Having lived through several wars, pandemics and social, cultural and economic crises, let me suggest the danger most pressing to the church and most destructive to our faith is not a virus, but the overwhelming presence of anxiety. It is our reaction to pervasive cultural and personal anxiety that is the real danger.
As I have assessed, coached and consulted pastors, churches and denominations prior to and through the COVID-19 pandemic, I have repeatedly heard how this virus has hurt the church and demoralized many pastors. Personally, I have had friends in their 50s who as pastors of large, growing churches died from COVID-19. Other friends and family have passed on, as well. I recognize this virus has been devastating in many ways.
My hope, though, is to help people understand that throughout history believers have faced similar life and death forces. Yet, their faith and their churches grew dramatically.
The stealthy pandemic of anxiety has been building in our Western culture for the past 100 years. In many ways, people of faith have been negatively influenced by this and have embraced anxiety without even being aware of it. As Christ-followers, we should heed the warning to be in this world, but not of it. Yet, current evidence indicates there is little difference between Christians and others in the way we respond to anxiety.
In his 1881 book American Nervousness, American neurologist George Miller Beard outlined the causes of what he regarded as an epidemic level of fear in the culture around him. Then, Sigmund Freud and his followers highlighted growing fear (and anxiety) as the symptom that would open an individual’s mental life. In 1947, W. H. Auden, in his book, The Age of Anxiety, used his poetry to emphasize the anxiety of his day. Rollo May elevated anxiety to a critical topic for psychologists when he wrote The Meaning of Anxiety (1950).1
In the 1950s, a miracle drug (Miltown) was launched to treat “nerve problems,” including nervous breakdowns. Anxiety was the leading symptom identified in the advertising for this medication.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) was created in 1952 to better classify mental health and corresponding disorders. The DSM-II (1968) featured anxiety across many disorders. In the DSM-III (1980), anxiety was much less central because it contained a category of anxiety disorders distinct from others.
With the development and launch of SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) medications in the mid-1990s, the concentration of treatment focused on depression. We entered what some have called the “age of depression.” There were approximately 11 million doctor visits for depression in 1985, while in 1994 that number rose to 20.4 million.2
Was anxiety replaced with depression? No. Anxiety never went away. The diagnosis of depression provided an opportune label that created an onramp for prescribing SSRIs. Anxiety was ever present; even in diagnoses today many psychologists don’t distinguish between the two in treatment.
Early in 2019, Steve Cuss released Managing Leadership Anxiety: yours and theirs3, a book for Christian leaders. In it, he addresses the growing epidemic of anxiety in Christian leaders, especially in the church. Notice this was written a year before COVID became a real concern in the United States.
I am not discounting anxiety in clinical mental health. I am suggesting that we deal with the anxiety in our minds and hearts. We must do the difficult spiritual work of rooting out false beliefs and emotional scars that produce anxiety in our lives. Medications may give time and space to do this for some.
Two causes of anxiety in Christians result from fixed perspectives: 1) a fixed frame of reference and 2) a fixed knowledge base ― the lack of adaptive learning.
Fixed Frame of Reference
The first fixed perspective is a fixed frame of reference, which involves seeing one’s life, family, church or world only in terms of what has worked in the past. If anxiety is anticipation of a threat, often Christians will experience anxiety when they see changes in the world around them, their church or even themselves. This is because they cannot comprehend how to see themselves or the world differently.
A great example is defining oneself by a political party such as a Republican or a Democrat. This fixed frame inevitably causes anxiety as the other party takes power or promotes different policies.
Where do you have a fixed frame of reference concerning yourself? I know we are quick to justify our fixed frame as biblical, but we are children of the Living God. We must be careful not to fix frames beyond where Scripture is clear.
The same is true regarding the church you attend. Is your frame of reference fixed regarding what a church should/could look like? If so, at what point was it fixed? The 1960s, 1980s, 2000s or now?
The miracle of the body of Christ is that it is a living organism and can adapt and change to any culture and any political structure. The Scripture doesn’t change, but models should…which brings us to:
Fixed Knowledge Base ― or the Lack of Adaptive Learning
The second fixed perspective concerns your knowledge base. So many Christians stop learning in their early 20s and seldom learn or change dramatically beyond that. As followers of Christ, we are called to be adaptive learners.
Paul demonstrated this at the end of his life in his last letter, 2 Timothy. In the last chapter, he asks Timothy, his protégé, to bring his books to him so that he can continue reading and learning.
Paul never stopped learning through the 35 years of his ministry. He continued to adapt to different situations. He continually learned to pursue where Christ was taking him and wasn’t limited by where he had been (Phil. 3:13-14).
How many books, webinars or podcasts have you read or pursued since COVID-19 started? Not those justifying what you already believe, but those about learning to understand how the world is changing and how you must adapt to it.
How must the church adapt? We can’t go back; we can only adapt to the new normal.
Paul never wished (as far as his writings reflect) for Christianity to return to the predictable situation it functioned in while in Jerusalem for the first few decades. He adapted to the great persecution that broke out against the church (Acts 8:1) and never looked back. His approach was much different from the Jerusalem church because he adapted it to different cultures.
