“If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans – at no personal cost – what value would our society place on it?” So began the article in USA TODAY in October 2016 in which the authors put forth the idea that religion may be a miracle drug. They went on to note the research that had convincingly shown that when people attend church at least once a week then it reduces mortality 20% to 30% over a 15-year period. They pointed out that the good news is that religion and more specifically regular church attendance is already within the grasp of most Americans. They went on to site that health and religion are very much connected. The findings after 20 years of research concludes that attending religious services brings about better physical and mental health.
The attraction of the church for many is meaningful interaction with creeds, confessions, prayers, and Scripture. Additionally, a sense of forgiveness and ultimately salvation is important for most church attenders. And even though participation in church life has resulted in concrete research that says that it is good for health, no one goes to church for their health… at least not consciously. The question begs asking why would attending church improve your health? Part of the effect especially on mental health may be due to the message of faith and hope. Those who attend services are more optimistic and have lower rates of depression.
When it comes to church we need to preach truth and stand against untruth. According to Francis Schaeffer we also need to know that it is possible “to have something beautiful and unusual in this world.” He said if others cannot see something beautiful in our human relationships, and if they do not see that upon the basis of what Christ has done, if our Christian communities cannot stop bickering, and infighting, then we are not living properly.”
The church is meant to be an alternative community, a real family that is bound by love.
Going to Church Could Save Your Life
In May of 2020 Rebecca McLaughlin wrote an article titled “Going to Church Could Save Your Life” in which she quoted a different article by Tyler Vanderweele in which he spoke of “deaths of despair.” In his recent article Vanderweele said the despair is so severe that it leads to reduced life expectancies and these deaths have increased dramatically in recent years according to research. He cited as the cause, declining social and family support, declining marriage rates, increased access to opioids, and multiple social and economic factors as well as declining job opportunities. But one thing that was left out was the impact of a more secularized society.
What is the effect of secularization, that is the question that needs to be asked. Atheist Jonathan Haidt in 2007 summarized findings of religious participation saying that “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular [non-religious] people.” Some might say that in an increasingly isolated society (even pre-pandemic) this is understandable since the social support found in a religious community would explain these findings.
However, the research shows social support in religious institutions amounts only to about one-fourth of the benefits of that participation. The mental health benefits are even more striking than the impact on physical health. The studies show that those who participate in religious services at least once a week are more optimistic have lower rates of depression and are less likely to commit suicide than those who do not. In fact, one large scale study of women in the United States found that those who attend religious services at least once a week were five times less likely to kill themselves then those who never attended.
The Christian life is more than church attendance, and the hope of the gospel is far more than a guard against suicide. Those who may be struggling either with depression or addiction or alcoholism or despair, the persistent hum of hopelessness – will be encouraged by this research. They might need to consider trying church. Turning to a God who is “… near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps.34.18), can be lifesaving both for eternity and for here and now.
What we find in frequenting worship services is helping us fulfill the purpose of life, what we could call biblical happiness: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We do not go to church to feel happy; we go to church to seek the source of our happiness (Psalm 16.11).
Please do not misunderstand my intention. It is in no way to shame anyone to get into church or come back to church. I am not trying to weaponize the research. But rather point out the reality of not only believing in a transcendent being … One who transcends all time but even more so to worship Him. This is the church that we should work for as we seek to reject both political polarization and cultural capitulation. Our love must have a form that the world may observe – it must be seeable. But sadly, what the world sees in much of the church today is not love toward our political rivals or ideological opponents. Like no other year in my memory, congregations in 2020 were torn apart by ethnic tensions, a contested election, and our pandemic response, even something as simple as wearing a mask. If we are to wage war, it needs to be on our divisiveness.
The church at the beginning of 2021 desperately needs to recover her loving unity and present the watching world with the hope of a beautiful community.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org