challenges? Could we become a safer place for people to say, I’m not doing okay? And could we have strategies that help people in the direction of health and healing? And those were our goals. The second week we talked some about the importance of our thoughts related to mental health. You have to be careful here, Tony. What you don’t wanna do is say to people, “If you would just think happy thoughts, you wouldn’t feel bad.”
But the reality is, any mental health professional will tell you that learning to think about what you think about is critical to getting better mental health. So we addressed that. And particularly in that lesson, that was, I think, one of the most important. I address some of the lies that people believe—Christians believe. Like, I must be a bad Christian if I have a struggle with my mental health. Maybe God isn’t close to me. Maybe there’s no hope. The third week we brought in a Christian counselor. I think this is important for anyone doing this series. I, it’s not so much that he said things I couldn’t say, but he said them with the credibility to say them.
And I think it’s very important to bring in somebody who has the credentials to speak to this subject. We addressed out of the many mental health challenges people face, we picked the four that we thought were most pertinent to our church: a lesson on anxiety, a lesson on depression, a lesson on burnout or stress, which by the way, we did on Mother’s Day, and it connected to moms.
In fact, it was interesting. 58% of our church reported feelings of burnout or stress, but it went up to 82% in the, the demographic, 30 to 39. Well, who is that? That’s the mother with two or three kids working a full-time job trying to keep it all together, get the soccer practice, get homework done, and she is fried.
So it, it was a good day to talk about it. And, and, Tony, one of the hardest and most important sermons I’ve ever preached, we did dedicate one sermon to suicide.
We talked about it very, and by the way, it was important early on in this series to let our church know ahead of time, here’s what’s coming. So you can decide, especially regarding your, your families, what you want them to hear. We did, on a weekend, we had family worship and kids in the room, we, I had brought up a, a, another counselor, a, a female on our staff who’s brilliant. And we talked to children and teens about mental health and had a family discussion. And then, finally, I closed the series with where do we go from here? Where, what’s next for us? So that was the series, the nine lessons. And again, while it’s, it’s a longer series than I typically preach, nobody will say, “When is this gonna be over?”
Yeah. And, Pastor Rick, I, I think on your website you have all of your previous messages, so we can probably include a link in the show notes today to all those messages so pastors could hear exactly what you taught, taught in those nine messages. Is that correct?
Absolutely. And, and I’ll say this, and again, in no way am I trying to promote myself, but in my 34 years here at this church, no series has my, has my people sent to other people like this series. Yeah. Everybody either deals with a mental health challenge or has someone they love who does.
Yeah. Well on, yeah. On that note, you know, I, you mentioned it, nine weeks, that’s a long series even f The Hills. But I think most pastors would be hesitant to do a series that long for fear it might actually negatively impact attendance. But that wasn’t your experience, was it?
No, it wasn’t. In fact, if anything, our attendance improved. It, it, we on, on an average, averaged about 1,000 more people in attendance than the previous year. Now, some of that might be people coming back from Covid.
But without question, it was an extremely important series to our people. They wanted to come. They wanted to tell their friends. And so, I, the truth of the matter is, as a pastor, I felt like I was obligated before God to serve my people, whether people attended, whether it improved attendance or not. But I can tell you, it, it helped our attendance. It did not hurt it.
Yeah. Yeah. That is similarly an off subject, but many times, I tell pastors about the need for teaching on financial issues and money and things like that, because again, not maybe on the same level as mental health, but a lot of people in our congregation are dealing with financial challenges and encouraging pastors to teach on that. And it’s a tough topic, and I realize that. But even with financial matters and teaching on that topic, and of course, scripture has a lot to say on that topic, what I’ve heard from churches, from pastors in recent years is when they, when they tackle tough topics like that and point people back to the truth in God’s word, that it really, it’s almost as if, as far as attendance is concerned, either not seeing any difference or even some increase in attendance. And I think it’s because you’re, you’re teaching on topics that people are really wrestling with in their lives.
Yeah. Well, thank you for the encouragement ’cause my next series is on generosity.
Lemme just add, Tony. The, the single comment I got more than any other, and I got many, was this, “Thank you. I’ve never been at a church that talks about this.”
