I came across a fascinating article in Christianity Today this week. It’s here.
The case it makes is “Religious participation strongly promotes health and wellness.” It turns out that there is a lot of evidence to support this. For instance one study among medical workers showed those who regularly attended services “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.”
Those are not “margin-of-error” sorts of numbers. They are spiritually, socially and scientifically significant. In fact, it’s hard to think of any other behavior that is so good for us. (For instance, exercise isn’t this effective. According to a NIH study, an hour of exercise a week only lowers our chance of getting depressed by a mere 12 percent!).
Now, as the article rightly points out, “The point of the gospel is not to lower your blood pressure, but to know and love God as you are known and loved by him.”
Still, if church attendance is so good for us physically and spiritually, why is it so hard for us sometimes (even without a pandemic)? Well, both Christian and secular culture have been on a decades long quest for the benefits of church without the commitments that go with it.
Our secular culture would like to do without the church’s faith. They want belonging without believing. This has been a disaster, in part because something deep in us needs something or someone to believe in. So, that desire to believe has often settled on political ideologies or ethnic and cultural identities. These things have become our civic cults. They are not only imperfect, but they have often set us against each other and, generally speaking, have no place for mercy or forgiveness outside of our tribe or allegiance. We need the faith of the church for those things.
But we American Christians have our own besetting sin. We can be greatly tempted by believing without belonging. That is, we have sometimes embraced a vision of the Christian life that is fundamentally individual, and only sees the church as a provider of optional “religious services.” America is full of people who see themselves as Christians but don’t attend church. This misunderstands what the church is. The church is the Body of Jesus Christ on earth (1 Corinthians 12.12-27). It is not invisible and otherworldly; it is a physical body of people who meet, worship and serve together.
Early Christians embraced the necessity of the physical church, in language that seems shocking to us today. “Consider the fact that whoever has not been in the peace and unity of the Church cannot have the Lord,” is how Pope Pelagius II put it in 597 AD. Reformed Christians embraced this as well. John Calvin himself says “Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for.”
Now there are a lot of caveats, edge cases and exceptions to be acknowledged (our current pandemic situation being one of them). That said, as your priest, I need to say clearly that attending church is not only good for us, it’s what Christians do.
The Rev. Peter Frank