It’s probably not a stretch to say that suicide has impacted every church. Nor is it a stretch to say that many church attendees—even the ones who show up every week—have never heard a sermon on suicide.
And yet, it’s become the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States.1 According to the CDC, “suicide rates increased 33% between 1999 and 2019,” and suicide took nearly 50,000 lives in 2019 alone.2 A recent study shows that “religious participation is linked to lower suicide rates in many parts of the world,” but it’s not true globally3—and it doesn’t eliminate suicide altogether.
A study from Lifeway Research found that 49% of pastors “rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness,” “76% of churchgoers say suicide is a problem that needs to be addressed in their community,” and nearly a third of church attendees have a friend or family member who died by suicide.4
In the following excerpt from Preaching Hope in the Darkness, authors Scott M. Gibson (a preacher) and Karen Mason (a psychologist and suicide preventionist) explain why sermons on suicide are essential—and why some pastors haven’t preached on it before.
Edgar J. Jackson wrote over half a century ago that the way a pastor can be effective in preaching and connecting with listeners is to maintain “a constant awareness of their interests.”5 Jackson elaborates, “In every congregation there are people who are battling a bad conscience, or are frustrated by home situations that are unhappy, or have jobs they want to escape. They are in need of the guidance, perspective and new attitude that their minister can give.”6
If Jackson is correct, and we think he is, instead of making it a goal to preach through every book of the Bible, a pastor first has the responsibility to understand the people to whom he or she is preaching—what their needs are, where they are in terms of spiritual maturity, how preaching can move them on to greater maturity, what they personally are wrestling with, even being able to preach in such a way that will encourage those like Danny who struggle with thoughts of suicide to consider the hope of the gospel.7
Preaching is integral to well-rounded pastoral ministry. “Preaching cannot be separated from pastoral care,” urges Paul Tauteges. “On the contrary,” he says, “it is a vital part of our care.”8 Arthur L. Teikmanis agrees:
Dynamic preaching is basically pastoral care in the context of worship. The preacher who has done his pastoral work diligently knows that his congregation is not a fellowship of saints. They are sinners called to be saints.… The preacher is fully aware that there are members of his congregation who have come to the service of worship with a sense of guilt, anger, frustration, loneliness, and despair, while others have come with inquiring and growing minds and are concerned with the problems of life, of culture, and human existence.9
Haddon Robinson wanted preachers to consider the impact of God’s Word on people’s lives, on their fear, needs, hopes, and growth in Christ. He writes, “Life-changing preaching does not talk to people about the Bible. Instead, it talks to people about themselves—their questions, hurts, fears, and struggles—from the Bible.” He continues, “When we approach the sermon with that philosophy, flint strikes steel. The flint of someone’s problem strikes the steel of the Word of God, and a spark emerges that can set that person on fire for God.”10
The Bible provides the strength people need. When it addresses men and women where they are, by the work of the Spirit something happens. Preaching is targeted from the Bible to people. Teikmanis agrees, “True preaching is not a generalization nor is it a monologue; it is always directed to the needs of the worshipers.”11
In well-rounded pastoral ministry, we don’t want to avoid preaching on death, yet we want to be pastorally sensitive about how we approach it. Rick McKinniss notes: “I began to see that taking the wrecking ball to people’s theologies [about death] would tear down not only their ideas but their feelings and hopes as well.… Through teaching and preaching, I was going to have to build patiently for them a new theological framework, one that would join faith and reality.”12
Developing a biblical foundation is key for Christians in understanding death.