There was genuine gratitude that the shepherds, that the people, that the church, that members, that people have trusted give me spiritual direction, were addressing something that is so close to where they’re living. And so I wanna tell you to all pastors, I think you’re gonna be surprised at the amount of appreciation and even affection you’ll receive if you want to address the mental health challenges our people are dealing with.
Alright. So, Rick, I’m assuming that you had to imagine a teaching series like this would generate a lot of need for help from within your congregation. So how did your team prepare before the series started to respond to people who needed more help?
Yeah, and I, that’s a great question, and it is such an important question. First, lemme just say, in my own preparation, Tony, I had to do a lot of reading. I had to do a lot of reading from Christian and non-Christian sources just to educate myself more on, on mental health and, and different diagnoses and different treatment plans. And, and frankly, just to have a more intelligent conversation. I, I fortunate that I have a number of a Christian counselors that I could talk to. And I went. And then the, the other thing I did, Tony, I went to some people at my church who I know deal with mental health challenges: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder. And I asked, “Tell me what it’s like to be you.” And, so that, so, it, it took an enormous amount of work on my part. Having said that, I went to my team. We put together a team and said, how, how can we put together the kind of resources our people are gonna need if we tackle this? And so one of the things we did first, as I mentioned, we took a survey and so that we could say, where are our people at? Where are they? What are the needs they most want addressed? That was so critical to be able to go and say to our, to our people, “This is what you said about where you are.” The, another thing we did, Tony, before this series, we put together a resource page on our website. That resource page had bible studies. It had books we recommended. It had a lesson series that we recommended. It had a worship playlist that we created, especially for people that we thought might be helpful if they deal with mental health challenges. It also had a place where you could connect to our counseling ministry. We, we have a couple of counselors on our staff. I know not every church has that, but I think it’s very critical if you take on this topic, you have to provide a way for your people to get help. Here’s what happened, Tony. We had a couple of counselors. They, within a few, a matter of days, were scheduled weeks in advance. They had to cut their first initial meeting times down from one hour to 30 minutes to handle the need. But we made that very clear that this was available. Something else we did, Tony, that I think is so critical for churches to hear. We had to train and educate our people who are our first responders. Like a lot of your churches, we have a very active prayer ministry. We invite people to come and receive prayer. We had to spend a lot of time training them. For example, we, we had to get, learn what language to use and not use. You’ll notice I have not said mental illness.
I’ve said mental health challenge. People are not institutionalized. They’re hospitalized. We do not say people committed suicide. We say death by suicide. It was important to learn the lang. You know, no one is a trauma victim. They are trauma survivors. And so we had to take our people that were gonna be our first responders and say, “Please learn. Let’s all use the same language.” Another thing we did, Tony, at every service, at every campus, we had a mental health professional available. So what we would say to our prayer team is, “Your job is not to fix people. Your job is to empathize with people. And if they are in a place where you can tell they are in a desperate place, your job is to help get them to the, to the mental health counselor.” I think it’s important, Tony, and one thing I said in my first lesson. And this is what it I mean by being a safe place is it’s easy in churches for us either to trivialize mental health challenges with statements like, “Oh, just suck it up and think happy thoughts.” It’s also easy to over-spiritualize, you know, if you’ll just read your Bible and pray more and have more faith. And we taught our people, “Well, you’re not doing any of those things. Your job is to empathize and to say, ‘I’m so sorry. I know it must be hard. How can I pray for you right now? How can I support you right now?'” And so training your people how to respond to people who respond is a very important part of this process. So those were some of the things that we did.
Rick, of all the topics that you mentioned nine different weeks on this, which, which were the one or two that really seemed to generate the biggest response from your congregation? Can you get, did, did you have a sense of that?
The, the second lesson where I talked about life’s Christian belief was really critical because people with mental health challenges feel less than. And to be told that you’re not a bad Christian because you have a real struggle was very important. The other thing, and this may shock you, but, but probably the single lesson I got the, the most feedback from was when we talked about suicide.
Tony, I’ve preached 42 years, and that was the first sermon I’ve ever done on that topic. And I was stunned at how many people in my church have been touched quite closely by someone who has committed or who had death by suicide, either directly a close friend or people who’ve had thoughts of, of taking their life. And so, again, it was one of those, no one’s ever talked about this, but it’s so close to me. And so those were the two lessons that I probably got the most feedback on.
So, I don’t know if you have perspective on this or not, but, and mainly because I know this teaching is still fresh for you and your church, but do you have any sense of how this series changed your church as a result of this series?
You know, I think what I would say, my sense is, Tony, is we, we’ve become a more empathetic church. You know, there, there’s an interesting story in the gospels where a man with a withered hand comes to the synagogue and Jesus says, “Stick out your hand.” Why did Jesus say that? Jesus didn’t need to see his hand to heal it. And here’s my theory. He had lived most of his life with his hand inside his clothes. He had learned how to do his faith-life hiding his weakness. You can’t hide blindness. You can’t hide lameness. You can hide a hand. Every week, people are coming to our churches, and they’re hiding where they’re weak. And we say, “Jesus, if you will heal me, I’ll show everybody my hand.” And maybe Jesus is saying, “No, show everybody your hand, and you’ll find healing.” So, I think the single greatest benefit that’s come from our church is we’re becoming more empathetic and more willing to say, “It’s okay not to say I’m okay today.” In fact, I said, “It is no longer fine to tell people you’re fine if that’s not the truth.”
Boy, can you imagine that, how transformative it would be if the church was known for empathy? Wouldn’t that be significant? So I asked you about your church, but how would you say this teaching series has changed your perspective as a pastor, Rick?
Well, I’m, I’m still in some ways I’m still processing what that has meant. I know that it is, it has raised awareness for me that there are many people in my church who have experienced deep trauma, great pain, and they’ve never processed it. They’ve never known how to, or they’ve never felt safe to do so. And I think, I think this series has helped them trust their pastor and their leaders. Maybe this is a safe place. So I think it has certainly increased my empathy. And like I said, it’s, it’s, it’s caused me, Tony, I think, to really lean more into my responsibility to equip my church to take on the yoke of Jesus. And here’s what I mean by that. I am absolutely persuaded that we have normalized a way of doing life that is toxic to ourselves. Our rush, our hurry, our, our addiction to screens—we are doing life in a way that is toxic to ourselves. And so part of my responsibility is to call that out and to, to equip my people with the disciplines necessary to live a life more in line with the way Jesus lived. John Mark Comer says it well, “We can’t have the life of Jesus if we don’t want the lifestyle of Jesus.” Solitude, rest, Sabbath, synagogue—these things are important. Tony, just getting people to sleep. You know, we’ve gone from a hundred years ago, nine hours of sleep a night to 6.8, and it’s affecting our mental health. God did not create.
So I think part of it’s, it’s, it’s affected me in the sense of I need to be more diligent in calling out the ways that people are living that are toxic to their soul.
All right. Well, as we wrap up, I can tell that you are passionate about this topic and it’s because you love Jesus and you love your congregation so much. But what encouragement would you give to other pastors who might be considering teaching on topics like mental health in the future?
Well, number one, I would say, like me, overcome your fear. Trust that if God has prompted you, God is going to equip you and bless you. And, that it, the, I, I sometimes perhaps underestimate the, the permission my flock gives me to speak to the things in, in the places in their life that hurt the most. And, so I would encourage you to overcome that fear and address it. I believe God will bless it. I would, I would also encourage you, if you go into this water, make sure you have a team and a plan ready so that if people do come, that you, you’re not promising something that you can’t deliver. And, and, Tony, I, I, well, just one last thing. The, the church can offer many things that people can get other places: medicines, therapies, community. But there’s one thing only the church can offer, and that’s the gospel. The gospel is good news, Tony.
It’s good news.
Blesses people. And when Jesus healed that demonic, it says they found him dressed and in his right mind. And I think, you know, our, our ultimate hope, Tony, when Jesus returns someday, we’re all going to be in our right mind. How good is that going to be? But, but don’t, don’t ever underestimate the power and of the good news. You, we just can’t teach it and preach it and proclaim it enough. And it is good news for those with all kinds of challenges, including those with mental health challenges.