Take One Worship Service and Call Me in the Morning
Not going to church can affect your health. But does anybody really care?
I remember when I was the associate pastor at another church in Minneapolis. The church had sold its building and was getting ready to move to a new location. This meant going through a lot of things that accumulated in the church building over 55 years. I remember looking at a church bulletin from the mid to late 1950s. The congregation had two worship services and the children’s Sunday School was in the hundreds.
As a pastor of a mainline Protestant congregation, you want to look back at this time period with a sense of nostalgia. But nostalgia aside, looking at the past history of this congregation is a reminder of the importance of attending church. The United States has long been considered a church-going nation. Throughout the 20th century, it was upwards of 70 percent of adults said they belonged to a congregation. But then something changed around the year 2000. The number of people who regularly attended a faith community began dropping precipitously. This spring, the news was that church attendance dipped below 50 percent for the first time in 80 years. In 2020 47 percent of Americans were part of a church, synagogue or mosque. At the same time, the number of religiously unaffiliated or “nones” increased from the single digits in the 1970s to nearly a quarter today.
You might shrug your shoulders and say, “so what.” The United States has been an outlier among Western nations in how many people go to church regularly. It seems like America is finally catching up.
So, does it matter if people go to church or not? Two researchers from Harvard say yes, going to church can affect your bodies as much as your souls.
In a cover story for the November issue of Christianity Today, Tyler J. VanderWeele and Brendan Case argue that regular church-going can be good for your health. Conversely, the drop-off in church attendance is a public health crisis in the making.
VanderWeele and Case followed a number of medical professionals and observed their church-going habits. What they found was fascinating:
Medical workers who said they attended religious services frequently (given America’s religious composition, these were largely in Christian churches of one stripe or another) were 29 percent less likely to become depressed, about 50 percent less likely to divorce, and five times less likely to commit suicide than those who never attended.
And, in perhaps the most striking finding of all, health care professionals who attended services weekly were 33 percent less likely to die during a 16-year follow-up period than people who never attended. These effects are of a big enough magnitude to make a practical difference and not just a statistical difference.
They go on to note that kids who went to church regularly were protected from the big three dangers of adolescence: depression, drug abuse and premarital sex.
I can already hear some folk say, “Does it really make a difference if I go to church? Can’t I do something in private?” In fact, that was the focus of an essay/sermon by United Church of Christ pastor Lillian Daniel in 2011. In her essay, she talks about always meeting people on a plane that tell them that they are able to worship God in nature or reading the New York Times.
But there is something to be said about meeting with others in worship. Here’s VanderWeele and Case again:
In sum, there are a number of ways in which religious service attendance might positively influence a person’s mental and physical well-being, including providing a network of social support, offering clear moral guidance, and creating relationships of accountability to reinforce positive behavior.
The fact that people aren’t worshipping alone, but with others creates a web of support that nudges people on the righteous path.
Less church going has an effect in our politics. A substantial number of Trump supporters don’t go to church regularly. Not going to church can effect the larger body politic. “White Republicans who seldom or never attend religious services are 19 points less likely than white Republicans who attend at least once a week to say that the American dream ‘still holds true,’ “ Peter Beinart wrote in a 2017 essay in the Atlantic. Beinart learned that regular attendance helped people understand appreciate difference. The converse is also true:
…non-churchgoing conservatives didn’t flock to Trump only because he articulated their despair. He also articulated their resentments. For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were. (This may be true in Europe as well. A recent thesis at Sweden’s Uppsala University, by an undergraduate named Ludvig Broomé, compared supporters of the far-right Swedish Democrats with people who voted for mainstream candidates. The former were less likely to attend church, or belong to any other community organization.)
So, we know of all the good that comes from going to church or any faith community. It’s not just good for the person attending, but for society as a whole. All of this is well and good. But, do people really care that it makes a difference?
The church where I serve resumed in-person worship in May after 14 months away. That time away made a difference in my small congregation. Some people stopped coming, saying they were going to look for another church. While our church attendance was never healthy, our sanctuary feels even more sparse than it was pre-pandemic. Most of my fellow pastors are facing the same problem. Their sanctuaries are less full than they were in March 2020. People who weren’t able to go to church, got used to not going to church and that lead to people thinking they didn’t need the church.
People don’t see the need to go to church, especially in such a material age where we don’t see the world as enchanted.
I don’t think we should run around telling people to go to church because it’s good for you. That’s not the reason people should attend worship. You attend church in order to draw closer to God and to do that with others. The challenge for us is to tell others why God matters to someone, especially someone “who has everything” and has no need for God. For the person of faith, regular attendance at a church is a side benefit. But looking at the all the good things that come from attending a faith community weekly, it has to be one of the most important side benefits ever.
On the Podcast #1
Doug Skinner is someone I consider a friend and a mentor. He shared a story about an experience after a day of anti-racism training. People were asked what was the one thing they were going to do to foster racial justice. Doug said he would take communion. His answer brought blank stares from the other pastors. In this podcast episode, we talk about the role communion has in racial reconciliation. That leads to a wider discussion about the language of the church and social justice. In some ways, they are becoming more and more separated from each other. It’s a great conversation on how the Divine Act of Christ’s death on the cross affects the public square.
On the Podcast #2
I loved my economics classes in high school and college. One of the things you learn in economics is the concept of scarcity. But when I got to seminary and then into the pulpit, scarcity was looked on as some kind of evil concept. But I knew it as the basics of the dismal science. Why were pastors so hostile to scarcity? I talked to Michael Kruse, a friend, devout Presbyterian, and economist. We talk about why pastors are not so good at economics and why that matters.
In the Pews
The Religion News Service has an article about “Side B” Christians. These are Christians that realize that they are LGBTQ, but they commit to celibacy. There is a lot of controversy about these people from other LGBTQ Christians and the religious right as well. Greg Johnson, a Side B Christian writes about the history of evangelicals who showed care towards gay Christians and those who threw their weight with the ex-gay movement.
One of the most profound books I’ve ever read is the book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” by Phillip Yancey. Yancey observed that Christians were not so good with grace. He wrote that in the late 90s, and it has only gotten worse since then. Grace is rare in our society, especially among religious followers. Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight reviews Saving Grace by journalist and person of faith Kirsten Powers. She says, we have to be able to offer grace to those who we can’t stand.
That’s all for Church and Main for now. I will be back soon talking about the intersection of faith and modern life.