Worship as a Sanctuary

In 1947, W. H. Auden published The Age of Anxiety, an ambitious book-length poem that explored the impact of World War II—and modern life more generally—on the West. It is an impenetrable work; Auden himself called it “frightfully long.” In his introduction to the 2011 republication of the work, Alan Jacobs described it as “strange and oblique” and detailed Auden’s attempt to write a poem that featured a modern cast of characters in wartime Manhattan who somehow spoke in precise metrical verse that owed far more to medieval poetic form than to modern American English. Compared with Auden’s other works, it is relatively little read. Yet, as Jacobs points out, the work’s title and many of its themes are deeply culturally resonant for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. “The Age of Anxiety,” writes Jacobs, “is extraordinarily famous for a book so little read; or, extraordinarily little read for a book so famous.”

While the dense poem is rarely read and digested in full, Auden lent words to a cultural moment, and the title connected instantly. The Age of Anxiety won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948. A year later, Leonard Bernstein wrote a symphony inspired by the poem, also called The Age of Anxiety. Classical music critic Fran Hoepfner describes it as a work about “this really tenuous balance between suspense and anger and some real, profound joy.”

The resonance has endured: In 2012, New York Times columnist Daniel Smith noted, “Since 1990, [The Age of Anxiety] has appeared in the title or subtitle of at least two dozen books on subjects ranging from science to politics to parenting to sex. … As a sticker on the bumper of the Western world, ‘the age of anxiety’ has been ubiquitous for more than six decades now.” As if on cue, the following year rock guitarist Pete Townshend finished a novel titled The Age of Anxiety that little resembles Auden’s poem but instead imagines a musician who can sense and narrate the anxieties of those listening to his music. In the concluding postscript, we read: “The world wobbles slightly on its axis, and even the most cavalier of us are a little anxious.”

Auden’s words continue to connect as technology maintains its apparently inexorable onward march: with each world-shrinking development, we gain a deeper sense of the world’s suffering and the complexity of that suffering. We also develop a more profound sense of our own brokenness and insufficiency. This is not as new as we suppose: one of Auden’s characters chides a radio playing in the background at the bar: “Listen, box / And keep quiet.” Seventy-five years later, it is hard to imagine a world where a background radio is the greatest obstacle to a non-anxious life.

“The age of anxiety” connects. Though most would not describe it just as Auden did, we feel it, many of us, both Christian and non-Christian: something is wrong. We cannot say exactly what it is though we can see its faint shadow. We cannot say how to fix it. We have a sense that it can, after all, be fixed, but we’re suspicious of any attempt to try. We have more ideas than we once did about how to manage it, but we also have a greater sense of the scope of the problem, how brokenness dominates the world and us in ways we cannot deny while remaining honest.

Around us, advertisers, political parties, and myriad others brazenly use our anxieties against us: we are reminded of the uncertainties of growing old, the pain of feeling excluded, or the fear of rejection if we are thought ugly or useless. These anxieties take hold in us, making us doubt ourselves, poisoning our relationships with institutions and with each other. Do my friends, or my spouse, really love me for me, or will they have contempt for me, or even leave me, when I fail to be beautiful or useful? Does my community or my nation really intend the best for me and others? When I participate in the life of my nation or community, am I participating in a force for good or for evil?

Crucially, these questions also haunt our lives as Christians. Is the church just another market-driven reality, using the logic of anxiety implicitly or explicitly to get people to make a decision for Jesus? Will my church use the tools of anxiety to get me to volunteer my time or gifts to serve an agenda that is not really my own? Am I free to be me here, to share about me as I understand myself, or are there things I can say and do that will destabilize my place in the body? If the latter, what are those things, and how will I be destabilized? Can I trust that this church’s agenda for discipleship is aimed at making me more like Jesus, or am I concerned that it might just be looking to make me into a more compliant, loyal, and productive church member?

Further complicating this situation is that, of course, our anxieties are often well placed: often our friends and institutions fail us and others. And always a nagging sense of complicity goes with us; we are anxious not only about what others intend for us but about our own ability to harm others.

This book is about worship in this age of anxiety. We come to worship far more informed about our anxiety than we used to be, or at least with new words and taxonomies to describe and categorize our situations. Does the church have anything to say about anxiety? Does the pastor? Does God? And if the church does talk about anxiety, does it sound like what others have to say about it, how I should feel about my anxiety, how I should cope with it, and what I should expect from it? Will church be a place that helps me deal with anxiety, or will church just make it worse? Will the church tell me I am not really Christian, or not sufficiently so, if I experience anxiety? Will the church say anything about it at all, or is my anxiety too uncomfortable even to name? Further, does the church exhibit anxiety in its life together? Will the stress I place on the system lead the congregation to its own anxious response?

Those of us who lead and plan worship can do so in a way that best accounts for the anxious spirit of the age. This is certainly a monumental and counterintuitive task. For one thing, it is always tempting to use the motivating power of anxiety to induce a change in behavior, for a perceived good either in the parishioner individually or for the congregation as a whole. Even if we don’t do that exactly, even if we can avoid the temptation to utilize people’s anxiety to get something from them, there’s no guarantee that we will account for anxiety appropriately. There are many reasons not to talk about anxiety at all in worship or within the fellowship of the church, not least of which is the potential for conflict and division in the body. And if a church does want to address it, it is especially tempting to follow one of the few simple cultural scripts around anxiety. These are usually reductionist and restrict God-talk to a very narrow slice of the conversation (which slice depends on which script we’re using).

To speak clearly in an age of anxiety, the church must resist both manipulating people’s anxiety and the temptation to ignore it. Instead, we must offer what I’m calling “a framework for healing worship.” Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that worship is a place where anxiety is eliminated. I am not saying that if someone just worships in the right way, they will not have any anxious feelings. And I’m certainly not saying that Christians should simply worship instead of taking advantage of mental health services.

I am saying that worship should be a space that contributes to an anxious person’s healing. It is possible for worship to be a healing space. Worship should be a sanctuary where anxiety is acknowledged and accepted as part of the human experience but where we also discover ways to live creatively and authentically as beloved children of God, denying anxiety the power to rule our lives. When we experience God in worship, we come to see and experience things as they truly are, even when they are not quite as they should be. So, in worship we should speak plainly about anxiety, not ignoring its presence but speaking honestly about the limits of its power in the Christian’s life, giving realistic hope to those who experience anxiety. This is at odds with a contemporary church that often handles questions of anxiety poorly while also dealing with conflict and suffering in ways that betray a great deal of anxiety woven into our life together.

Taken from Worship in an Age of Anxiety by J. Michael Jordan. Copyright (c) 2024 by John Michael Jordan. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com