What's Tony Thinking

Empty Pews: An American Public Health Crisis


Two Harvard professors, one an epidemiologist, the other a specialist in “human flourishing,” have an article out with the surprising title, “Empty Pews Are An American Public Health Crisis.”

We’ve heard about a lot of public health issues and crises of late: guns, addiction, violence. But empty pews?

The gist of the article are two colliding facts. Fact One: Church attendance is down. (The post-pandemic return will present challenges on top of the general trend).

Fact Two: Going to church is good for your health. Not just a little bit. A lot. Not for just some people. For all sorts and conditions of humankind.

One plus two = Public Health Crisis

I’ve thought for a long time that churches do a whole lot of preventative and restorative work with respect to mental health, social functioning, and our sense of belonging and meaning.

The data, compiled over space and time, by Tyler J. VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Brendan Case, associate director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, are not even debatable. Being part of a living, breathing religious congregation is good for your physical health, mental health, relational health . . . and your longevity.

Let us hasten to add, these are secondary effects, happy by-products, but not the main point. We don’t go to church, synagogue, or mosque, to lower our blood pressure. The primary point is, of course, to honor the holy and practice a way of life that is worth living.

But those “secondary effects” can’t be gainsaid.

Let’s review the basics with respect to fact one, emptying pews.

“In 2019, Gallup reported that only 36 percent of Americans view organized religion with “a great deal of confidence,” down from 68 percent in 1975 . . . The decline in confidence in churches has been accompanied by steep recent declines in both church membership and attendance. Barna Group found that 10 years ago, in 2011, 43 percent of Americans said they went to church every week. By February of 2020, that had dropped 14 percentage points to 29 percent.”

Okay, that’s the emptying pews. Now the other side of the story.

“One of my (Tyler’s) most recent studies of health care professionals indicates that religious service attenders had far fewer “deaths of despair”—deaths by suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol—than people who never attended services, reducing those deaths by 68 percent for women and 33 percent for men in the study.

“Our findings aren’t unique. A number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular- disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.”

Why does regular participation in worship have such astonishing benefits? I’d suggest three answers, all three being one form or another of “perspective.”

Worship, almost by definition, invites us to get over ourselves, even to forget ourselves, at least for a time, which is amazing and super-healthy thing. Stuff, includes us, is put in perspective. Most of us, much of the time, tend to turn in upon ourselves. That is, by the way, one good definition of “sin,” the self curved in upon itself. Worship opens us to a larger story, a bigger picture and the healing truth that “it’s not all about you.”

Related to that, our suffering and disappointments are “normalized.” Life’s downsides don’t make us weird. They don’t mean we are failures. They mean we are human. This is life. You’re not the only one who was a jerk to your best friend. You’re not the only one whose best friend was a jerk to you. Welcome to the club.

And related to that, most worship reminds us — at least it should remind us — that our failures are or can be forgiven. And it invites us to forgive those that we were gnashing our teeth about even just minutes ago. We get a fresh start. A new beginning. Another chance. God says, “let’s try again.” You say to your friend, or spouse or child, “Let’s try again.”

As someone who believes in the church — despite a thoroughgoing acquaintance with its failures and foibles (and my part in the same) — I could go on to enumerate many other ways worship participation helps us. Opportunities to serve others, relationships with people you never thought you’d know let alone enjoy, an hour a week when you don’t have to be in charge, people who actually care about you and people you actually care about, etc.

As noted, greater longevity, less depression, less substance abuse, greater meaning in life, better social support, are all by-products, secondary benefits. We don’t go to church to lower our blood pressure. Sometimes, trust me, church/ synagogue/ mosque, will even raise it. We go for the beauty and truth of holiness, to lose ourselves that we may be truly found, to be part of a story that began long before us and will continue long after we are gone.

The rest is gravy.







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