Worship in an Age of Anxiety: How Churches Can Create Space for Healing

(IVP Academic 2024)
By J. Michael Jordan

No, I can’t pray the anxiety away, nor should I try; yet our Christian faith is a foundational piece of our identity, making claims about who exactly we are and what exactly we are doing here. Our faith must have something to say to this question of our mental health, and if we are going to know genuine healing from anxiety, it must somehow be consonant with our faith.

— J. Michael Jordan, Worship in an Age of Anxiety

As people who live in an era of simultaneously rising mental health issues and awareness, it can be easy to think that anxiety is, for lack of a better word, new. But while our modern moment may be riddled with anxiety in specific ways, J. Michael Jordan points out that it has been around for a long time — specifically in American church life. 

Take the revival movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, for example. Jordan, an ordained pastor, dean of the chapel, and associate professor of religion at Houghton College, sees a cycle — anxiety-repentance-relief at the core of the messaging heard from evangelists such as Dwight Moody and Billy Graham. The present goal, Jordan explains, should not be to eradicate that cycle entirely — repentance and the corresponding forgiveness of a loving God are essential elements of the Christian faith. Instead, Jordan hopes that believers can follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in shifting their impetus for personal change from anxiety to security. 

Jordan spoke with Common Good about anxiety’s presence in church life, how church leaders may be perpetuating it, and hopeful steps for a better way.

Worship in An Age of Anxiety describes how modern church leaders sometimes fuel anxiety in their congregants — perhaps in the ways they recruit volunteers or in unspoken rules around what can or can’t be said. How would you encourage church leaders to evaluate the ways anxiety may be embedded in their own church culture? 

I’d love to see church leaders start with themselves here, and begin to think about what they are really anxious about as leaders. What are you, yourself, anxious about at a personal level? Understanding this about yourself without shaming yourself for feeling that anxiety is an important start. Maybe you fear that the church will fail because it will reflect poorly on you, or because you are afraid you will not be able to find another job, or because you are afraid that your mentors, parents, or friends (or even God!) will see you as unworthy and unlovable because the church failed. Once you understand that feeling better, you can begin to see how that anxiety may be shaping the way you interact with others personally — what are the topics that you shift the conversation to or away from? 

Once you see how you are responding in anxiety, you can begin to evaluate how that may be happening around your church as well — the residual impact of your own anxiety as well as the many anxieties other leaders and congregants bring with them. What are the things you can’t talk about as a church? What are the pieces of your identity that you can’t look at too closely for fear that they will be exposed? Understanding this helps us to see how anxiety may be running the show.

Upon identifying how anxiety is woven into a church’s culture, what might it look like for leaders to begin uprooting it?

First, I would encourage church leaders to explore what repentance without anxiety might look like. The evangelical world has some serious soul-searching to do right now, about what we’ve become and what we’re becoming. One reason I think we’re afraid to do that is the centrality of that anxiety-repentance-relief cycle — if we acknowledge that we have failed, we think we have to go through this gut-wrenching emotional journey again. 

But that’s simply not true. For Christians, repentance should be as natural as breathing. Any honest look at our lives reveals that we have things to work on. If we’re willing to take that honest look, it shouldn’t surprise us to discover that we’re a little bit intemperate, a little bit lustful, a little bit racist, a little bit hateful, or that we experience a million other shortcomings. God has a way of revealing these things to us a little at a time. But our simple reflex, when we see these things, is to recoil: “I’m not racist. I’m not hateful or bigoted.” 

How much healthier we would be if we could just see these things with the confidence that comes with being beloved children of God, knowing that we have God’s Holy Spirit living in us and can freely repent when we discover these things, and leave them behind in order to conform our whole lives to Jesus.

One of the reasons I treasure a corporate prayer of repentance in worship gatherings is because it normalizes this process in a Christian’s life. We have a prayer of repentance that we pray every day in our communion service at Houghton. And it is honestly mortifying — in every sense of the word — to look over at these 18- and 19-year-olds and confess that I have sinned “in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” But saying it every day reminds me that it’s true — without the requisite anxiety that comes with the anxiety-repentance-relief cycle. Of course I am fallen; it would be silly to pretend otherwise. 

But of course I can repent, and I can trust that God’s Spirit really can give me victory. So look for ways to detach repentance from anxiety.

Second, one of the key growth areas for a person experiencing anxiety is to discover that their feelings are only feelings, not objective reality. It is important for an anxious person to realize that they are part of a much bigger story than just their own, one that is mercifully bigger than their feelings. Yet so much evangelical worship really is rooted in our own feelings, a personal connection with God. So worship, in general, should begin to relativize our inner experience — not to ignore our inner experience, but to realize that it is a piece of a much larger puzzle. It would help church leaders to take an audit of the Sunday worship experience and try to gauge how much of it really focuses on an individual experience and how much of it helps people get out of their own feelings a bit.

The first practice you explore is liturgical time. How might patterning our time according to the church calendar participate in healing anxiety? 

I have a total love-hate relationship with the Christian year. I hate how often it descends into elitism. I totally understand the resentment of congregations that do not follow the Christian year when a bright pastor comes in and starts talking about liturgical colors and Eastertide and Epiphany as if it unlocks some kind of secret new level of Christianity that “low” churches just can’t access. That’s not the point of the Christian year at all.

