Studies by the Pew Research Center reveal as much as a 4 percent drop in the last four years — from 39 percent in 2013 to 35 percent in 2017 — but if attending church, mosque, synagogue or some other service is a regular practice in your life, you didn’t need a study to know that.
In my corner of the world at least, falling attendance has been clear for some time. Empty pews don’t lie. Funny thing is, I suspect we owe at least some of the drop to the internet.
The online streaming option is to make services available to the sick and shut-in, but I hear a lot of able-bodied folks are choosing bedside Baptist forgetting Hebrews 10:25 which tells us not to forsake “assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
Most of us (81 percent) who continue to show up do so to grow closer to God. Sixty-nine percent say they want to give their children a moral foundation, while 68 percent cite becoming a better person and 66 percent find comfort in times of trouble or sorrow.
For me, at least, all of the above have proved valid in my own life and am convinced neither my marriage nor my children would be as healthy without regular church attendance and particularly our faith.
And so I was struck recently by the findings of yet another study released by T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University. The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that children who were raised in a religious or spiritual environment were better protected from depression, substance abuse and other risky behaviors.
While previous studies have linked adults’ religious involvement to better health and well-being, including lower risk of premature death, this one included more than 5,000 youths who were followed eight to 14 years.
Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s school of public health and lead author of the study, said that with adult populations, it is the communal forms of religious participation, like religious service attendance, that are most strongly associated with subsequent mental and physical health. Private spiritual practices and prayer do not seem to have much association with subsequent health.
Participation in both religious services, prayer and meditation during childhood and adolescence, however, seem strongly associated with subsequent health and well-being, VanderWeele said.
“For some outcomes, the associations with prayer/mediation were even stronger than for service attendance. This is different from adult populations,” he said. “Some of this may be that prayer/meditation in adolescence may be more predictive of adult religious service attendance than is childhood religious service, which may just reflect how committed parents are to the practice. But from our analyses, prayer/meditation also seems to have some independent effect on adult health and well-being even beyond predicting religious service attendance in adulthood.”
It’s worth noting, too, that the researchers controlled for many variables such as maternal health, socioeconomic status, and history of substance abuse or depressive symptoms, to try to isolate the effect of religious upbringing.
The study results showed that people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were about 18 percent more likely to report higher happiness as young adults (ages 23–30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33 percent less likely to use illicit drugs.
Those who prayed or meditated at least daily while growing up were 16 percent more likely to report higher happiness as young adults, 30 percent less likely to have started having sex at a young age, and 40 percent less likely to have a sexually transmitted infection compared to those who never prayed or meditated.
“This shows that a religious or spiritual upbringing can powerfully affect health behaviors, mental health and overall happiness and well-being,” VanderWeele said.
Data alone can’t answer that question, but he suspects having a shared set of beliefs, values and practices has a lot to do with it. It also helps that adolescents who attend religious services have other adult members of their community, beyond their parents, who can serve as mentors and role models.
“As for the positive effects of prayer and meditation, my speculation would be that an integrated spirituality gives rise to an experience of God or of transcendence so that an adolescent need not turn to drugs or risky sexual behaviors in their search for something more,” VanderWeele said. “Moreover, that experience of God may fundamentally make a person more in tune with others, leading to greater volunteering, forgiveness, and a sense of mission, and these things ultimately make people happier and helps protect against depression. As we know, adolescence is a particularly critical time of development and self-understanding, and the establishing of these practices may shape health and well-being throughout life.”
Some have argued the Hebrews passage cited earlier has little to do with not missing church and more to do with forsaking one’s faith, shrinking back from religion.
But it’s important not to get stuck on the phrase “forsaking the assembly.” That’s not the end of the sentence. The writer also tells us to grow closer together, to encourage each other so that no one walks away from the hope of our faith.
About the writer: You’ll find Gracie Bonds Staples on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples—AJC). She writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by TNS.