The Incredible Connection Between In-Person Church Attendance and Spiritual, Mental, and Physical Health
By Wes Beavis
I recently attended a Bible study that didn’t sit right with me. That is saying something because, since graduating from theological college decades ago, I have attended many small-group studies. From youth camps to prisons, I thought there was little chance I could be surprised by a small-group experience. So, what happened? What made this experience so peculiar?
Like many churches, we emphasize the need for people to be part of a small group. As we all know, the advancement of COVID-19 has led churches to put the brakes on meeting together in person. So when my wife, Ellie, and I heard that our church was recommencing in-person Bible study groups—not virtual, not Zoom-based—we were enthusiastic to sign up. The in-person groups were to be held at various locations around the church campus.
Leading up to the night, we imagined how wonderful the experience would be. We both missed people! After such a long drought of personal contact, the thought of being side-by-side with other believers and studying God’s Word was exciting. Even if we had to wear masks, it was a small price to pay. Ellie and I were just craving some close proximity with fellow Christ followers.
On launch night we headed to the room at our church building where our small-group Bible study was to meet. Upon entering, something felt amiss. It was not the leaders. They were well prepared. It was not the people. They were wonderful. It was the layout of the chairs, which had been carefully arranged in a circle, positioned six feet apart. I am not an expert in geometry, but when you place 16 chairs in a circle with six feet between each chair, you can say goodbye to any sense of group intimacy. It felt weird. Everyone felt it. It was difficult to hear the person on the other side of the circle. I lost track of how many times someone said, “Could you say that again? We couldn’t hear you over here!” We were together but not really together.
There was a cognitive dissonance at work. We were trying to be a group of believers huddled together in Christian unity. Yet, the six-foot gap warned, “avoid getting too close to the person next to you.”
From the perspective of being a responsible citizen of the community at large, I totally understand the need for geographical distance between people. The church was being responsible in following mandates aimed at reducing the spread of a harmful virus. However, as a clinical psychologist who has counseled many people struggling with anxiety and depression due to social-distancing mandates, I knew the layout of the room was grating against how God created us.
Physical closeness is paramount to soul connection. When was the last time you went to a wedding where the bride and groom said their vows to each other while standing six feet apart?
I know how powerful appropriate human touch can be in the clinical setting [special emphasis on the word appropriate]. Some time ago I was counseling a U.S. Army veteran who had been ravaged by the atrocities of war in the Middle East. A recent event had triggered an adverse mental reaction causing him to relive his battlefield trauma. He crumpled in the counseling chair. I could see he was mentally drawing into a fetal position—feeling like he was all alone—taking incoming fire from intrusive dark thoughts.
At that point he needed something more substantive than words, more effective than a calming voice. I reached out and pulled him to his feet. Then I administered a therapeutic intervention that I reserve for only the most critical of situations—I gave him a hug. He sobbed as I hugged. It was the turn-around moment in the counseling session. Something happened in that moment that made him feel safe and not alone. It was a reminder there is healing in appropriate physical contact.
Scripture Affirms It
Jesus told many parables. The one I use most frequently in my clinical practice is the parable of the lost son. Perhaps that is because there is a little bit (or a lot) of “prodigal” within each of us. The pertinent part of that parable in our context is this:
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:19-20).
Notice the dialogue between the son and father as they reconnected. The son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). Then the father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. . . .” (v. 22). Hey, wait a minute! What’s missing here?
Jesus doesn’t mention the father saying anything directly to his son. Not even “I’m so glad you’re home!” or “I have missed you so much.” He did not need to. The father’s actions said it all: He ran to his son (diminishing social distancing with every step), threw his arms around him, and kissed him. Embedded in the father’s embrace was forgiveness, acceptance, and healing.
Polls and Science Confirm It
A 2020 Gallup poll on the mental health impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic revealed something remarkable when compared with the results from a similar pre-pandemic study from 2019. It was discovered that in most every demographic category—gender, political affiliation, race, marital status, age, household income—people’s mental health declined. COVID-19 quite obviously has had a deleterious effect on people’s mental health. On some level, the virus has been harmful to everyone. So, what did the newer Gallup poll reveal that was noteworthy?
The poll covered 19 categories of people. In 18 of those categories, people’s mental health declined. But in one category, people reported improved mental health during 2020. Poll respondents who reported they attended religious services on a weekly basis during 2020 actually saw a 4 percent mental health increase. By comparison, people whose attendance at religious services was more sporadic or negligible suffered a significant decline in mental health (down 12 percent) during 2020.
Empirical evidence suggests that consistent church attendance has a measurable positive impact on the mental health of people. So, going to church—that is, connecting closely with others and affirming and growing your faith within the context of the Christian community—is not only essential for spiritual growth, it can be essential for your mental health.
A growing body of scientific research also supports the notion that being actively engaged in a church community is good for physical health. A metastudy that examined scientific literature from 1980 to 2014 (published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2015) revealed the likelihood of mortality increases due to social isolation (29 percent) and loneliness (26 percent). Another study (published in Redox Biology, October 2020) implicated social isolation and loneliness as playing a role in stress-induced cardiovascular disease.
Science attests to the capacity of the church community being an antidote to social isolation, loneliness, cardiovascular disease, and the higher mortality rates associated with doing life alone. In short, by engaging with a community of Christ followers weekly, we position ourselves to live longer and healthier.
Our Experiences Bear Witness to It
As a young pastor, I served under the leadership of Barry McMurtrie, senior pastor emeritus of Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California. When Barry was senior pastor of Wollongong Church of Christ in Australia, he had the practice of finishing the Sunday evening service by encouraging people to link hands across the auditorium. He would then pray God’s blessing over everyone.
One elderly lady faithfully showed up every Sunday evening. Barry suggested to her she might prefer the early morning service, since it was quieter and not so robust musically. She replied, “I cope with the loud music because the prayer at the end of the service makes it all worthwhile. It’s the only time in my week that somebody holds my hand.”
There is a reason why “contactless” Bible study felt strange to me. It is because social distance is antithetical to intimacy—and God designed us for intimacy. Forgiveness, healing, acceptance, and a dozen other factors that contribute to mental and physical health are conveyed through close human connection. The father of the prodigal son exhibited that. He restored his son’s crushed spirit with one embrace. The power of human touch and proximal closeness has been programmed into us by God for our benefit.
Will we ever get back to greeting each other with a hug, sitting close to one another, or holding hands as we pray? Yes! Maybe not this week, but one day. When we do, we won’t take it for granted like we did in 2019.
Dr. Wes Beavis has served as a pastor in Restoration Movement churches in both the United States and Australia. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping ministry leaders navigate the leadership journey. He has clinical expertise in diagnosing and treating the symptoms of ministry burnout, depression, anxiety, and helping ministry leaders transform negative stress into positive stress. His latest book is Let’s Talk About Ministry Burnout: A Proven Research-based Approach to the Wellbeing of Pastors. Learn more at www.drwesbeavis.com. Contact him via text at (949) 246-7836.