What the Next Generation Needs

What the Next Generation Needs

Fall 2023

Curtis Chang

At the 2023 CCCU Multi-Academic Conferences, Curtis Chang, founder of Redeeming Babel, and David French, columnist for the New York Times, recorded a live episode of the Good Faith podcast, “What the Next Generation of Christians Needs.” What follows is an excerpt from Chang’s portion of the presentation; it has been adapted here for length and clarity. The full session, published Feb. 18, is available on the Good Faith podcast feed across all platforms.

Anxiety is in a massive upswing. This is the new pandemic that we’re in — a mental health epidemic. The scale is staggering. In 2011, they surveyed college students for whether they were suffering from significant anxiety struggles — that number was one in ten. In 2019, before the pandemic, that figure had risen to one in four. That’s a massive increase, and researchers believe the numbers are only going higher.

Now, you can ask the question why this surge happened, and that would be a very complicated question. But there’s a different way to ask the question: why are our measures, structures, and practices that are supposed to contain this collapsing? That’s the question I want to ask, and I believe at least one answer in the Christian community, is our spiritual approach to anxiety is broken; it’s deeply flawed.

There are generally two approaches to anxiety in the Christian community. One could be characterized as, “Pray anxiety away.” It’s the notion that anxiety is a flaw, a problem — maybe even a sin, or a sign of a lack of faith. So just pray anxiety away, or maybe memorize Scripture [to keep] anxiety away. Anxiety is a problem, and through spiritual means, you’re supposed to eliminate it. There’s another stream, even within Christianity, that says, “We’ll outsource it to secular mental health, and they will medicate it away or therapize it away.” Now, I’m a big fan of medication and therapy, rightly used. I’ve benefitted from it myself. But treating anxiety as a problem strips it of any spiritual meaning or purpose.

This is where I think Christians really need a correction. Anxiety is not a problem, fundamentally. It is not a flaw. It is not a sin or a sign of lack of faith. It is a profoundly human condition. How do we know that? Because the scriptures are all clear that Jesus suffered anxiety. Read the Gethsemane passages. They’re all very clear: Jesus was anxious, distressed, overwhelmed with sorrow, sweating profusely. These are all classic signs of anxiety. John is the only gospel that doesn’t have the Gethsemane passage, but John 12 goes out of its way to describe Jesus as deeply sorrowed and troubled as he approaches the cross. So, this is fundamental to the gospel portrayal of Jesus — Jesus, as he faced a future of loss, was deeply emotionally affected by all the characteristics that you would call anxiety.

We need a reframing of anxiety — not as a problem to eliminate, but rather as a deeply human experience that is an opportunity for growth. It’s not like we get rid of anxiety, and then we can be close to Jesus. Actually, we go through anxiety to meet Jesus. It is the place where we meet Jesus — because Jesus himself has embraced the human condition, including the human condition of anxiety.

This is going to require us to do a reframe, and this is an important task for Christian colleges and universities. There are a lot of reasons for it, but one is because you have the next generation that is suffering these high rates [of anxiety]. The other reason is that you have a chance to reframe it as not simply a problem to solve in order to do other things. It can be tempting to fall into a mindset that anxiety is a problem that needs to be eliminated so that we can do the stuff we were really meant to do.

Even institutionally, we silo this off into student life, into campus ministry, or something else. This is a fundamentally flawed way to think of anxiety, because anxiety is so human. You can’t understand human realities unless you understand anxiety. If you want to teach your academic fields, but you don’t have a way to address anxiety, you’re missing the boat. If we want to form Christians and how they think, we have to reframe how they experience anxiety.

Curtis Chang is the founder and executive director of Redeeming Babel and author of The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self.