Faith, Mental Health

A welcoming church for battling anxiety

I was reading the book Quiet by Susan Cain (affiliate link) and she talked about how church isn’t really designed for introverts. She brought up many good points, and as I read that section, I began to think of how many times church also isn’t built for people with anxiety.

You see, when my anxiety began to ramp up, I had to drastically change my life in order to keep living it. Only having so many spoons (so much energy) to give and all that. Which factors in to all the things I weigh when attending church (or really, just about any gathering of people. But for the purposes of this blogpost, church).

Disclaimer: This list is not intended to be representative of ALL people who battle anxiety, nor is it intended as a demand that all churches offer these items. That’s not realistic or beneficial. Every church offers different things, which is good because every individual has different needs. And most importantly: the answer is not one size fits all, but about digging into relationship to learn what helps and what hinders.

Instead, this is to show the myriad of seemingly small things that make a HUGE difference in serving the people around you. Perhaps this will open the discussion of how churches and gatherings can be more inviting for those who battle mental illness.

So without further ado….

Frivolous-seeming items that I consider at church, not for the spiritual aspect, but for my own mental health:

  1. Drinks being allowed in the sanctuary: Chai lattes are my liquid calm. I’ve written all about it before, but basically, a combination of the cozy warmth and the placebo effect makes it calming for anxiety-indiucing situations.
  2. Seating isn’t dictated: I need to sit near the back on an end seat ideally, for a quick escape, or at least so I don’t feel trapped. That “everyone come to the front” thing terrifies me. Worse, twice at church events I’ve had an usher ask me to move into the center of the row to make it easier for those who arrive late, which I can understand from their perspective, but I came early to have the seat that I need. (This ironically makes me think of the parable in Luke 14:7-11 of “taking the worst seat at the table so you can be honored and invited to a good seat”.) A church that doesn’t bring up seating is best for me – which usually means a church that is full enough to not be spread too thin, but not so full as to be packed in to every last seat.
  3. Chairs, not pews: With pews, people can crowd your space. With chairs, I can be a little more certain that my personal bubble remains in tact.
  4. No congregational parts that everyone “just knows” except me: Lots of churches you have to know to recite a certain thing at a certain time or stand or sit or whatever at a certain time. Ritual. It’s a beautiful thing. But, if it’s not a ritual I’m already familiar with, if I don’t already know those queues, I’m not ready to learn them. I need to stick to the structures I already know.
  5. Punctual/structured, know what to expect: In contradiction to the above, churches that switch it up every time or start really late or the “don’t have a plan” wing-it stuff… Panic! I’m a paradox, okay?
  6. Small groups stay small with consistent people, location, time, punctual: Related to the above, I need to know what to expect. Same people, same place, sticking to the times we’ve set. Deviations from the plan are gonna take up a spoon (my energy).
  7. More than one-stall bathrooms: Y’all, one-stall bathrooms are hard to go cry or have a panic attack in. Bathrooms are the safe place, until they’re not because there’s a line of people outside waiting for this one stall and they KNOW you’ve been in there for 10 minutes and either you or your bowels are in distress. Multiple stalls give the freedom to stick around if needed with people still cycling through the line to not figure out you’ve been in there forever trying to avoid panic.
  8. People arrive early for chat rather than chatting after service: I don’t have the spoons (energy) after service to stick around. That’s why I show up early, when I still have the energy to attempt socializing.
  9. No welcome/greet time midservice: Please do not ask me to welcome people around me during service. Both the introvert and the panic in me can’t handle it. There’s no time to connect with the person on a meaningful level, & I can only interact with so many strangers in a day before panic sets in, so this is a real bummer of a way to hit that quota. I heard of a church that takes a break midservice for people to refill their coffee – that naturally builds in casual conversation without putting pressure on anyone to awkwardly approach another and act like instant bffs. I think it’d be cool if more churches implemented that model.
  10. Loose dress code: I need comfy calming clothes for my bad days – if I have to be fancy or if I have to wear jeans/tshirt to fit in with the crowd, that’s not enough. (Note: sorry to break it to you, but jeans are not relaxing material.) Also, I try “stacking” my out-and-about anxiety-inducing activities to better utilize the small energy I have to give each day, so if I can show up in gym clothes with a tunic over them, even better.