Points of Debate: Race, Abuse, Politics, Masks, Vaccines and Social Distancing
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the latent anxiety among all people. It released existing pent-up anxiety just below the surface of our societal veneer.
We witnessed its impact in many ways, from heightened racial tensions to “me too” movements to political polarity and more. These events rocked leaders inside and outside the church — all are indicators of deeply hidden anxiety and real problems.
Sadly, many Christians were caught up in the fray and became overwhelmed to the point of inaction. They lost their ability to function as his ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
On many social media platforms, self-identified Christians attacked those on the opposite side of any given issue. The attitudes and words displayed saddened my soul.
Even in my personal conversations with sincere individuals of faith I heard them use disparaging words about followers of Christ who took a different position. They were even more hostile toward people of little or no faith on the opposite side of an issue.
In small groups of believers where we talked about our response to pandemic policies, I heard much anxiety about how the virus (or the policies to deal with it) impacted us and little or nothing about how God could use us to impact others who apart from Christ are understandably anxious.
Why weren’t Christians the first to live up to Colossians 3:1-17 (NIV)? I encourage you to read the passage in its entirety and meditate on it.
Throughout history, Christians have responded selflessly to pandemics, catastrophes and climate disasters far more than those of no faith. I don’t see this in the lives of many Christians today. As Philip Jenkins points out in his recent book Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith4, in times of dramatic disjuncture, historically Christians have responded in ways that catalyzed or adapted their faith.
Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity (1997)5, states that the pandemics that caused social chaos in the Roman Empire in the church’s early days fueled its viral growth and the depth of community in the communities of faith (house churches ― today’s microchurches). As many others deserted family or friends and cowered in fear, followers of Christ in these house churches sought to help the sick and the suffering. Their love for others and their witness convinced people the Good News of Jesus was real and for everyone.6
During the social crises and disastrous plagues common in the urban lifestyles of the Roman empire, Stark believes “Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future.”7
Life in the city was one of disease, misery and fear, which provided Christians with the opportunity to imagine a better world in the distant future and also solutions for problems people were facing every day.
Why have so many Christians today failed to be Christ’s non-anxious presence among those around us who are struggling with fear and dying without hope? Why have we failed to be the bastions of hope and security that Stark and Jenkins show typified the third- and fourth-century Christians in the Roman and Eastern empires?
Christians are experiencing a pandemic of anxiety. Many are prevented from being a vibrant witness of the love and presence of Christ in their communities simply because they are too anxious.
Fear is the responseto an imminent threat, while anxiety is the expectation of a threat. I see many believers living under the expectation of threats ― which COVID-19 variant may be next, what political party is going to ruin our democracy or whatever race, economic theory or gender is going to corrupt our comfortable standard of living?
Philippians 4:6-7 says it simply: “6Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
As you consider Paul’s words to the Philippians, ask yourself:
Is the peace of God obvious through my heart and mind?
Do those around me ― especially those I don’t agree with ― see me as a person of peace?
How much time do I spend in prayer thanking God for my situation and asking him for wisdom?
How often has his Spirit changed my heart and/or mind on an issue? Or does he simply confirm what I always believe? If so, either you have the mind of Christ always (unlikely), or you aren’t open to his changing your heart and mind.
I don’t intend to paint the anxiety pandemic as purely our spiritual problem. It isn’t. A cultural issue has resulted from the past century without absolutes that provide boundaries and security.
It’s not likely we are going to change that. But here’s what we can do:
We can respond to anxiety in the world around us by being non-anxious followers of Christ in all things.
We can serve those who are hurting and help those we disagree with. We don’t have to be right every time. Nor do we need others to admit we are right.
We can be humble, secure and strong in our commitment to our Lord.
And we will demonstrate his peace and presence in all our relationships.
Christians who see their world as fixed, or are fixed in what they know, become anxious when the world around them changes. It will continue to be so in the future. They basically won’t know how to interact.
We must be adaptive learners as Christians. Since COVID-19 began, how have you learned to be salt and light differently in your world?
God is bigger than anything we will ever face or imagine, and he will never leave us or forsake us. May we be a people deeply rooted in the peace, love and life of Christ, willing to learn and adapt when crises strike. This is what we are called to, and it is our witness to the world.
1 Jason Schnittker, After Many False Starts, This Might be the True Age of Anxiety, (Aeon/Psych electronic journal; www.psyche.co) November 26, 2021 issue
3 Steve Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety: yours and theirs, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019)
4 Philip Jenkins, Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021)
5 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987)
6 Lance Ford, Rob Wegner and Alan Hirsch, The Starfish and the Spirit, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Reflective, 2021)
Greg Wiens, Ph.D., has authored or co-authored four books and developed 20 different individual and organizational assessment instruments used in a wide variety of fields. He currently leads Healthy Growing Leaders, which helps leaders recognize their strengths and weaknesses to improve their team’s productivity, and TrueWiring and TrueWiring4Churches, which develops assessment instruments to help individuals in organizations and churches understand how they are uniquely wired.