May 2019 Pastor’s Newsletter
There is a new Pew Research Report (January 31, 2019) on the relationship of religion to health, happiness and civic engagement around the world.
The summary may or not be surprising to you. Religious people, who attend church regularly, are measurably healthier, happier and engaged in civic actions!
While believers can rely on God to help manage their suffering and endure hardship whether active members of congregations or not, those who regularly attend services have the added support of social connections. Earlier research, Pew pointed out, indicates that friendship is a key factor.
“Those who frequently attend a house of worship may have more people they can rely on for information and help during both good and bad times,” the report said, citing scholars Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Robert Putnam of Harvard University. “Indeed, a range of social scientific research corroborates the idea that social support is pivotal to other aspects of well-being.”
The report is quite technical and very comprehensive. (Start at the Pew Forum homepage: pewforum.org.) The data are not dramatically different, being around 10% different for “active attenders” as opposed to the unaffiliated. Although we like to assert that Christians are “in the world but not of the world,” it is still true that we live in the world. We don’t dramatically overcome our environments. The measure of obesity is worse for Christians. The effect of poverty on a healthy diet, particularly in the African-American church, is a cause for concern.
The problematic question for all correlations is what causes what? Is there something about gathering for regular worship that brings benefits? Or do already happy, healthy and engaged people attend church?
As a pastor and theologian, I would like to assert the former. I believe in the power of Word and Sacrament to change people’s lives and behavior. I do not believe that all new believers come to us unhappy, unhealthy and isolated and alone. I do believe that regular attendance at church does influence and improve these factors in everyone who attends, no matter their “starting point.”
It is a “mega theme” that I often use in sermons: that Christianity is not an individual religion but is a communal religion. This comes from a “red letter” saying of Jesus.
“Where two or three have come together in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
This explicit text is given in the context of a group of apostles who had just been charged with the spiritual discipline of the community of believers. Soon the Holy Spirit would empower their leadership and guidance of that same community on Pentecost.
Let me share a few quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:
So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and Sacrament…
The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.
And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.
With that understanding, we can then look to an explanation for the “cause” of an increased health, happiness and civic engagement. As one assured and reassured of “my salvation,” I can go forward into the world without fear, worry, or anxiety. Consider Paul’s encouragement to the community of Christ gathered in Rome.
The one who loves us gives us an overwhelming victory in all these difficulties. I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love which Christ Jesus our Lord shows us. We can’t be separated by death or life, by angels or rulers, by anything in the present or anything in the future, by forces or powers in the world above or in the world below, or by anything else in creation. (Romans 8:37-39)
One of the authors cited above, Robert Putnum, wrote Bowling Alone in 2000. He observed the phenomenon of an increasing number of people bowling while commitment to bowling leagues was declining. This illustrated a reluctance to commit to all types of social institutions, including churches. The negative social consequence was a loss of civic engagement and activity. My pastoral response to this is twofold:
First, the American ideal of “rugged independence” is a myth. It is a too common theme of movies and literature to follow a hero/heroine as they “find themselves” and reject the social bonds or constructs that have “trapped them” or “held them back.” This is just bad psycho-babble combined with 60’s anti-institutionalism. The reality is that very few people accomplish anything alone and institutions provide the support and structure necessary to succeed.
Second, human beings are simply not created to be alone. The isolation of prisoners is used as a form of torture for a reason. Jesus gathered “the Twelve.” Jewish tradition required ten men in order to have prayer. We are designed by God to gather in community, particularly a community of faith. The plain truth is that we need each other. More importantly consider this, it’s not just about what you need; it’s about people who need you.
Please allow Bonhoeffer to have the final word.
'See how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in harmony!”— this is the Scripture’s praise of life together under the Word. But now we can rightly interpret the words “in unity” and say, “for brothers and sisters to dwell together through Christ.” For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. “He is our peace.” Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.’
Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed!