Almost every day I read about life post-COVID-19. That’s really no surprise: vaccines are starting to enter our bodies, states are loosening their restrictions, and we’ve hit the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, all of which seem to signal a beginning of new life. For some, it’s almost like Lent is ending, and we’re experiencing a foretaste of Easter.
As a result, there’s a particular question that’s going through my brain. When the effects of the pandemic subside—and when we can safely do so—should we go back to church? What do science and Scripture say?
Whether It’s Good to Go to Church
Scientific research generally supports the conclusion that an active religious life is good for human health. And, as far as I can tell, the most important parts of religious life are what COVID is restricting, which makes these questions particularly relevant, something Drew wrote about last March, “When the Body Cannot Gather.” When we gather as a worshipping community—singing, hugging, praying, and simply being present with one another—those things (and others like them) are good for us, body and soul.
By “good,” I mean that religious life correlates statistically with the following outcomes. (It’s important to mention that these are statistical correlations for groups, not for any one individual.)
- Going to church is generally good for physical health. Religiously active people tend to sleep better, are less likely to commit suicide, and as Harvard Epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele has found, live longer.
- It’s good for mental health, boosting resilience and happiness, a link that Fuller Seminary psychologist Pamela Ebstyne King has studied extensively, especially among adolescents.
- Finally, it promotes prosocial behavior: Again to quote Dr. King, “Most religions affirm acts of mercy and compassion—tending to the poor, ill, and marginalized. Not surprisingly, these types of prosocial attitudes and behaviors were more often linked to being spiritual….”
Scripture describes key practices that define the best of what it means “to go the church.” (How these correspond with the general practice in 21st century America is a topic worthy of more attention.) The New Testament record of Jesus’s first followers shows that they shared life (including their finances), ate together, and met regularly to worship (Acts 2:44-46). Secondly, they could clearly tell you why God gathered them, and they encouraged other Christ-followers to come together: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
- Since this newsletter is full of good news, now the bad news: Barna Group’s research indicates about 30% of pre-pandemic church attenders don’t plan to come back and thus about 20% of congregations might close.
- Here’s a positive approach to those congregational realities.
- More bad news: While SftC believes science and Scripture work together against racism, Robert Jones, commenting on research conducted by PRRI, has discovered a correlation between frequent church attendance and racial prejudice.
- These will most certainly preach—an active religious life correlates with improved mental and physical health, promotes prosocial and civic behaviors, and simply put, seems to be good for us.
- Theologian Mike Langford has thought through the implications (both positive and negative) of virtual church.
On the Way to New Life in Church
Is it good to go to church? Yes overall, but lest I sound too positive, I’ll note there’s at least one catch identified by both Scripture and science: Jesus reminded us that we should not pray and give money—i.e., “do our religious life—to be seen by others” (Matthew 6). Put another way, our religiosity (to use the academic term) needs to be “intrinsic” and not “extrinsic. As I’ve mentioned other places, It cannot be something we do for someone else.
With that in mind, we have to bring the right intentions to worship along with the best insights from scripture and science. What will that look like? We’ve learned a great deal in the past year that can help:
- We can continue to use online technology for worship, outreach, and education. For example, virtual church can continue to introduce newcomers to your worship service. To quote pastor and SftC team member, Dave Navarra, that back pew—where people sit to check out a congregation—“just got a lot larger.”
- The same media that creates virtual space and community has made adult discipleship offerings profoundly easy. I’m doing a Lenten spirituality class right now on “Growing Spiritually in Scientific Age” while Drew is teaching on the science of forgiveness. It’s worth adding that neither Drew or I need to be in the same zip code to teach those courses.
- Through technology, we can also connect with missionaries abroad as well as the global church.
At the same time, we know better what we’ve missed in the past year. Here’s how to double down on those lessons:
- As we continue to leverage the benefits of being online, don’t forget the value of being physically together in the same room.
- Take time to sing together, which has been shown to be profoundly bonding.
- Be sure to engage the body—through the sacraments specifically and movement in worship more generally, and perhaps in doing church outside.
Scripture and science inform a Yes to the question: Is it good to go to church? Our experience in the past year also gives us new insights into how to flourish when the Body can gather again.