Does It Matter that Church is Good for You?

Slate.com recently ran an article about scientific research that indicates that singing in a choir is good for people. The article, written by a woman who’s recently published a book on the subject, began with a statement that she had at one time thought that “choir singing was only for nerds and church people.” She, of course, was neither.

But, during a bout of depression, she decided to join a community choir and, voilà, her problems were solved. In the process, she discovered that there’s some very compelling scientific research to back up her experience. She concludes, “Singing might be our most perfect drug; the ultimate mood regulator, lowering rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness, while at the same time amplifying happiness and joy, with no discernible, unpleasant side effects. The nerds and the church people had it right.” [“Ode to Joy” by Stacy Horn, posted on http://www.slate.com 7/25/13]

This is just the latest of a long string of studies that suggest that what religious organizations do is actually good for people.

A study using data from the Women’s Health Initiative found that women aged 50 and up were 20% less likely to die in any given year if they attended religious services, compared to those who never attend religious services. (from Psychology and Health, 17 November 2008). Religion is good for men, too. Sociologists have found that men who attend religious services more than once a week live, on average, seven years longer than men who don’t attend services.

And there’s still more. Religion, in turns out, is good for children and youth as well. In particular, religion is shown to function as a coping mechanism to provide youth with resiliency against negative peer pressure without accompanying decreases in self-esteem. Religion decreases risky behavior among adolescents and increases healthy lifestyle choices. [Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Vol. 5, 2005]

But, does any of this research make any difference? Does it motivate even one new person to check out religious services? Or, is it like the obesity epidemic where, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that some foods are bad for you and will very likely cut your life short, many people just keep on eating the kind of foods that make them obese?

The scientific evidence that church (and other religious services) is good for people is certainly nice to hear, but it’s not really news to me. It’s what I see on a regular basis at Old South.

I can’t help but feel that little twinge of worry, though, when I encounter another piece of news that backs up my lifestyle, that includes going to church on a regular basis, because in my experience (and there’s more of that than I’d like to admit these days) it won’t make a bit of difference to the church that I serve. Those who are there know this stuff already. It’s why they keep coming. For those who aren’t coming, though, it doesn’t matter what the research says. They are staying away.

I can’t help but worry—about the long-term viability of the church that I serve and, as well about what it will mean for the community at large when churches no longer exist in the town square.

As the non-“nerd and church person” discovered, other community organizations provide some of the same kinds of services that the church provides. These days, one doesn’t need to attend a church to sing in a choir, for instance. But, still, this makes me sad. To hear a community choir sing “church music” (Handel’s Messiah, for instance) is just not the same as a church choir. It might be good to sing Messiah in a group, because it provides healthy benefits for the individual members of the group, but there’s just something missing—something important, I think—when the members of the group have no sustained connection to the words that they are singing, the theological and spiritual concepts that are conveyed by the words and the music.

The “nerds and the church people” may be right, but what happens when we run out of “church people”?

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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