“If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans — at no personal cost,” wrote Harvard professor Tyler VanderWeele and journalist John Siniff in a USA Today OpEd, “what value would our society place on it?”
The article goes on to summarize an extensive body of research showing that religious participation correlates with multiple measures of mental and physical health: those who attend services have lower rates of depression, are more optimistic, are less likely to commit suicide, and are 20% to 30% less likely to die over a fifteen-year period. Flip this data on its head, and declining church attendance in the US could be termed a public health crisis.
The Goods of Church Attendance
VanderWeele is a professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, who has devoted much of his career to research and analysis in this area. His in-depth assessment of decades of studies separates the wheat from the methodological chaff and paints a picture of substantial benefits from participating in religious services. While the effect is not exclusive to Christianity, most of the studies have been done on Christians attending church and show that weekly attendance or more yields the greatest benefits.
Reassuringly, one of the positive correlations is with lower likelihood of divorce (page 10). While people who check the box “Christian” on a census form may be no more likely to have stable marriages than those who don’t, regular church attendance does seem to make the marriage knot harder to untie.
Another area of positive correlation is forgiveness. Religiousness is associated with higher levels of forgiveness, and higher levels of forgiveness correlate with less depression, less anxiety, less likelihood of nicotine addiction or substance abuse, and fewer self-reported health symptoms (page 14). The list goes on.
What should we make of this research?
No Prosperity Gospel
For those alert to the evils of the prosperity gospel, alarm bells may be ringing. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Matthew 16:24). He makes no promise of health here and now. He bids us come and die. And yet, while we should suspect any suggestion that church attendance frees us from physical or psychological suffering, at the same time we must recognize that God’s commands are intended for our good and expect that they should promote human thriving.
Take marriage, for example. Marriage is hard. No theology of marriage should claim otherwise, or suggest that dogged, lifelong commitment to another person — for better or for worse — comes without significant cost. There will be times when leaving our spouse seems to promise greater happiness, and at those times, Christians must choose commitment to Christ (and therefore their husband or wife) over the seemingly greener grass that lies outside. But because the Lord’s commands are for our good, we should expect that exclusive, lifelong marriage is overall better for human beings than other contexts for sexual intimacy.
This applies to any other area of human thriving. While we should not rest our faith in scientifically measurable benefits of church participation, we need not be anxious about them. The God who made us knows how we work. His commands should help us live well.
At the same time, research on the positive outcomes of going to church must not make us complacent. For example, while church attendance correlates with lower levels of depression and suicide, very few of us are experiencing the level of intimacy within the church family that we would if we took the New Testament seriously. Not all depression arises from lack of social support, but much does, and loneliness plagues our churches as it does our world.
God calls us to live as one body, brothers and sisters, a family united in love. And yet we often live as though we have no real claim on each other and as if the loneliness and deep psychological struggles of our fellow Christians are not our problems. We should not be content with a diagnosis of church as “somewhat better than the world” on this or any other front. Rather, we should strive to live up to our kingdom calling. We should be known as Jesus’s disciples because we love one another in a world-defying way (John 13:35).
What If I Still Struggle?
Perhaps, as you read this article, you’re feeling a pang of shame. You might think, “What if I still struggle with depression, or substance addiction, or anxiety, or have experienced divorce? Here is yet another indication that I am a mess and Christianity does not work for a failure like me.”
Do not forget the gospel-sanctioned truth: we all limp through life into glory. Look around at church. Despite appearances, you’re not seeing people who have it all together, but people strengthened in weakness. Even the most seemingly-fruitful saints aren’t struggle-free. For example, the great preacher Charles Spurgeon suffered from debilitating depression, and when the apostle Paul pleaded repeatedly for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, the answer came back in the negative (2 Corinthians 12:7–9).
If you struggle with depression or anxiety, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts, an eating disorder or a crippling sense of loneliness, you are not letting us down. Rather, your brothers and sisters are on your side, holding your hand and cheering you on, because we all bring our weakness to the table, and no one at Christ’s table is turned away.
We all have our part to play in this thing we call church. You are not called to sit injured on the bench watching others run and score. You can be God’s help to a fellow struggler. When we find ourselves wondering, “Who will love me?” let’s ask ourselves, “Whom can I love?” because there are people in your church who need you today, this week, this month, and this year. You can be Christ to them, not because you are perfect, but because his grace is enough, and his power is made perfect in weakness.
The True Elixir
For all the benefits of church participation, Jesus is the only true elixir. He is the living water, who draws us through death to life. Let’s be encouraged by the evidence that his commands are good for us in the here and now. But let’s long all the more for the day when Jesus brings heaven and earth back together, and there is no more sickness or mourning or anxiety or depression, when our oneness in him is free from pain and sin, and our life expectancy is eternal.