Rhett Smith…Anxiety as a Barrier at Church

Anxiety is a classic example of a “hidden disability.” In the third segment of his current series, Rhett Smith discusses some not so obvious ways in which anxiety presents significant barriers to church attendance and engagement for kids as well as adults. Rhett is the author of the new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?For more on Rhett, click here for his biography and a video introduction to his new book. Here are links to Part One and Part Two.

SG: You served for a number of years as a college pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church and more recently, you taught parenting classes at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Do you see anxiety as a significant barrier to church attendance and participation for teens and young adults? What advice do you give parents when their kids struggle to attend worship services, participate in small groups or participate in retreats and special events because of anxiety? How would you help adults when anxiety becomes a barrier to them finding a church or becoming more involved at church?

RS: I’m not sure if I have ever really seen anxiety as a significant barrier for teens and young adults. But as you asked this question and I have thought more on it, I think it has, but in not ways that are always that obvious. I think one can have anxiety, but still comes to church. But anxiety will keep them from maybe doing things like getting baptized for fear of being up front. Or from taking a mission trip because of fear of the unknowns. Or fear on coming to a small group for fear of being asked about their faith and not knowing what to say. So I think that anxiety doesn’t necessarily act as an initial barrier to going to church, but will act as a greater barrier as more and more opportunities arise for them in church. Then they are faced with the decision to face their anxiety or not. But I know there are more extreme cases of anxiety, things like panic attacks, where one maybe can’t even get to church. Also, I owe a lot to Adam McHugh and his book Introverts in the Church on this topic. Great, great book and a must read for anyone in church….especially leadership. But I wonder how many people are introverted in nature and have a mild anxiety about participating in a very extroverted culture like church. So something like raising hands in worship, doing a crazy high school skit, shaking hands with someone new before church, or being in a small group can raise anxiety and be huge barriers for people in Jr. High, High School…..and really, all ages.

I was asked by a parent last Sunday about what advice I had for a kid who didn’t want to go through confirmation. Ultimately I didn’t have great advice. But what I told them was this. And this mainly comes from my youth pastors friends who are more seasoned in youth ministry than I am. My friend Neil Gatten in particular from La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church helped me with this. Give your kids some freedom in their choices spiritually. If you don’t empower kids to make choices in life, then you haven’t set them up for success when they leave the nest. So it might look something like, “We expect/want you to go to church with us on Sunday, but it’s up to you if you want to go on Wednesday nights, or attend events?” I think that’s real important to give choice and freedom here. Also, I think when it comes to anxiety (and let’s assume we don’t know if anxiety is at the heart), we need to talk to our kids. Ask them why they don’t want to attend? What’s going on with them? Get below the surface. Ask them about their fears of being at church, or what they worry about. I told the mom who asked me about confirmation this. I told her that if I was faced with confirmation as a kid, I would have wanted to get confirmed. But I would have had so much anxiety about having to read catechism stuff out loud in my class that I would have done anything…..even rebelled to the point of getting kicked out of the class….to avoid the fear of having to read out loud and being embarrassed when I couldn’t, or when I stuttered. So maybe there are anxious reasons under our kids’ reasons for not wanting to participate in church. We need to figure out creative ways to explore those. And if we can’t, help find someone who can.

Since I believe we ultimately grow by facing our anxieties, I think that I would help an adult by SLOWLY, moving them towards opportunities that they desired to participate in, but had anxiety about. I also think I would find 1-2 people that they could confide in that would be a helpful community for them at church. That connection goes a long way in helping people face anxiety. I also would explore whether or not the community they were in was the right community for them. Putting commentary aside on our church shopping and want driven church culture, not every church is the right “fit” for us. If I’m someone who is anxious a lot, or more introverted per se, I may not feel a sense of belonging in a more charismatic church. I might want to explore faith in an Anglican community for example, or a community that practices more solitude, space and has liturgical practices that are more communal driven than individually driven. This could be a whole other book, but our temperament and the way God wired us may have us exploring a different faith community than the one we are currently in.

Ultimately, adults can better face their anxieties when they know they aren’t going to be judged, the shame is removed, and they have a community of people around them who support them and walk through life with them. Maybe as leaders in the church, we as well have to rethink how we approach, work with, and welcome people into our midst who are struggling with anxiety. It’s a two-way street.

I’ll be the featured guest on the Special Needs Ministry TweetChat on Thursday, March 8 at 9:00 PM Eastern, 8:00 PM Central. Topic: Families Touched by Mental Illness…The Impact at Church. Click here for more info.

Rhett’s new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? is available in paperback and Kindle editions through Amazon.com. You can read his blog at www.rhettsmith.com.

Last Summer’s blog series examining the impact of anxiety upon spiritual development in kids, along with additional resources to better understand the impact of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents may be accessed here.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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1 Response to Rhett Smith…Anxiety as a Barrier at Church

  1. Some great insight. My son who has PDD-NOS hesitates to attend and pariticpate in our teen ministry because he’s anxious as to how he’ll be “received.” He knows he’s “wired differently” and has been conditioned to anticipate less-than-welcoming responses to his attempts to participate.
    Thanks for highlighting this issue in the church!


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