The point of the Christian year is to bracket our own personal experience as Christians within that much larger story of salvation that precedes and outlasts our personal experience. The story is bigger than my story. And this is such a relief to people with clinical levels of anxiety (and to all of us, honestly). I’m never exactly sure where my story is going to go. Observing the Christian calendar enables us to immerse ourselves in this story that is bigger than our stories; in so doing, it relativizes our inner experience. This is exactly what an anxious person needs — reassurance that God’s work goes on regardless of the feelings of a given moment.

I also point out in the book that the Christian calendar is not only a yearly thing, but also a weekly and daily one. It’s particularly interesting to me that, while the Christian year has been a renewed focus for evangelicals in the last 50 years or so, there has not been a proportionate amount of attention to the idea of Sunday as a special day of celebration marking the resurrection. This is a much older and better established tradition than the Christian year. When we look at our churches, we certainly don’t see a confident sense of the Christian’s victory over death, and so the fear of death can dominate our lives — for some an acute anxiety, some a hovering fear. Part of relieving this fear is constantly telling and re-telling the story of Christ’s resurrection, the firstfruits of who guarantees our resurrection with him.

The chapter on liturgical space considers how churches might facilitate “room to flourish in a technological age.” In a conversation over coffee, where would you encourage a pastor to start? 

There is so much discussion about liturgical space that gets bogged down in the same kind of elitism as the Christian year conversation, so first I’d thank the pastor for asking. It’s a brave question.

Then, I’d encourage the pastor to think about the degree to which the worship space presumes a solo encounter with God versus an encounter with God that is connected to others and creation. Remember, a person with anxiety is learning to relativize their inner experience, to trust that what they are feeling is not determinative. Yet there is so much in many evangelical churches that really does say that what they are feeling is the most important thing. 

We dedicate a lot of money to lights because of their capacity to shape and enable feelings. We create seating that is physically and sociologically comfortable so that people can feel at ease. We project musicians, speakers, and congregants onto large screens when they appear to be projecting certain feelings that we want to highlight as noteworthy or paradigmatic for others to follow. All of this can make a sanctuary worship space a bit of a minefield for people with anxiety.

Your recommendation for a healing approach to preaching begins with “healing our relationship with the Bible.” What prompted you to start here, and what does that healing look like? 

It has always been interesting to me how many Christians don’t really seem to love the Bible. We certainly revere it and want it to guide our actions — different Christians describe this differently, but we all refer to the Bible as authoritative in some way. But do we love it?

I certainly didn’t, growing up. The Bible was a source of guilt (I’m not reading enough! I’m not memorizing enough!) or a source of power (“I understand the Bible and so I am the person with the answers instead of the person with the questions.”). It was fraught with anxiety because we needed to believe that our way of interpreting the Bible was correct, and so we were wary of those who approached the Bible differently. You could sort of tell what tribe a person was on by the texts they quoted and how they interpreted them, so the Bible was a sort of battlefield. Yet I didn’t really love the Bible in the sense that I love talking with a trusted friend about what I should do in a given moment.  

Years of hanging out with other Christians showed me that I was not alone. I believe that a preacher is capable of reflecting something different, a less anxious connection with the Bible, where we show our listeners that this book really can be a guide and friend as we walk through life. I started here in the book because I think that preachers are often in a rush to use the Bible to either blast or appease their listeners, and all too often miss the transformation that comes when we show people that you can walk right up to the Bible and read it, think about it, interrogate it and submit to it without the fear that you will lose yourself in the process.

When we are governed by the same fears as our listeners, we can’t help them reimagine the role of the Bible in their own lives.

I found the section in your book on the sacraments especially beautiful. How can baptism and communion be agents of healing for anxious people and communities? 

In the evangelical world, baptism and communion have become times where we act: Baptism is our proclamation of faith, and communion is our remembering. This is, of course, perilous for anxious people, because it again venerates our own experience. We do these things when we are ready, when we choose to do so, based on how we feel.

Some of this is unavoidable, of course.  But sacraments, traditionally defined, are times where God is the primary actor. Allowing them to be that, then, lets the anxious person relativize their own experience and locate their story within God’s story. 

Many of your readers may attend non-sacramental churches, churches that call baptism and communion ‘ordinances.’ But even these churches can begin to decentralize our own experience as worshipers and use these ceremonies as a time to tell the bigger story of God’s activity in the world, the story that subsumes and graciously includes our little stories. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to recapture the connection of a prayer of thanksgiving at communion.

At Houghton, we always include this kind of prayer. In our daily communion services, we pray a ritual “Great Thanksgiving” prayer, which rehearses God’s mighty acts throughout history culminating in Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But when I am celebrating communion in a less liturgical context, I include an extemporaneous prayer that covers all of the same points. This invites people out of their own little stories and into God’s story.

What should I have asked you but didn’t, and what’s the answer?

You could (should? ) have asked whether worship really has the power to help create space for healing in a therapeutic age. After all, with all we know about mental health now, it seems tempting to completely medicalize a feeling like anxiety and treat it like we do, say, cancer. Many of my young people at Houghton do exactly that, where they are quite settled in a diagnosis and treatment on the one hand, but hold their faith in the other and can’t quite figure out how to integrate the two.

My response is that I think we have only scratched the surface of what worship can do. Can it cure anxiety? Certainly not. But we have missed the ways that the rhythm and practices of worship help shape what seems real to us, and the ways in which worship forms our imaginations, helping us to see what is desirable or even possible in a situation. Renewed attention to the practice of worship can shape our understanding of what is real and who we are in this beautiful cosmos in which God has placed us.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Worship in an Age of Anxiety is available June 4, 2024, from IVP Academic.