We’re grateful for Rhett Smith’s willingness to share so freely in this extended interview on the impact of anxiety upon spiritual development. 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.
In the conclusion of our interview with Rhett, he discusses the possible role of electronic ministry in serving those who don’t currently attend church as a result of anxiety, and shares his most important takeaway point for church leaders ministering to children and adults with anxiety.
SG: You’ve written extensively about the use of new media in ministry. How do you foresee churches using electronic ministry to better serve the needs of youth and adults with anxiety?
RS: This is a real interesting question because I haven’t really thought much of it from that perspective. I’ve done some ministry with LifeChurch.tv (www.lifechurch.tv) in the past, and they are essentially the leaders in the online space. My friend Tony Steward was their first online pastor, and the first person I know of to hold that position. Now lots of churches are starting to do that. I’m wrestling with how we live as an embodied community in the flesh, but also take advantage of all the online tools that are out there. I think that a person could perpetuate their anxiety in unhealthy ways by relying on online tools, or by only watching services online from their home. But again, that could be a great entry point to get connected to a faith community when a person may never step foot in a church. So maybe the new media tools are a good way to lower the initial carries and as we do that, we need to think of creative ways to use the tools that allow people to come out of hiding or the shame they feel, and enter not only to online community, but in person, face-to-face community. I see the tools helping aid people with anxiety, but not as the ends in and of themselves. They are rather the means to help us come alongside people with anxiety. This is a huge issue in the church, and I am at the point where I can be swayed in several different directions. I use tons of tools online and they are amazing. I met some of my best friends in Dallas on Twitter and FB and my blog when we moved here. But I desired to move offline and meet up with them for coffee and lunch. So the tools were the catalyst that helped me connect and face my anxiety and move towards a face to face in person connection. But they weren’t the ends in themselves. I still use the tools to connect with my friends online, but I also meet with them in person. They aid and benefit each other.
I could envision a scenario where a kid might be socially anxious and have a hard time coming to church or attending a more intimate setting like youth group. As the pastor, rather than trying to just get them to show up to events. I might begin a journey of chatting on FB with them because that is a much easier medium for people who are anxious to communicate on. The more and more I chat with that kid, the more and more they hopefully feel safe, and trusting of me. As we build that trust and relationship I may ask to meet him for lunch. And as we meet more regularly for lunch, I may ask him to meet me up at church one day, etc. etc. It’s a slow progression and we have to be patient. Discipleship doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does this.
On the flip side, I think it’s important that I also state that social media and technology use is also a great source of anxiety for many people. There is lots of research being done on the rewiring of our brains through the use of technology, and how our open lives on Facebook have created a sense of anxiety in kids as they look at their friend’s lives online, and wonder why their lives aren’t like that. I have worked with kids in counseling who become anxious because they aren’t invited to all the parties that their friends are invited to, and they see all the photos on Facebook. I know of girls who struggle with anxiety and eating disorders because they feel like their body image doesn’t match up with the ones they see online. So technology can create anxiety, and we can feel it when we aren’t constantly plugged in as well. So as we use technology to help people who are anxious, I think we have to ask the right questions regarding how we use it and why we use it.
I think that social media can be a great platform for people to talk about anxiety, and to have a more open discussion on the issue. My own hope is that my book, and the discussions that occur online can help open the topic, and help eliminate some of the stigmas we have about anxiety. So technology could be a great front line tool for us to look at the issue and discuss it.
SG: What’s the most important takeaway for church leaders seeking to minister more effectively with persons who struggle with anxiety?
The most important takeaway I believe is this. We are all anxious. We all will and do experience anxiety. Anxiety is part of our human condition. With that being said, I believe that God uses our anxiety as a tool to help us grow. It’s a catalyst that keeps us from getting stuck, as it propels us to continually follow God. I think church leaders could best help others by reframing anxiety as a positive aspect in our lives when we pay attention to it and respond properly to it. ‘What is God saying to you in your anxiety’ is a great question in my mind. As church leaders we just have to do a better job of pastorally caring for people…that takes time…that takes relationship. Something many church leaders don’t have or don’t make time for.
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.