Note from the Editor: We’re pleased to feature this important piece on mental health, anxiety, and communal worship. It also may be helpful perspective for clergy leading Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services.
“Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.” – Hebrews 11:25 (MSG).
What if worship has become so creative that 18% of the population is on the outside?
The pendulum for creative contemporary worship has swung so far in many regions across denominations that segments of the population cannot assemble with others. Many Christians gather weekly and experience a one-sided worship celebration. It is one-sided because, even though everyone is welcome, these worship gatherings are not for everyone.
Welcomed may not mean hospitable. Someone living with an anxiety disorder (or any medical condition) that makes being in loud, dark areas or separated from family unendurable does not feel welcomed. This is not a commentary on the theology or religiosity of the “turn up the volume and dim the lights, no children allowed” movement. The concern here is how the Body of Christ meets those who would dare join in for worship.
Collectively, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population (National Institute of Mental Health). Moreover, in the name of the contemporary worship experience, the real needs of this segment of the population are disregarded.
What are anxiety disorders? Anxiety disorders are panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder, to name a few. It is not uncommon for an adult or child to receive a diagnosis at some point in their lifetime (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Still, in the name of the experience, the church turns a blind eye, and in many cases, does nothing to reasonably accommodate these individuals or their families. (Reasonable accommodation here would refer to any change that would not cause undue hardship to the house of worship.)
To ignore is not to be concerned about the “one.” When the church is not worried about the one, the church ignores Jesus, our example. Like Jesus, the Body of Christ must be concerned about the one (see Matthew 18:11-13, Luke 15:3-7). To turn a blind eye is to ignore the command to love.
The heart of the matter is that by disregarding these issues, the church may be causing many families to separate for worship or not to worship in community.
Loving the people of God, desiring to live out the mission of God, and suffering from varying degrees of anxiety disorders is a battle my family tries to navigate weekly. What does this mean for many families like mine during worship? It means a constant struggle between being part of and serving within a faith community that continually divides. It means surviving an entire worship service, with immediate discomfort when the lights go down and the music goes up. It means feeling unsafe in a dark worship space full of strangers, Christ-followers or not. For those suffering from anxiety disorders, there is something profoundly disconcerting about the inability to truly see what is going on around.
Yes, the focus should be on the worship experience, the Word coming forth, and not the aesthetics. But families comprised of individuals who have suffered childhood or adult trauma struggle make it through the entire service. From the moment the lights go down, there is a need to escape the darkness, the loudness of the drums, the sheer uncertainty of the environment and the familiarity of the dangers of such uncertainty. Many people have a clear and distinct need to hear and especially to see what is going on in a room. Understanding or feeling as if they are in the minority and believing that there is no place for them to hear the Word is disheartening. Many followers and would-be followers of Christ forsake assembly to avoid the discomfort that may lead to a panic attack, flashback or other undesired response.
Having had countless conversations with individuals from all walks of life who love God, follow Christ, and yet forsake assembly, there is not an easy response. When children are not allowed in worship, families may immediately find themselves on the outside of the local church. Separation anxiety is a disorder that impacts many. When music is deafening, those with any number of anxiety disorders are adversely affected as well as those with hearing impairments and those with chronic daily headaches.
So while I enjoy some elements of contemporary worship, it saddens me that the church is unashamedly leaving many on the outside. I am not naïve: I do not expect any local church to change what is working for them. However, I would offer the following points of accommodation:
*A multi-service congregation might consider offering family or traditional worship.
*Turning the lights up even slightly can make a difference for many.
*Adjusting the bass would be life-giving for some.
*Be honest and upfront and consider adding a disclaimer to the church website that simply states, “may not be suitable for those with anxiety disorders.”
To reach the one, the church must remember that one size truly does not fit all.