In my many years of visiting churches and writing about my impressions of them, I've not mentioned some of the positive benefits of church attendance. Some very interesting research has been performed on this topic and is worthy of consideration. No matter how friendly or unfriendly a church is, hospitable or inhospitable, good sermon or bad, there are many positive benefits from attending church. Here are just a few.
Researchers have discovered attending church lowers blood pressure. In fact, the more often you go, the lower it becomes. This was clinically validated in a Norwegian study published several years ago in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine ("The relationship between religious attendance and blood pressure: The Hunt Study, Norway," 2011). Similar results have been observed in U.S. research.
LONGER, HEALTHIER LIVES
A long-term University of Iowa study looked at death rates of individuals over age 65 who attended church weekly. The results showed that 35 percent of participants who attended church lived longer than those who never went. It also found churchgoers' immune systems were stronger, they were less likely to have clogged arteries, and had lower blood pressure. "There's something involved in the act of religious attendance, whether it's the group interaction, the worldview or just the exercise to get out of the house. There's something that seems to be beneficial," said University of Iowa psychology professor Susan Lutgendorf, who carried out the study.
FAMILIES AND CHILDREN
Many parents decide to expose their children to agnosticism or atheism and ultimately allow them to make a religious choice. Pat Fagan, Ph.D., author and researcher of religious practice and its effect on families and society, has documented the many benefits of church attendance.
"Religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families, and the community," Fagan wrote. "Of particular note are the studies that indicate the benefits of religion to the poor. Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children. The practice of religion also leads to a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, and addiction. In addition, religious practice leads to an increase in physical and mental health, longevity, and education attainment. Moreover, these effects are intergenerational, as grandparents and parents pass on the benefits to the next generations." With so many strong benefits of religious practice and church attendance, it's unfortunate that more parents don't accept this, and set a strong example for their children by exposing them to church.
Does going to church regularly help with our moods, even make us happier? A recent poll showed it does. Gallup's research is published under this catchy title: "In U.S., Churchgoers Boast Better Mood, Especially on Sundays: Those who don't attend religious services often see their mood decline."
According to the study, "Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. Frequent churchgoers experience an average of 3.36 positive emotions per day compared with an average of 3.08 among those who never attend. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income. In other words, regular churchgoers seem to do better than non-churchgoers or occasional churchgoers in terms of their daily positive wellbeing experiences. This underscores previous Gallup research that finds very religious Americans do better across numerous dimensions of wellbeing than do those who are less religious or not at all religious."
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
In a Gospel Coalition article, author Glenn Stanton corrects a myth that "Christians divorce at the same rate as the world," citing studies by researchers including W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project.
"People who seriously practice a traditional religious faith -- whether Christian or other -- have a divorce rate markedly lower than the general population," Stanton writes. "The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice.
"What appears intuitive is true. Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes -- attend church nearly every week, read their bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples -- enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public, and unbelievers."
I've only addressed a few of the benefits of regular religious practice and church attendance. Research clearly supports these benefits and many more. If you find yourself in a church that is not right for you, please keep looking. Pray about it as well and you'll be directed to the right one.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.
By CHRIS THOMPSON
Alaska Dispatch Publishing