Have you ever felt anxiety before walking into a room full of people?
Maybe it was a party or a friend’s family dinner. It could’ve been a meeting at work with your leaders or even your peers. A proctored exam in a room filled with strangers might evoke that feeling. For many, the thought of going to a pubic pool, theme park, or concert prompts them to just stay home.
Fear of crowds or unfamiliar social situations is known as social anxiety. If persistent and intense, it might even be classified as social phobia disorder, a condition that over 12% of adults experience sometime in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
That feeling of dread, or social anxiety, might keep many from finding a new church after a move or transition. It may even prevent some people from walking through church doors in the first place.
This presents a perpetuating problem, of course. How can people hold on to a confession of hope if they’ve never heard of the Hope they’re to hold on to? Or, if already a believer, anxiousness could supersede the scripture they’ve heard or read about not forsaking assembling together as the body of Christ. (Heb. 10:25)
A feeling of anxiety is something most people have experienced to some degree, and there is no shame in acknowledging it. But the Bible gently encourages us all to “be anxious for nothing.” (Phil. 4:6-7) So as the body of Christ, both individually and collectively, how can we help those who may be experiencing anxiety about attending church?
I cannot start this list without placing the priority of prayer at the top. In the same passage where we’re instructed not to be anxious, we’re also reminded to “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present [our] requests to God.” (Phil. 4:6-7)
One reason that we pray is because we want something to change; in this case, the change we desire would be for the anxious people among us to be able to come to church. When we’re not certain how to change, we’re invited to ask God, who gives wisdom to all generously and ungrudgingly. Asking God for wisdom about how to appeal to those feeling anxious about walking through the doors of a church is a worthy start.
Invite to “Come Sit With”
For some, social anxiety results from the feeling — perceived or real — of being alone. Believers can help friends and family members overcome this fear with a personal invitation that includes the assurance of not being alone. For someone who’s anxious, there’s a big difference between “you should come to my church” and “I’d love for you to come sit with me at church”.
This invitation could also include an offer to pick the person up or to meet them at a specific door. The important thing is emphasizing that they won’t get lost or be alone. You will be there to guide them around the building and introduce them to others.
On a corporate level, churches might consider having extra greeters to actually show someone where to go and having designated “hosts” to seat them with. These are good practices to make youth, people arriving alone, and the elderly feel welcomed and accepted.
Walk Them Out
A person experiencing anxiety may want to leave immediately at the close of the service. But the catch is, they may later perceive that they were judged for “rushing out”, which only increases anxiety. Believers can help by walking the person out, either to the door or to their car. This simple practice can ease the person’s anxious self-talk later and reinforces your desire that they wouldn’t feel alone, right to the very end.
Churches can also help by having an exit hospitality team. Saying things like, “I hope to see you next week” or “we have a midweek service/small group for you” is an open invitation to come back that also helps to quiet that component of perceived judgement. Put some of the practices being mentioned into action in the midweek groups to increase the level of comfort to attend them as well.
Communicate About Expectations
Some people may be anxious about social expectations during a service. For example, it can feel overwhelmingly awkward for an anxious person to leave their “just found” seat to openly greet others, if that is a part of your service. You can help the anxious person by letting them know they’re not expected or obligated to participate. It’s okay to stay put if that makes them more comfortable.
On a church level, expecting new people to come to the front to meet the pastor or to get information can be unrealistic for an anxious person. As an alternative, churches could consider equipping their hospitality people with more information in a welcome gift bag. That way, the anxious person can still get information without being expected to interact.
Ease Instructions Throughout the Service
People may also feel anxious about not knowing how to follow through on instructions throughout the service. For example, they may worry that they won’t be able to find scripture references. You might be able to help ease those fears by helping the individual download a Bible app beforehand and showing them how to use the simple search function.
Churches can help too. Along with the message scripture on the screen, our church has Bibles available under the chairs. Our pastor shares where the passage can be found by saying things like, “Isaiah is in the Old Testament toward the middle of the Bible. If you’re using one of our Bibles, it is on page (inserts number).” Instruct people when to stand, sit, or where they can go if they need prayer. People experience less anxiety when they know what to do.
Invite Them to Watch Online
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to help, an anxious person may still be uncomfortable attending church. If that’s the case, encourage online viewing as a way to check things out.
Churches with online viewing may want to designate an online host or moderator, so there’s still a point of connection that’s not overwhelming. Let online viewers know it’s even better live … and that you’re saving a seat for them!
Final Word of Advice
No anxious person wants to be anxious. So let’s practice being a people of consolation, always helping others to “be anxious for nothing.” If you’re an artistic or creative person, create something with written scriptures that help to battle anxiety. Ideas include a calendar, refrigerator magnet, notepad cover, or something to tuck in their cell phone case. And if you’re not artistic, a simple sticky note will work too!
My favorite word of consolation in the face of anxiety is Psalm 94:17-19: “Unless the LORD had been my helper, I would soon have dwelt in the abode of silence. If I say, ‘My foot is slipping,’ Your loving devotion, O LORD, supports me … When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought joy to my soul.”
Other good examples of these scriptures are Psalm 55:22, Hebrews 13:6, Matthew 6:34, and Psalm 22:4.
We’d love to hear your suggestions and favorite consolation scriptures, too. Share them by entering them in the chat below. In this way we’ll all help each other “be anxious for nothing” — including attending church!
Also seen on The Christian Post.