The doctoral students in the back row objected when I showed compelling demographic data that regular church attenders live, on the average, about 8 years longer than those who don't attend a faith community.(1) They noted, rightly, that the study was quite old (they were kind enough not to point out that I am also quite old), and that there may be lifestyle variables that account for the differences.
So I headed back to the library to find a more recent study. It wasn't difficult. A 2016 study following 700,000 women over 20 years showed similar findings.(2) Those who attended religious services weekly revealed a 26% reduced risk of death during the 20 year interval. Lifestyle choices such as smoking and drinking mattered some, but didn't explain the vast differences between attenders and non-attenders.
Being a computer geek, I made a graph comparing the hazard ratios of eating potatoes, which we often hear is bad for our health, being lonely, and going to church.(3) These involve three different studies, all robust and peer-reviewed, reminding me how much human interaction matters. Even more than French fry consumption, apparently.
It's probably not enough of a reason to go to church--just hoping to live longer--but these findings punctuate the importance of community. Wendell Berry, the poet, novelist, and farmer, described community like this:
A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.(4)
In fairness, Berry himself is likely not a churchgoer (he describes himself as a "forest Christian"), but he certainly understands the benefits and challenges of community.
Today Lisa Graham McMinn and I went to a lovely service at our small country church where we celebrated recent high school graduates, sang and prayed together, visited before and after service, and pondered what it means that Someone Bigger Than Us (aka, God) may look at us with love and care in the midst of whatever challenges, successes, and failures we face.
Returning to Berry's definition, we shared a mental and spiritual place with Friends, where we are known and have concern for one another, where we (more or less) trust each other and experience a deep human fellowship as we come and go from the place we share together each Sunday morning.
We may live longer because of it, as the science seems to suggest, or we may not, as my skeptical students might think. Either way, I can't imagine a better way to spend Sunday mornings.
And yes, we skipped out on the barbecue lunch after service. We had our excuses--being introverts, having other things to do, along with a few others. Who knows, we may have lost a few hours or days of longevity with the decision.
1 Robert A. Hummer, Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison. “Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality.” Demography 36(2) (1999): 273-85.
2 Shanshan Li, Meir J. Stampfer, David R. Williams, and Tyler J. VanderWeele. “Association of Religious Service Attendance With Mortality Among Women.” JAMA Internal Medicine 176(6) (2016): 777-784.
3 Hazard ratios show relative risks and benefits for mortality, but cannot be used to determine cause and effect. We can't know with certainty that church attendance causes people to live longer.
4 Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012). Original version published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich in 1969, p. 71.