Resolve to Attend Church for Good Health
Now that everyone has unwrapped the Christmas presents, said, “goodbye” to extended family members, and started thinking about 2022, I suggest a great New Year’s idea is to resolve to attend church more often.
I can hear the sneers forming among anti-church skeptics. But I offer this not as a casual comment in the vein of “you gotta do better,” but a measured appraisal based on scientific-style research.
The results were the basis of the cover story in the November issue of Christianity Today: “Empty Pews are an American Health Crisis.”
In it, two Harvard University staffers write about the considerable benefits of regular church attendance—and the downturn in many arenas of public health that have accompanied the modern shunning of church.
One sidebar graphic outlines the reduced health risks that their research uncovered for regular attenders vs. never-attenders, such as:
- A 33% reduced risk of death and 84% lower risk of suicide
- 29% less depression
- 50% less risk of divorce
- Among adolescents, 33% reduced risk of illegal drug use and 12% for depression
“Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter,” write Tyler Vanderweele, a professor of epidemiology and Brendan Case, associate director of research for Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program.
“Something powerful takes places there, something that enhances health and well-being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.”
Put another way by that ancient philosopher, Paul, “Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but let us exhort one another, especially as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25 MEV).
Decline in Confidence
The CT writers link lower church attendance to the decline in those who view organized religion with a great deal of confidence, from 68% in 1975 to only 36% in 2019.
Religious leaders’ numerous personal scandals and assorted misdeeds since 1975 have undoubtedly shaken the public’s faith in church (they have bothered me too).
But Vanderweele and Case trace a more precipitous decline in church attendance over just the past decade. They point to research by Christian demographer the Barna Group, which found 43% of Americans professed weekly church attendance in 2011. But by February of 2020 that had dropped to 29%.
They also note that scandals don’t rank at stayaway reasons for those who seldom or never attend church; people who think of themselves as Christians are more likely to say they practice their faith in other ways or there’s something they don’t like about the service.
Whether it’s outrage or not, the most common experience of Christians who shun church seems to be less a deliberate choice and more a substitution of habits, they write: “Put differently, a large share of Christians are opting to go it alone, moving their faith into quarters so private that even the church is not allowed in.”
Church is God’s Idea
Aside from the health benefits of regular church attendance, I think it is clear from a reading of Scripture that the church has always been God’s idea.
After all, it is in the humdrum, day-to-day interactions that the scales fall from our eyes and we see others as they really are instead of who we imagine them to be.
When we are faithful to a church, we will also be committed to working out those inevitable disagreements and personality conflicts that are part of close relationships. As the Harvard researchers show, we will be better off for the effort.