  11. Lots going on during worship: I imagine this one especially doesn’t apply to everyone. For me, if there’s a strong bass or drumbeat, or if there’s a flag waving, or a dancer, or a loud harmony, or a painter or violin or something unique – all the better for me. I need something to hone in on that keeps me grounded, and somehow, those things do it.
  12. Open style of worship: Where people are welcome to sit, stand, cry, kneel, sing or not, whatever. I can’t always stand. I sometimes will cry. If I’m the only one sitting and crying, I won’t exactly feel like it’s an appropriate atmosphere for me.
  13. Kind theology on topics of healing and demonic oppression: If I’m going to bring up anxiety and be told I have demons or be told I don’t have enough faith, that’s gonna be rough. Note: The latter has come up in every church setting I’ve been in, but at the very least I try to avoid it when possible.
  14. Has Kleenexes, can handle expressions of emotion: Once again, sometimes I’m gonna be sobbing. This helps.
  15. Meetings don’t go past 7:30pm: You laugh now, but wait til you ask me to hang out in the evening. Then you’ll give me “the look” I’ve grown so familiar with. Sleep, super early sleep, helps me manage my anxiety that night and the next day. I know, I’m like a grandma, (my friends who know Japanese say “obaa-chan mitai” which literally means “like a grandma”). But if society wants to put up with me the next morn, it’s gotta be that way.
  16. Less about doing, more about being: I know, both are important. Absolutely. But if the church is constantly pushing socialization and volunteer opportunities, I can only spread myself so thin and interact with so many people before I give out. I want involvement, but in manageable chunks.
  17. People come and go through the service: If everyone sits/stands in their place the entire service, I’m gonna feel real uncomfortable with my leaving for the bathroom (for “regular” reasons or for panic, both happen frequently) or leaving the building early because my anxiety can’t take it that day. When other people take bathroom breaks, take their kids in and out, leave early for a lunch meeting, go grab coffee midservice – anything to normalize the coming and going during the service – I feel more free to do the same without being conspicuous or judged as a heathen or whatever.
  18. Honest lyrics, not just happy happy: Ya know that song “You’re never gonna let me down”? Ughhh, sorry ’bout it, but God is gonna let ya down at some point. Because His ways are higher and all that, we’re not always gonna see eye to eye with Him. And I’m all about the happy happy joy joy lyrics in moderation, but if our worship can also acknowledge the depths of suffering and grief and God’s presence through it, I’m gonna feel a whole lot more like I can relate to the content and worship and a whole lot more like I’m not an imposter Christian for not feeling happy all the time.
  19. Avoiding too much of the “it’s not about your comfort” lectures: It’s not. I know that, and I do need reminded of that sometimes. But I also spend countless hours of my life stretching outside my comfort zone to do seemingly small things because they’re good for me. And I think of the verses that talk about not being a barrier to those approaching God (Matthew 23:4, 13), the seemingly moral standards that actually have nothing to do with holiness and can hinder it instead. Those are the things I pay attention to for my own life, like this list here, and I hope to remove any barriers I put up for others as well.

Bonus idea that I’ve only seen once but I wish every church would adopt: Over the past year or two or something, my pastor has begun emailing congregants every week right before the weekend, just a super short email of who’s leading worship, what we’ll be talking about, and any special events that are going on that week (communion, potluck, outreach, etc.). Not some big professional marketing email or anything, but something quick and personable. And remember: I want to know what to expect, to mentally prepare myself or whatever. So this new thing he started, the bomb-diggety. 10/10 would recommend.

Disclaimer: This list is not intended to be representative of ALL people who battle anxiety, nor is it intended as a demand that all churches offer these items. Every church offers different things, which is good because every individual has different needs. Rather than a critique, I actually hope this mostly calls attention to ways that seemingly small things in the church are serving individuals in large ways. In the meantime, if this also opens a dialogue of how churches can serve their attendees in new ways, I am happy with that as well.

So, what about you? Are there seemingly small things that really serve you in a big way at church? Is there something you see a need for in your church that you can offer? Are you providing a safe space for individuals to discuss small changes you’ve never seen a need for? Comment below and let me know your thoughts.