Evening Service at St. Paul's Anglican Church, Aukland

Church Community Life Can Have Health Benefits For Participants

There’s a twenty-year longitudinal study out that suggests a pretty significant correlation between church attendance and better health. The study tracked 75,000 middle-aged nurses across a twenty-year time span from 1992 to 2012. They found that those who self-reported attending church services more than once a week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the years covered by the study. Once-a-week attendance showed a 26% lower risk, and less frequent attendance a 13% lower risk.

Now, before you rewrite Sunday’s sermon to be about how going to church can literally save your life, its important to note a couple of things. First, there’s always the caution that correlation doesn’t equal causation. Second, the study, even though it covers a very large sample of participants and followed them for a fairly long period of time, does have some limitations. For example, it did not include any men and all of the participants were nurses, so one could argue that we aren’t sure these results would be true in the male and non-nurse members of the population.

Why? Community!

Third, and most interestingly, the study doesn’t give us a lot of clear insight into “why” we’re observing this trend.

According to a CNN article summarizing the study:

Women who regularly attended religious services also had higher rates of social support and optimism, had lower rates of depression and were less likely to smoke.

Researches attempted to factor out for these traits in their research, but those all sound like possible contributors to longer life to me.

Later in the article, the author also notes that:

Going to church could have a number of additional benefits that could, in turn, improve longevity… Attendance could promote self-discipline and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or it could provide an experience of the transcendent, said Tyler J. VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

This is, of course, not the only study on how religious activities impact health. A number of studies have studied a variety of ways in which people participate in religious life and how this impacts their health. They have produced mixed results, but one consistent thread has been how religious service attendance does predict better health.

Desert Table At Church Coffee Hour

Of course, we all know what makes for a good church community: good cookies at coffee hour!

I’m on a bit of a community kick following yesterday’s post, so this may be a biased perspective. To me, the obvious benefit that religious service attendance offers over other practices, like private prayer or scripture study, is the interaction with other people and the support gleaned from those relationships. In other words, my admittedly unscientific, non-verified belief is that it’s all about the community!

Now, in my line of work helping churches and nonprofits use the web, this provides an interesting and important gut-check. If community really is the glue that holds it all together, then we need to be careful to make sure that perspective holds true in how we approach our online presence, too. In other words, your church website and social media channels should be about fostering community engagement and mutual support, not just promoting the church and it’s goings-on. For many in the church website field, that’s a major paradigm shift, but it’s a critical one to get right.

What do you think?

Does church attendance improve people’s health? If so, why? And what implications might that have to how we think about the life of our church communities more broadly?

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