When church triggers anxiety

Deciding to take a temporary sabbatical from church has made me rethink the way I define “church” in the first place. It’s a very American concept to define “church” as a structure with walls, pews, and a stage, but when a news story about the persecution of Christians under ISIS crosses my social media outlets, I realize this is too narrow a definition. Church is, in a nutshell, a gathering of Christians to worship and learn about God together, regardless of time and place.

The first anxiety attack I had in church this year was when a visiting missionary showed a Powerpoint to illustrate where the half-million dollars came from to fund overseas missionaries – “funding” including airfare, hotels, food (for the missionaries, that is), and bibles, but not so much food, water, or medical care for the people they were intending to reach. Spiritual care over physical care seemed to be the priority, and this Jewish idea that permeated my childhood – that it’s a moral imperative to feed, shelter, and care for our poor in other tangible ways – means nothing if it doesn’t end up saving souls. I thought of my father’s life of compassion for others and the reality in Christendom that all his kindness was for naught because he wasn’t “saved.”

The second anxiety attack was two weeks ago during a sermon on faith healing, which regular readers already know is a trigger.

It’s one thing to be feel convicted about something, which can be an uncomfortable experience – a good church should do that. But full-blown anxiety attacks, even just one, is one too many. My history in evangelicalism has made me afraid of inquisitor-like questioning by Christians who will want to be “sure” that my avoidance of church isn’t because I want to justify some sin. I fear explaining what needs to be done for the sake of my mental health and being told that more church is the only solution. While accountability is good and necessary, I’ve become of afraid to trust my judgment regarding the final decision that is best for me.

I feel confident about this decision since I plan to keep attending my Thursday small group, which is a far better environment for an introvert, anyway. I thrive in theological discussion and healthy debate. While there are a handful of people there whom my paranoid mind suspects are “unhealthy Christians” (someone last week actually said atheists are atheists because they “lack intelligence”), I have met people who encourage and challenge me in all the right ways. For some people, “community” means hundreds of people, but for me, however many a typical round table can fit is good enough.


10 thoughts on “When church triggers anxiety

  1. Pingback: Your miracle story could be a trigger – Sarahbeth Caplin

  2. Great post.

    I stopped ‘going to church’ 2 years ago.

    Never felt closer to the Lord and more sincere in my search for Truth and just generally being a more loving person. In particular, to those who aren’t in the faith.

    I agree with you… The small groups are the church.

    Simple fellowship to edify and encourage.

    No lords required. And definitely no temple!


  3. Pingback: Top ten most popular posts in 2015 | Sarahbeth Caplin

  4. I don’t get to church very often anymore because the service time is too early for me. They changed it after I joined. When I do manage to wake up in time to go, I’m usually very glad I went. If anything I regret I am not longer active except in a small group. I can understand where the rest of you are coming from and why the churches you are talking about don’t seem to be good matches for you, but it makes me wonder why you haven’t found a new church that’s a better fit. I have always attended small churches because I know the mega-church experience isn’t for me. I’ve visited them and enjoyed the experience of being a visitor, but I would not choose one for every Sunday.

    I’ve been in good and bad churches. I have been in some churches that that knock down their wounded. The church I’m in now tries to heal their wounded with support and physical help where needed. They do it quietly without parading the problems before the other members, though when a work day is called to help someone, helpers are called for and come.

    My church is not in the charismatic camp, though elders will pray for the sick when asked. The sick are not blamed for not having enough faith if they are not healed. Members with mental illnesses who are in hospitals are visited, not blamed for having weak faith. Those who have bipolar children receive moral support while their children live, and comfort if they overdose while their medications are being adjusted. We don’t believe God can be put in a box or that He is bound by our limited understanding of how he glorifies himself. When someone is hurting, we don’t try to place blame. We try to love and help.

    I know there is no perfect church because all churches are made of imperfect humans. From past experience, though, I know that even though I am not as active as I used to be, if I ever encountered a real problem, my church would be there for me. I have watched as it came to the aid of others. I hope those of you who are feeling the need to get away from your churches might find a church home that is better suited to you. All churches aren’t the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For many of us, the small group IS the church. There are multiple ways to fellowship and worship, and neither are limited to one sanctuary on a Sunday morning. Also, for those of us in marriages that border on interfaith, just “finding another church” is easier said than done. I can’t just make this decision on my own, but for now, husband and I are making a home with our small group, and for now, that is enough.


  5. I totally get this, and feel the same way. Seeing ‘churches’ use their funds to do anything other than help the poor with food, clothes, shelter, medicine, and education on how to better their own quality of life absolute sickens me. You don’t need anything to hear the word of God but your ears. The premise that worship has to take place in multi-million dollar buildings is disgusting. I don’t remember Jesus having a temple or a bible, only his feet and a mouth which he used to teach the basics of humanity. I haven’t been to church to years and pretty much do not believe in organized religion. The ONLY time I question my faith in God and my own relationship with Him is when I set foot in a church, and quite frankly that is just wrong. Religion shouldn’t make you question your faith and relationship with your savior, it should strengthen it, but I have yet to find any church or religion that does this. It’s all about pointing fingers, blaming others, telling everyone they are sinners and going to hell, and to repent while you open up your pocketbooks so the preacher doesn’t have to get a real job and pay his own bills. No thanks. I’ll keep my open mind.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I really get a lot out of reading your thoughts. I haven’t set foot inside the mega church “home” (as they like to call it) that I’ve attended for most of the last 13 years. It’s been a couple of months now. I’ve had enough of the anxiety attacks. My psychologist and doctor told me, in a nice way, that clearly it was damaging my health to keep attending. Anxious introvert problems, I guess. It used to be only certain sermon topics triggered me but it reached the point where just setting foot in the building can set off an anxiety attack. It’s helpful to know I’m not the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing that. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the people who would criticize this decision are right when they say, “You just want a ‘soft’ Christianity that doesn’t offend your sensitivities. Well too bad, Christianity isn’t for the faint of heart,” etc.

      Yeah, I’m plenty troubled by some Christian doctrines, but I like to study different interpretations across denominations and history. The faith healing stuff in particular seems more culture than faith-related, and therefore not worth the stress.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know what you mean – the harshness, sometimes, of these styles of church can make it feel like we’re weak. I guess for me I just have to bring it back to how I understand Jesus, like, is he asking me to strive against my debilitating mental illness – as well as looking at the fruits borne by certain styles of Christendom. I’ve found great consolation in the ancient and earlier Christian writers, like St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich and Brother Lawrence.

        I think culturally too things are very different. What we have here in Australian Christianity, while influenced by some American ideas, is – at first glance – a lot less punitive in its application. If that makes sense. To be honest I’m still just on a journey of trying to work it out so I definitely have no answers! (As nice as they would be!)

        Liked by 1 person

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