Atheist Memories: Visiting a Southern Baptist Church


I was the atheist. Suffering from anxiety disorder, clinical depression, panic attacks, and agoraphobia.

I didn’t believe in God or Jesus or the Bible. But I was under constant torment from anxiety and fear of being humiliated in front of other people. I had begun reading the Bible and was somewhere in the inscrutable wilderness of the Old Testament when my classmates invited me to come to their Southern Baptist church. I was trying to pray, to see if God was real and would help me, since my own efforts had utterly failed. So I said yes and went one Sunday.

My friends had no idea that I had an anxiety disorder. They were just stunned (and thrilled) that I had started reading the Bible. They were, and are, Evangelical Bible Christians of the first order. So we went in, and up to the balcony where the college kids sat, and they took a pew. The church was huge, almost like an amphitheater. Already I was nervous, being up on the second floor where it would be more difficult to leave, to escape, if my anxieties took over and caused a panic attack.

But I maneuvered things to come in after them and so get the seat on the end, fairly close to the door. Still, we weren’t in the very back pew, so several people were sitting behind me, which made me uneasy.

The service began. I had no idea what to expect. The choir filed in and took seats in the front, facing the congregation. A smiling, older gentleman went up to mic, greeted everyone, and music started playing. The two large screens on either side of the choir came on with powerpoint lyrics of the song. The gentleman–the music minister, named Monty–began singing along with the choir, as did my friends and everyone in the congregation. It was “Shout to the Lord,” apparently one that all Baptists know, even though now some people think it is “old manna” or weak sauce.

I didn’t know the song and felt the extreme oddness of 1) hundreds of people singing songs to God and 2) being the only person who wasn’t singing. The tune was catchy enough, but I wasn’t quite “there” to be able to join in. I was still considering whether it was possible that God existed and that Christianity was true. Already I had experienced, for the first time, improvement in my problems, and that was just from reading the Bible and saying a short prayer each night. But I was still struggling with doubts of every kind.

We remained seated while singing the first songs. But then Monty, in the middle of song three or four, lifted up his hands and, as if on cue, everyone stood up and began singing. It was sort of a, “now we’re getting serious about this folks, ‘cuz were standing up to sing” kind of thing. Later I realized that this is the formula done every Sunday. Who says Baptists are against repetition?

We were about twenty minutes into the service, and I was battling anxieties the whole time. I started feeling hot, the first outward sign that my anxiety was beginning to boil. I hoped that no one noticed that I was sweating, as it would surely be thought strange, since the church itself was cool. I prepared to make my way out to the door and to the restroom if need be. One restroom break would not be seen as remarkable by others. But I wanted to put it off as long as possible, as things might get worse later.

The singing ended, and everyone sat down. The choir filed back out to sit in the pews, and a man in a suit got up from the front pew to start preaching. He was the pastor obviously, Mr. Osborne. Everyone dutifully pulled out their Bibles. Fortunately, I had even brought mine, one that my Baptist friends had recently given to me. So I didn’t look out of place.

The pastor told everyone to open up to a certain chapter and verse. I found it with some help. He spent the next forty minutes talking about two verses. I kid you not. Apparently he had been going through the gospel of Matthew for months or years already, and was only up to chapter six. People scribbled notes in their Bibles as he spoke. I tried to pay attention but was still fighting the anxieties.

We got to the end of the sermon, and the pastor asked us all to bow our heads to pray. I didn’t know what was happening but later understood this was the fabled “altar call.” The pastor prayed in a directed way, that anyone who felt God calling them to come forward would do so. He ended the prayer and paused for an awkward-to-me full minute. I glanced around surreptitiously: everyone was still bowed in prayer. My friends were probably hoping I would go forward, but there was no way in hell that was happening. Even if I’d been ready, going forward in front of the entire thousand-person congregation was something I’d have to mentally prepare for.

The prayer ended; no one had gone forward. He motioned us to stand and then people were reaching for my hands to pray the Our Father. In addition to not knowing the prayer, my hands were a bit sweaty from the anxiety. I grimaced and held my friend’s hand. Well, no help for it, if he wonders why my hands are sweaty. The prayer seemed to last a while as stuff was added to the end. But eventually we got to let go. And the service mercifully ended.

I felt such relief that it must have seemed to my friends that I had “gotten something” out of the service. I didn’t really–too busy battling fears–but I was glad I had gone. I had faced my fears instead of running from them, and each time I did that was a success.

I don’t have a moral to this story; it is just to share what this was like. But if you are a veteran church-goer, keep in mind that the guy next to you may be an atheist with an anxiety disorder who is struggling just to keep from bolting out of the pew, out of the church, away from his fears. And while most people who militantly sit at the end of the pew just want to get out of the parking lot first, some are sitting there because they have agoraphobia and want to be able to quickly escape if needed.

This took place in the summer of 1999, in Bryan/College Station, Texas, at Central Baptist church, where I was subsequently baptized and justified by God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It would be another eight months before I got up the courage to go forward to answer the altar call. A lot happened in those eight months, which I will be sharing occasionally on the blog here.


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9 thoughts on “Atheist Memories: Visiting a Southern Baptist Church”

  1. I had some similar experiences in Baptist/non-denominational churches. I put them both together because they have basically the same theology (“free-will”, decision theology).

    Being raised a Catholic, I was never comfortable in those churches…not for a minute.

