As Holy Week dawns and we edge closer to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, research shows one thing for certain: The faster people get back to church, the better it will be for them, and for the country as a whole.
A recent Gallup survey found that those who have prioritized weekly attendance at worship services throughout the pandemic have emerged — not merely unscathed — but mentally improved. Weekly worshippers reported a 4-percentage point increase in their mental health. Every other sub-group went negative.
Regardless of race, age, political affiliation, gender or income, only those who consistently attended religious services each week (online or in person) are happier today than they were a year ago when COVID-19 began to capsize the globe.
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This lines up with historical research on mental health and church attendance. Broad-based evidence demonstrates that attendance at worship services is indispensable to a happy, generous and flourishing society.
Pew Research found that actively religious adults are more likely to be happy, volunteer time to good causes and be more civically involved than non-religious or non-practicing religious folks.
Other studies, like one from the National Library of Medicine, provide evidence that regular churchgoers live longer, happier lives.
Support systems provide help
Many perks accompany engaging with members of a congregation. They include better support systems, personal encouragement, group prayer, access to financial help, and a reminder that there is a hope far greater than our tired and discouraged selves.
Indianapolis-based psychotherapist Priscilla Johnson, who considers herself “spiritual but not religious” and does not attend church regularly, counsels her patients dealing with depression to consider seeking out a faith community to help them.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand the value of faith community in mental health treatment with my patients,” Johnson said. “It can address some of the basic human needs, like belongingness, purpose and sense of security.”
Attendance at worship in decline
Yet, not surprisingly, the number of people who attended worship services in 2020 declined. In-person church restrictions have obviously taken their toll on downsizing attendance. It took nearly a year for the Supreme Court to rule that California churches had to be allowed to resume in-person services.
After streaming sermons from the couch (or forgoing them all together) for so long, will Golden State residents actually return to sanctuaries? How eager has the rest of the country been to file back into the pews as churches ticked open nationwide?
Not very. All but 3% of churches in the United States closed their physical doors when the pandemic began last March. As of late 2020, four out of five churches had returned to in-person services, with attendance levels hovering around 36% of normal capacity.
Despite the option of in-person attendance, most people still opt out. In large part, that is because of the continued danger of COVID-19, but if habit is any measure, pre-COVID attendance levels may take awhile to resume in a fully vaccinated world.
Barna, a Christian research firm that has done extensive analysis on church trends amid COVID, found that 79% of practicing Christians went to church weekly before COVID, but that number has dropped to 51% during the pandemic. Another survey found that one in three practicing Christians nationwide had stopped attending church online or in person. When even the “church people” are skipping church, it’s bad.
America didn’t need help generating church dropouts, but COVID certainly assisted. The double whammy of personal disaster and spiritual decline means harmful long-term outcomes for our nation’s well-being.
Given the data on the comprehensive good that attending religious services brings to society, pre-COVID worshippers must reprioritize faith and urge others to join them if we hope to swiftly revitalize a public oppressed by collective trauma.
As Americans make plans for a post-COVID world, putting church back on the agenda should not be overlooked as a healthy step forward.
Ericka Andersen is writing a book about the importance of church attendance in the lives of women. Follow her on Instagram: @Ericka_Andersen.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why going to church during Holy Week (and beyond) is good for your mental health