By Thomas Lambrecht
The slogan “We Are Better Together” has been used for everything from a political campaign to the headline for efforts to keep The United Methodist Church from separating. Efforts to promote greater unity in our country deserve support. After all, this is the only country we have, and we need to learn how to live together in this country. On the other hand, my colleagues Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton have shown in their book, Are We Really Better Together?, that we are not really together in our denomination. Attempts to patch over the things that divide us deeply from each other in our denomination cannot mask the reality that we are simply not operating from the same worldview. In that case, we are not “better together” because our togetherness leads to continual conflict over the direction of the church. And this is not the only church that exists. There are other alternatives.
However, today I want to use that slogan “Better Together” to talk about a different kind of togetherness – the embodied community found in the local church. Over the course of the Covid pandemic, local churches have suffered the loss of community. Many churches closed for months and some have recently closed again due to Omicron. Many members have created a new Sunday morning habit of tuning in online to watch church. Many others have created a new Sunday morning habit that disregards church altogether. Estimates are that local churches will lose one-third to two-thirds of their members over the course of this pandemic.
As we begin this new year of 2022 and its attendant New Year’s resolutions, I want to make the case that we should prioritize once again gathering in person as safely as possible with our brothers and sisters in Christ to worship God and grow in holiness. While there are understandable times and circumstances that could cause us to temporarily withdraw from in-person worship, there is simply no substitute for meeting in the flesh with other believers to strengthen and express our faith.
Scripture Commands It
The writer to the Hebrews encourages, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Neglect for the regular meeting together of believers is not a new phenomenon in 2022. It has been happening since the first century!
It is important to understand why meeting together is necessary for the life of faith. The kind of mutual encouragement and stimulation to grow in love and good deeds can generally happen only in person. Watching a worship service online does not give us the opportunity to interact with our fellow believers, offering and receiving encouragement in the faith with them. We can engage with the chat function, but it is just not the same as looking someone in the eye and telling them you are praying for them.
The same section of Hebrews offers other reasons for in-person gathering. Verse 22 invites us to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.” We can absolutely draw near to God in the privacy of our own home as an individual – and we should on a daily basis. But gathering with other believers strengthens our faith and helps to purify our hearts, so that we can even more effectively draw near to the Lord. Again, there is no substitute for this personal gathering that enables us to draw near. Singing hymns and worship songs with others really lifts me into the presence of the Lord. Experiencing the preacher looking me in the eye when she exhorts me to a life of holiness carries a power that is minimized when we are separated through electronics.
Verse 23 commands us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” If we don’t gather in person, we forgo the opportunity to converse with others about what God is doing in our/their lives. We miss hearing how the Lord answered prayer this week or unexpectedly ministered to a personal need. Meeting together gives us the strength we need to “hold unswervingly to [our] hope.” It is the difference between sitting on the bench with our fellow players in the game, versus watching the game on TV.
The bottom line is that, when we forsake meeting together, we cultivate (at best) a spectator mentality toward church that weakens our faith and deprives us of the ability to live out that faith in everyday life.
Jesus said, “Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). I once read an illustration of this truth in the picture of the coals in a fire (whether in a grill or fireplace). When the coals are all together, they burn with a hot and steady fire. When an individual coal is placed out to the side away from the rest, it soon grows cold and loses its fire. That is exactly what happens to our faith when we neglect meeting together – it grows cold.
Gathering for Worship Improves Our Health and Well-being
A recent article in Christianity Today by Tyler J. Vanderweele and Brendan Case of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University surveys research relating church attendance with personal health and human flourishing. They find that “religious service attendance powerfully enhances health and well-being.”
The article states, “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.” Specifically, when compared with those who never attend religious services, regular attenders have 33 percent reduced risk of death, 84 percent reduced risk of suicide, 29 percent reduced risk of depression, 50 percent reduced risk of divorce, 68 percent reduced risk of “deaths of despair” for women and 33 percent reduced risk of such deaths for men, 33 percent reduced risk of adolescent illegal drug use, and 12 percent reduced risk of adolescent depression.
The authors found “regular service attendance helps shield children from the ‘big three’ dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity. People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer.”
It is important to note that these benefits accrue to people not based on what they believe, but on what they practice. As the article puts it, “Our research suggests that religious service attendance specifically, rather than private practices or self-assessed religiosity or spirituality, most powerfully predicts health. Religious identity and private spirituality may, of course, still be very important and meaningful within the context of religious life, but their effects on health and well-being don’t seem to be as strong as those of regular gathering with other believers.” They go on, “Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter. Something powerful takes place there, something that enhances health and well-being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.”
The authors attribute this beneficial effect in part to the embodied community engendered by church worship participation. “Religious communities provide a strong social safety net that other institutions can’t easily replace. … The apostle Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body may also help us understand part of the power of communal religious life. (See I Corinthians 12) … Through their diverse gifts, and the help they provide one another, members of churches are supported in religious faith and spiritual growth, but also in more mundane matters, from care during illness to help finding work after a layoff.”
The authors point beyond the mundane to the spiritual power present in the gathering of believers. “Paul’s use of the body imagery is not merely a metaphor, however, but a claim about the intensity and reality of Christ’s presence in and through the church.” The gathering helps all present to draw near to the Lord and experience his life-giving presence and power. After all, Christ promised “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Consequences for Society
At the macro level, the individual outcomes of decreased health due to decreased worship attendance contribute to massive social consequences. As Brendan Case, one of the authors of the CT article, points out in another article in First Things, “Deaths of despair caused drops in overall life expectancy in the United States for three consecutive years (from 2015 to 2017), the longest period of decline since World War I.” He goes on to state, “The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has … assembl[ed] a body of evidence that suggests that about 40 percent of the increase in suicides from 1996 to 2010 was attributable to declining religious participation.”
The way Case sees it, “Job losses, declining marriage rates, and shrinking religious communities interact in complex ways to bring about deaths of despair. Low (or no) wages reduce men’s ‘marriageability’ and so drive down marriage rates. Lower marriage rates cause church attendance to decline, which in turn has been shown to increase divorce rates. The result is an atomized society in which deep friendships and simple human warmth become luxury goods. One recent study found that loneliness may increase mortality risk over a fixed period of time by 26 percent, perhaps in part because communities afflicted by isolation and atomization are natural breeding grounds for self-destructive behaviors.
“Religious communities are crucial sources of social connection, but perhaps equally important is their role in directly teaching that suicide or abusing drugs and alcohol is wrong. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has put it, ‘religions are moral exoskeletons.’ They provide ‘a set of norms, relationships, and institutions’ that protect individuals from their own worst instincts and from giving in to self-destructive temptations.”
Church attendance is a key tool in combatting loneliness, depression, and the isolation that this Covid pandemic has forced upon us. Worship participation not only grows our faith, it helps restore a healthier society, both individually and collectively.
There may be good reasons why an individual or family needs to stop attending worship for a time. The risk is the temporary pause becomes a habit. As the CT article puts it, “the most common experience of Christians who don’t go to church seems to be less a deliberate choice and more a substitution of habits.”
Now at this renewing of the year, we have the chance to renew our commitment to church participation through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” We will be healthier for it – physically, spiritually, and societally!