  2. Thanks for sharing the story Devin. One thing that always strikes me about American evangelicalism vs Catholicism is that Catholicism is universal (yeah I know that’s redundant) but what I mean is that its main service, the mass, is accessible to most people with all flavors of anxiety, phobias etc. Contrast that with in some, not all evangelical churches, particularly the more charismatic ones, you have to be able to tolerate a full frontal assault on all your senses, and if you are an introvert, it can be almost painful. Being asked to stand, wave your hands, give a shout or clap offering to the Lord, turn to your neighbor and tell them: “blah blah blah” or whatever, which can be very off-putting for a person whose personality just doesn’t jive with the way those services run. Fearing that someone will appear out of nowhere and “prophesy” over you was my favorite and well-justified fear! The high volumes of the worship band, the huge bright LCD screens can really be a problem for older people who are visually and aurally impaired.
    I always wonder what the “half-life” is for these young churches as the pastors and parishioners age. When most of the 1970’s Jesus people are now pushing 60-70, will they still feel like jumping up and down, raising their hands and clasping their neigbors hands over their heads for long periods of time? Will their fragile hearing, nervous and cardi0-vascular systems tolerate the 100 + decibles of the worship band? Will they do well with the shouting from the pulpit?
    The Mass has remained essentially the same for almost 2000 years. Any person can feel comfortable and be as engaged or unengaged as they wish. Sit down in front and be as close as possible, or sit near the back quietly entering the pew without fanfare or notice. In my Church there are very young, very old and wheelchairs, walkers and kids with disabilities. All are able to enter in to worship and experience the God of the universe in the most personal intimate way known to humans: consuming God and being consumed by Him in the Eucharist.
    It doesn’t matter how you feel, how talented the choir is, how good or bad the sermon is. We come to have our sins forgiven and meet with the God of the universe and share the One Body that allows us commune with 1.5 billion here on earth as well as at the same time communing with the myriads of believers who have gone before us.
    I am trying not to be triumphalistic, but realistic, especially for your Protestant readers. The mass is here to stay and the liturgy is the normative universal way for us to worship and experience God. Many, not all, American evangelical “liturgies” would never “play” in the third world where there is no platform stages, PA systems, wireless headsets or electricity to power the praise and worship band’s equipment. The celebration of the Mass only requires unleavened bread, wine and the sacerdotal priesthood given by God to his people everywhere, everyday throughout the world. “For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts. ” Malachi

    1. I think there could be better arguments for the superiority of Catholic liturgy to Evangelical liturgy (for they do have a liturgy, their services are carefully planned and timed, and consistently repeated).

      Mass is actually a lot more involved than an evangelical service, which only requires you to stand while singing (for several or all songs), perhaps to stand while the pastor gets on stage, clap several times, and to greet the persons sitting near you.

      Mass requires all of this (minus the clapping) and more. There is a heap of esoteric gestures and actions that people are performing just upon entering the church! The songs are non-intuitive, beautiful, yes, but not in the verse chorus bridge format that facilitates easy memorisation and easy participation. The instrumentation is strange and unfamiliar. There is constant standing up and sitting down. There is kneeling. All of the senses are actually assaulted, because of the incense. You have to go down the front to get the Eucharist or stay behind awkwardly by yourself.

      I think the argument that Mass lets one be as unengaged as one wishes is unlikely to convince many of your point. Your point about the Eucharist being the centre of the service rather than the songs or the sermon is better. Protestants have a different theology on the matter so it is unlikely to convince them, but it may convince Catholics jealous of the excitement of Evangelical worship or preaching.

      Many, not all, American Catholic liturgies would never “play” in the third world where there are no pipe organs, no vestiments, no gold or silver utensils, &c. You would say these are not the essentials of the Mass, and rightly so, but the Evangelicals would say the same thing. Small evangelical churches exist, and in the third world. They have a similar liturgy, but the pastor might just speak loudly, instead of having a microphone. The band might just be an acoustic guitar, or a keyboard. I think criticisms should focus on the essential differences in the liturgies, not their accidental differences.

  3. Nice points Rus.

    Devin’s post made me think of a similar experience I had going to an Assembly of God church as a teen.
    3 words: Speaking in tongues.
    If you’re disorder was being tripped at a baptist church, a Pentecostal church would have sent you into anxiety orbit.

    Oh, also this church had polka drums.

  4. Thanks for sharing. Just wanted to add that there are more reasons people might need to sit on the end of the row. Such as having several young children whom they expect to have to take out due to crying or needing diaper changes. Or they may have asthma and the combination of allergy season and everyone else’s cologne and fabric softener is all but guaranteed to make them have an attack. Or they might have a gut disease and expect to have to run for the bathroom. I imagine there could be other reasons. My point is that if you don’t need the end of the row, please don’t take it. And if someone claims it, don’t make them explain why they need it – you might rather not know the reason.

    1. Yah, and we have young children, but more often than not someone takes the end of the pew and act exasperated when we have to go out and back in multiple times during Mass. Then they book it out of there immediately after the final blessing.

      1. Which brings up a question I have: why is it that Catholic churches do not seem to provide nursery care? Unless a Protestant church is very small or simply has no young people, child care of some sort during services is a staple. But it seemed to draw blank stares or expressions of disbelief when we asked about it during the initial phase of attending Catholic masses. Is there an official policy *against* this? I can understand that for kids old enough to sit quietly through most of the mass, including them in that time is a positive thing. But particularly for kids, say, under 2, it seems more of a stress and distraction both the parents and those around them to have the infant/toddler there. Just an observation about differences in church culture we’ve experienced.


        1. Jeff,

          I hear your frustration and share it. Some of the bigger Catholic parishes have a nursery, but even the one at our enormous and affluent parish, the nursery is tiny, only able to take about ten children per Mass (and each Mass has something like nine hundred people at it!).

          It just hasn’t been part of the Catholic parish culture. And while I agree that it is ideal to have your toddlers/young children with you at Mass, that is only if they are able to handle it reasonably. Some children on some days simply cannot sit there for 1+ hour in quiet way.

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