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.