The Fear Contagion Goes To Church

“Be afraid; be very, very afraid.”

This was the message I heard as I listened to the sermon.

Up until the sermon began, this was a joyful worship service, with enthusiastic singing and engaging congregational interaction. I was looking forward to a word describing The Word (Jesus Christ). Instead the sermon was about how terrible America is becoming, with clear assurances we are living in the end times (prediction I’ve heard all my 52 years). The primary message proclaimed between the lines was “be afraid, be very, very afraid.”

Ironically, this sermon reflected what I was hearing in the news all week. As the 2016 presidential election season begins (yes, already), we recognize that churches come by this fear honestly. Candidates from all parties are skilled when it comes to hooking our fears. They freely spew fear about most everything anyone holds dear in an effort to position themselves as the savior for America.

With preachers and politicians leveraging the emotional power of fear, is it any wonder disciples in churches are catching this fear too? “Emotional contagion” describes this fear phenomenon. It’s like a fast-moving, contagious, adaptable virus. Maybe someone slipped it into the water supply and we are all drinking this fear-laced koolaid.

I’m afraid too. What I’m afraid of that this fear contagion is running rampant through way too many faith communities. Anxiety, dread, intimidation, worry, distress, fright, apprehension…these words describe the emotional state of churches, guiding them down reactionary pathways. As churches observe the rise of the Nones, Dones, and Neglectors, they feel threatened. Churches are aware their place in the larger culture is moving toward the periphery. Their reaction – fear. Unfortunately, fear becomes the prevailing emotional state or ethos for many, finding themselves stuck in this unhelpful reactionary mode.

Once it strikes a congregation, fear spreads. Our physiology guarantees it. The vibrations in our neurons are far faster when we are afraid than when we are experiencing more pleasant or positive emotions. These fast moving vibrations draw our attention, bringing us to high alert status. Over time, we are drawn toward the slower moving vibrations of positive emotions, but if we want immediate reactions from our kind, introducing threat and fear into a community generates immediate attention.

Given our cultural milieu, one may believe this fear contagion is unique to our postmodern context (2000 and beyond). But no, God’s people have been here before. How many times does the Bible mention fear? And then how many times does the Bible command, encourage, and generally tell us not to fear? According to Biblegateway.com (online concordance) the phrase “do not fear” is found 99 times in the Bible. Just look at the birth narratives. There are all kinds of people and angels advising everyone, “Do not be afraid, for I bring…” Later the Apostle Paul smells church fear, writing, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7

So, contagious rampant fear is not a new story or cultural movement. Fear’s been around forever.
What is before us, at this point in history, is to decide what our relationship with fear is and shall be. We get to choose. We can cower in sanctuary corners, trembling with anxiety. Or, we can surge forward in mission and ministry, trembling with joy as we live into our identities as God’s people. We have the opportunity to move forward in faith, seizing the opportunities of the precious moments before us. We are called to banish the fear, living as invigorated Christ-followers. Fear may be the Kool-Aid served up by our politicians and some preachers, but I’m holding out for that kingdom drink…springs of living water. Perhaps Sweet Brown preaches the sermon Christ-followers need regarding fear, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA
Helen