Hope for a Worn-Out Church

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“Right now the pastors I know are simply overwhelmed trying to comprehend where their churches are and where they are headed in light of COVID-19 and the hyperspeed with which our culture is changing.” This was the response of a pastor we asked to help us put together a winter 2021 Science for the Church event for clergy. He continued, “The pastors I engage with are worn out, uncertain of which members they’ve lost [it’s truly so hard to tell] and unsure what the future holds for their congregation post-COVID. I know that is true for me as well.” Are there signs of hope for the church after COVID?

Leading a church already had its own set of challenges. Add 18 months of pandemic, social upheaval, and political unrest, and it is indeed overwhelming. Part of what makes it so difficult is that both pastors and their congregations are overwhelmed and worn out.

The data on depression and mental health bear this out. Our collective mental health is not good.

This outcome was anticipated as a result of months of pandemic lockdown in 2020. Things are a bit better now. We have tests, treatments, and vaccines. The economy remains volatile, but it has not collapsed. And hallelujah, most of our churches are gathering again in person.

Yet recent data suggests that one year into the pandemic, when many of us were quite optimistic about the vaccine rollout and decreasing rates of infection and death, key mental health measures have worsened. Depression rates in the US population, which were 8.5% before the pandemic, increased from 27.8% in March/April 2020 to 32.8% a year later.

That’s 1-in-3 Americans who are worn out with diagnosable symptoms of depression.

Going to Church is Good for Us

For decades, churches and pastors have been on the front lines of offering mental health care for members of their flocks. They often do this with inadequate training, but with best intentions to minister to depression, anxiety, addiction, and even more serious mental health disorders. Ironically, this has been true even in congregations that do not give mental health the attention it requires.

At the same time, pastors and the church, simply by doing what the body of Christ does when it gathers each and every week, were caring for the mental health of their parishioners. The data is striking showing links between regular church attendance and improved measures of well-being. This short journal article (4 pages sans footnotes) by Harvard’s Tyler J. VandeWeele is worth a read anytime you question what good church does. The mounting evidence from decades of research suggests that going to church is indeed good for us. For most of us, the benefits, it seems, far outweigh any negative effects, although those negative effects are significant for some.

Here are some highlights:

  • Regular church attendance over a lifetime translates into approximately seven additional years of life.
  • It is associated with less smoking, drinking, and drug use which benefit overall health.
  • Regular attendance leads to 20%–30% lower rates of depression and 3- to 6-fold lower rates of suicide.
  • Life satisfaction, lower divorce rates, and a greater sense of meaning and purpose also seem to be connected to weekly church attendance.

The ways prayer, hope, gratitude, and forgiveness confer health benefits are only indirectly accounted for in this data. So, whenever the church is successful in disciple-making, there may be further benefits.

Psychologist Erin Smith told me, “There is nothing magical about showing up at the church building. Attendance alone isn’t it. In research, ‘religious attendance’ is a proxy for the ‘black box’ of activities that are packaged into ‘church.’” She specifically emphasized the benefits of social support, either real or perceived, that we get from membership in a healthy faith community.

What’s more, while most of these benefits of regular religious participation have been correlations, recent evidence is beginning to show causal links (read that VanderWeele paper to learn more). The evidence is so strong (even after accounting for some negative associations, especially for those in unhealthy congregations) that VanderWeele suggested it should motivate those leaving our churches to reconsider.

  • Clergy self-care is important. Here is a list of strategies to help a worn-out pastor.
  • Lifeway Research offers tips on how to care for those suffering from depression.
  • Whether for yourself or your congregation, we encourage every pastor to build relationships with mental health professionals so he or she doesn’t have to care for a worn-out church alone. Contact us if you want help finding mental health resources.

Our Source of Hope

I learned recently that hope is one of the better antidotes for depression. It is vital for both pastors and congregations that are overwhelmed, worn out, and depressed.

The fear of folks quitting church did not begin with the pandemic. New data from immediately prior to it confirms what many of us already feel, especially those of us in smaller congregations. The last 18 months haven’t improved the situation and likely added new challenges to keeping our pews full.

But our hope does not come from church growth or full pews; it comes from Jesus Christ. Jesus entered into our suffering, and, through his resurrection, offered us a promise of a better life to come. One way we experience the hope of Christ is when the faithful gather, both in-person and virtually, for weekly worship. The size of the gathering is not what matters, but the grace of God. Continuing to do what we do—worship, fellowship, social support, and formation—and doing it as well as we can has been shown again and again to benefit the faithful.

For a worn-out church, shrouded by ominous clouds, maybe this is a ray of light shining into our darkness.

(Thank you to David Wang and Erin Smith for their help in preparing this week’s newsletter.)



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