If you’ve begun to build a biblical foundation concerning death, then you’re better able to address suicide directly from the pulpit. Preach on it. Show the biblical teachings on it. Many in our congregations may have either contemplated suicide or even have a family member who has died by suicide; an open assessment of biblical texts that speak to suicide would lessen the awkwardness associated with this touchy subject. James T. Clemons observes:
In the midst of almost relentless media attention focused on a topic of suffering affecting millions of people, it is strange indeed that so little has been said about suicide from the pulpit. I have often put the question to lay people: “Have you ever heard a sermon on suicide?” And, to preachers: “Have you ever preached on the subject, apart from a funeral service?” Almost always, the answer has been a simple no. Occasionally a preacher has added reflectively, “But you know, I really should.”13
There are reasons why we don’t preach on suicide. We may be reluctant to bring it up. It’s an uncomfortable, messy, awkward topic. Perspectives on suicide may vary, even in one’s congregation, from “a person who dies by suicide is headed to hell” to “suicide is like any other death.” We may think that raising the topic of suicide may risk encouraging someone to go through with it. There may be concern about copycat deaths. Additionally, we have limited biblical information on suicide, but we do have a rich, textured understanding of the value of the person. Sometimes we’re not sure about the ethical elements to suicide and its ramifications. We don’t want to offend anyone, either. So, we don’t talk about it. We don’t preach about it. We remain silent. “When preachers don’t address significant issues in some way, regardless of how controversial or difficult they may be,” says Clemons, “one of two messages comes thundering through the silence: Either preachers don’t care or they don’t know what to say.”14
We cannot let our fears silence us. Pastor and author Zack Eswine writes, “Be careful that your fears do not keep you from listening as a caregiver or your certainties keep you from talking as a sufferer.”15
Through preaching God’s words, in spite of our weaknesses, something happens. We preach with sensitivity and care and watch God work. Edgar Jackson affirms the helpful place of preaching in bringing about life change. He writes:
More than we dare believe, preaching is a vital force, affecting life and creating response. Often the response is more significant than would be measured by a few words uttered by listeners after a service. Something important can take place in preaching. It is tragic when such a rich opportunity is wasted. It is rewarding when life-changing forces are set in motion.16
Listeners are hungry for applying what you say to their lives and with each other, even in the dark places. Ian MacLaren, a Scottish preacher, told preachers to remember this about their listeners: “everyone is having a difficult time.”17
Here, the preacher plays an important role in meeting the needs of those who struggle. As Paul Tautges notes, “We provide pastoral care through sensitive preaching, and nothing accomplishes that more than regular preaching on this two-fold reality: God’s absolute sovereignty and his tender care for his own.”19
When you preach this way, you know you’re connecting with your listeners. They engage with what you’re saying. You can see it. “When preaching is directed to personal needs, worshipers in the congregation respond, sometimes with smiles and then again with tears, sometimes with excitement and then again with deep reverence, sometimes with quiet thoughtfulness and then again with a challenging disturbance,” observes Arthur L. Teikmanis.20 They want to meet with you to gain your counsel. Church attenders’ lives will be changed. Some change you will see outwardly in the way they live, while other change takes place in the hidden recesses of their thoughts and attitudes, all because they heard you preach.
There is something powerful about the preached word. It can bring great hope to those who contemplate suicide and to those whose lives have been affected by it.
Pick up Preaching Hope in the Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit to learn how pastors can work to prevent suicide and what they should (and shouldn’t) say in a sermon on suicide. You’ll also find
- Two sample sermons on suicide
- Response protocol suggestions following a suicide
- Ways to care for people during and after a crisis
- Four funeral sermons following a suicide
- And more
Ed Welch recommends the book, saying, “There are at least two myths about suicide. One, don’t talk about it. Two, leave it to the experts. This book corrects both of these. Cowritten by a preacher and a suicide preventionist, it is especially for pastors and is eminently practical. It will give you words to say along with much more.”
This month, we’re surveying pastors to learn how they’re doing and what kinds of support and care they need. If you’re a pastor, will you take 5 minutes to fill out the survey? All responses will be kept anonymous, and we’ll release a full report soon.
- How to Write a Funeral Sermon: 4 Principles to Herald God’s Message
- God and Suffering: 4 Questions to Ask When There Aren’t Answers
- Why Pastoral Empathy Is Not Enough (and Why That’s Good)
- Edgar N. Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching (Great Neck: Channel, 1961), 20.
- Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching, 22
See Scott M. Gibson, Preaching with a Plan: Sermon Strategies for Growing Mature Believers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012). This book offers pastors a way to plan sermons that move listeners to spiritual maturity. Through the exercises, one is able to determine the spiritual maturity of one’s congregation in order to plan preaching. These exercises are best done in cooperation with the leadership of the church.
- Paul Tauteges, Comfort the Grieving: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Loss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 21.
- Arthur L. Teikmanis, Preaching and Pastoral Care (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 19.
- Haddon W. Robinson, “Blending Bible Content and Life Application,” in Making a Difference in Preaching, ed. Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 94.
- Teikmanis, Preaching and Pastoral Care, 21.
- Rick McKinniss, “Preparing the Congregation for Death,” in Eugene Peterson, Calvin Miller, and others, Wedding, Funerals and Special Events: The Personal Ministry of Public Occasions, Leadership Library (Waco: Word, 1987), 73.
- James T. Clemons, ed., Sermons on Suicide (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989), 8.
- Clemons, Sermons on Suicide.
- Zack Eswine, Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2014), 124.
- Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching, 62.
- Quoted in Jackson, A Psychology, 76.
- Brian Croft, Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 55.
- Tautges, Comfort the Grieving, 21.
- Teikmanis, Preaching and Pastoral Care, 22.