Last month, Christianity Today (CT) wrote an article for their print magazine titled “Empty Pews Are an American Public Health Crisis.” The concern it expresses is that many Christians have been vocal about “religious freedoms” that prevent them from getting vaccines or covering their faces with masks and so are to be exempt from mandates, yet this has led to many within this group to leave the church when churches require masks as well as many not in the “religious freedoms” groups to leave when churches do not follow local guidelines or people become more than vocal about their beliefs.
The authors then make an interesting statement within the article that “Religious participation strongly promotes health and wellness,” using a research article from JAMA Psychiatry titled “Religious Service Attendance and Deaths Related to Drugs, Alcohol, and Suicide Among US Health Care Professionals.” The research article, which CT does note, cites that 29% of medical workers who say they attend religious services frequently are less likely to become depressed, 50% less like to divorce, and 500% less like to commit suicide than those who never attended. But then CT starts to make comments that the article did not say, like Christians have “far fewer “deaths of despair”—deaths by suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol.” They even reference 12 other articles that address some mental health research to support their finds.
Their claim is “that religious service attendance specifically, rather than private practices or self-assessed religiosity or spirituality, most powerfully predicts health.” In essence, just showing up to church will magically heal your mental health or substance misuse. Am I taking their claims and stretching it a little? Yes. But that’s the point, so are they. Unfortunately they are making a complete guess as a correlation and selling it as fact (or causation).
My friend over at KeyMinistry, Dr. Stephen Grcevich, gave some great insight on this article as well that also note concerns with these associations:
One assumption in much of the research on the mental health benefits of church is that vulnerability to mental illness is equal among church attenders and non-attenders. What if that’s not the case? What if there’s something about church that leads to an overrepresentation of the “mentally healthy” compared to the general population? What if church is less accessible to individuals and families with a greater vulnerability to mental illness because the ability to engage in church activities self-selects individuals lacking the functional impairment seen in common mental health conditions.
Is it possible that Christians who are medical or mental health workers fair better than their counterpart? We see this possibility in one study, but that does not make it a fact. Nor can we then easily blend that over to all Christians.
In fact, that we have organizations like KeyMinistry or Church And Mental Health trying to bring the Church into a conversation with mental health professionals, hitting numerous barriers in so many ways from within the Church, and churches regularly asking “how do we do this, no one else is doing this” should suggest that the Church may not be as open armed to mental wellness as CT offers.
It is my experience that Christian faith, a true relationship with Jesus does in the long run improve mental health. But I do not have a mental illness and I do not believe just being in a church building to hear about the Bible magically fixes everything. I have a guess that a devoted Christian who prays, seeks service in God’s name, is a good steward of not only their finances but of relationships, evangelizes, and reads Scripture will have an improvement with mental health. This includes going to Church faithfully, but it is my belief that this is a piece of the puzzle. Many ethics boards also say suggest this, even secular ones who say spirituality is important and should be part of the counseling process. But we need to be careful that because of COVID mandates and Christians leave the church, that everyone’s mental health is definitely going to get worse.
In fact, I remember how because of the hardships of Paul that the Gospel was furthered, not because attendance was high. Because of true persecution in the Middle East, Christianity spread throughout the world. And when Jesus showed up, it was not always happiness and peace, yet it was good. Maybe we need to look to see if the Church is furthering the mission of Christ to all people and my hope is that we can do more, better for those who struggle with mental illness and substance misuse, just as Jesus is recorded for seeking out not those who are well, but those who are hurting and broken.
This is a call to my Christian brothers and sisters, understand what is actually being said. And publishers, we really need to do better with what we publish.