Having lived through several wars, pandemics, and social, cultural, and economic crises, let me suggest that the most pressing danger to the Church is not a virus but the overwhelming presence of anxiety that has been destructive to our faith. It is our reaction to pervasive cultural and personal anxiety that continues to narrow our windows of faith. We have all witnessed sincere followers of Christ cowering behind closed doors, screaming at others who think differently from them, and generally freaking out because their rights were not validated.
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 several friends die from Covid. I recognize the virus has been devastating in many ways. The numbers on the recent New York Times front pages show a million deaths in America as dots across the map. My desire is to help apprentices of Jesus understand how the pandemic illuminated how narrow their windows of faith really were.
The virus itself wasn’t really the cause of windows of faith closing. For over 100 years, our culture has experienced increasing anxiety. In many ways, people of faith have been negatively influenced by this and have allowed anxiety to become a part of normal life without even being aware of it. As this happened, people’s windows of faith have been closing. As Christ-followers, we should heed the warning to be in this world, but not of this world. However, Covid has once again shown there is little difference between Christians and the rest of the population in the way we responded.
In 1881, the American neurologist George Miller Beard outlined the causes of what he regarded as an epidemic level of fear in the culture around him in his book, American Nervousness (1881). Then Sigmund Freud and his followers highlighted growing fear (and anxiety) as the symptom which would open the mental life of an individual. W. H. Auden used his poetry to emphasize the anxiety of his day in 1947 in his book, The Age of Anxiety (1947). 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 classify mental health and corresponding disorders better. The DSM-II (1968) featured anxiety across many of the disorders. In the DSM-III (1980), anxiety was much less central because it contained a category of anxiety disorders that were 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, and 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 a book for Christian Leaders entitled Managing Leadership Anxiety: yours and theirs3 in which he addresses the growing epidemic of anxiety in Christian leaders, especially as pastors of churches. Notice that this book 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 the false beliefs and emotional scars which do produce anxiety in our lives. Medications may give time and space to do this temporarily. Let me suggest that two of the causes of anxiety in Christians result in narrowed windows of faith: 1) a fixed frame of reference and 2) a fixed knowledge base or the lack of adaptive learning. Both perspectives cause anxiety and narrow our window of faith.
Fixed Frame of Reference
The first cause of anxiety is a fixed frame of reference, which involves seeing one’s life, family, church, or world only in terms of what they know has worked in the past. Anxiety is an anticipation of a threat. Therefore, Christians will experience anxiety when they see changes in their environment, church, or even themselves. They cannot comprehend how to see themselves or their 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 policies different from your beliefs.
Where do you have a fixed frame of reference concerning yourself? We are quick to justify our fixed frame as biblical, but we are “children of the light,” that is, children of the Living God. We must be careful not to fix frames beyond where scripture is clear. When we see the world around us in fixed terms, we begin to narrow our window of faith. We no longer expect God to do something different from what we expect. We limit our ability to see God work to what we already believe.
The same is true regarding the church you attend. Is your frame of reference regarding what a church should/could look like fixed? 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 that can adapt and change to any culture and any political structure. I see too many Church attenders who have closed their view of how God works to an era in the past. The Scripture doesn’t change, but models should, which brings us to the next cause of anxiety.
Fixed Knowledge Base or the Lack of Adaptive Learning
The second cause of anxiety that narrows our windows is our knowledge base. Many Christians stopped learning in their early twenties and seldom learn or change dramatically beyond that. As followers of Christ, we are called to be adaptive lifelong learners. Paul demonstrated this at the end of his life, in the last letter he wrote. In the last chapter of that book, he asks Timothy, his protégé, to bring his books to him so 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 (Philippians 3.13-14).
How many books, webinars, or podcasts have you read or pursued since Covid started? Not ones on justifying what you already believe, but ones on learning to understand how the world is changing and how must you 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 couple of decades. He adapted to the great persecution that broke out against the church in 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 triggered the latent anxiety among all people and revealed how many Christ-followers had narrowed their window of faith. It released existing pent-up anxiety that was just below the surface in 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 were 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 Corinthians 5.18-20).
On many social media platforms, self-identified Christians attacked those who were 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 other 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 have talked about our response to the pandemic policies, I heard more anxiety about how the virus (or the policies to deal with it) impacted us rather than how God could use us to impact others who are understandably anxious apart from Christ. Why weren’t Christians the first to love others with whom we differed or were hurting, even if it exposed ourselves to grave danger?
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 many of the lives of 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 which caused social chaos in the Roman Empire in the early days of the church fueled both the viral growth of the church and the depth of community in the communities of faith (house churches), in what we call microchurches today. As many deserted family or friends and cowered in fear, the followers of Christ in these house churches sought to help the sick and the suffering. Their love for others and their witness convinced people that the Good News of Jesus was real and for everyone.6
During the social crises and disastrous plagues which were common in the urban lifestyles of the Roman empire, Stark believes that “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 which Stark and Jenkins show typified the 3rd and 4th century Christians in the Roman and Eastern empires?
Christians have narrowed their windows through a growing 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 response to an imminent threat, while anxiety is the expectation of a threat. I see many believers living under the expectation of threats — whichever Covid variant may be next, whatever political party is going to ruin the democracy, or whatever race, economic theory, or gender is going to corrupt our comfortable standard of living.
Philippians 4.6-7 says it simply, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
- Is the peace of God obvious through your heart and mind?
- Do those around you, especially those who you don’t agree with, see you as a person of peace?
- How much time do you spend in prayer thanking God for your situation and asking him for wisdom?
- How often has his Spirit changed your heart and/or mind on an issue? Or does he simply confirm what you 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.
For the last century, our culture has continued to drift away from absolutes, which provide boundaries and security. It’s not likely we as Christians are going to change that. But 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. We can be humble, secure, and strong in our commitment to our Lord. We can demonstrate his peace and presence in all our relationships.
Christians who see their world as fixed or are fixed in what they know will narrow their windows of faith. It is obvious to me from looking at those who identify as Christians around me that they are anxious as the world around them changes. It will continue to be so in the future. They basically won’t know how to interact. As Christians, we must be lifelong adaptive learners. Since Covid, how have you learned to be salt and light differently in your world? In other words, how do you view yourself, your world, and the lost around you differently than you did three years ago? If there is no difference, you are probably fixed and have narrowed your window.
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 throughout our lifetimes 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)
7 Stark, ibid pp. 74
I would like to thank Point Magazine, January 2022 issue, for allowing me to use some of my article in this post: https://converge.org/point-magazine/story/january-2022/the-anxiety-pandemic