The Story: Americans’ latest assessment of their mental health is worse than it’s been at any point in the last two decades, according to a new Gallup poll. However, frequent churchgoers show the least mental-health change of any demographic surveyed.
The Background: For nearly two decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether their own mental or emotional wellbeing is excellent, good, only fair, or poor. During that period, those ranking their mental health as excellent or good ranged from 81 percent to 89 percent. This year, though, that dropped to 76 percent.
A majority of adults continue to rate their mental health as excellent (34 percent) or good (42 percent), and far fewer say it is only fair (18 percent) or poor (5 percent). But for most demographic subgroups, fewer rate their mental health as excellent compared to previous years.
Women and Democrats, lower-income Americans, young adults, the unmarried, and those who seldom or never attend religious services have the lowest “excellent” ratings. Those who attend religious services nearly weekly/monthly reported a 12 percent decline compared to last year, while those who attend seldom/never had a decline of 13 percent. The only demographic subgroup who didn’t report a decline were those who attend religious services weekly. That group showed an increase of 4 percent compared to 2019.
The only demographic subgroup who didn’t report a decline [in mental health] were those who attend religious services weekly. That group showed an increase of 4 percent compared to 2019.
Why It Matters: Over the past 20 years, social-science research has continued to show the benefit of religiosity on a range of issues concerning well-being and flourishing, including mental and physical health. As Tyler VanderWeele and John Siniff wrote in 2016 USA Today op-ed “Religion May Be a Miracle Drug”: “If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans—at no personal cost—what value would our society place on it?”
As TGC has often noted, church is good for your health. In May, Rebecca McLaughlin wrote an article about how “Going to Church Could Save Your Life.” Included among numerous other findings, she points out that women who attend weekly religious services are at least once a week were five-times less likely to commit suicide than those who never attended. (McLaughlin expands on these findings and implications in her forthcoming book, The Secular Creed: Engaging 5 Contemporary Claims, scheduled for release in April at TGC21.)
And in September, TGC editorial director Collin Hanson interviewed Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an expert on the decline of American religiosity. Stone said that while the pandemic was having a negative effect on religiosity, it could also help to spark a religious revival: “We need to be saying, ‘When you were alone at home, I wasn’t. While you were lonely, my church was looking out for me. While you were afraid, I had a hope no matter what happened.’”
“I know that sounds a bit belligerent to say, but frankly, we should be saying this,” Stone added. “We should be communicating the benefits of God’s good things in our life. And one of those good things is that he has created the visible community of the church. All too often, we present evangelism as like, ‘You’ll have these feelings and then God will save you.’ But part of what we should be saying is, ‘Your life will be better with . . .’—not in like a prosperity-gospel sense, but in like a ‘bad things happen; this is one of the ways we deal with them’ sense.”
Stone’s suggestion may make some Christians uncomfortable. Isn’t selling people on the idea that churchgoing leads to a better life—a form of “prosperity-gospel lite”—a big reason we have so many nominal Christians in the pews? There is also the danger, as McLaughlin notes, that such research could be “weaponized to shame struggling Christians.”
Frequent churchgoers aren’t merely benefiting from a useful delusion or a sense of community. They are finding the relief—the psychological and spiritual relief—that comes from aligning oneself with the true and ultimate reality.
What benefit, then, is this research for evangelism? I think it can serve an apologetic function, using verifiable experience to confirm the validity of Christian truth. In this way it can work as what Francis Schaeffer called “pre-evangelism.” How unbelievers think about and engage the world is at odds with reality. Pre-evangelism can be a way of finding the points of tension between their view of the world and the world as it really is, so that we can show them the truth.
“Francis Schaeffer taught that when we find such points of tension, we should gently push the conversation toward the logical implications of the non-Christian assumption that has been made,” Mark Pickering says. “As we do this, it will become increasingly obvious that the world is not actually like that. Most people have not thought deeply about their non-Christian beliefs and it may well surprise them to hear their own thoughts as we encourage them to think out loud.”
Why do those who don’t attend church struggle so much with despair? Why can’t their internal reality match with what they believe about the external world (e.g., that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe)? What are people finding in church that they can’t find anywhere else? The answer, of course, is Jesus.
Frequent churchgoers aren’t merely benefiting from a useful delusion or a sense of community. They are finding the relief—the psychological and spiritual relief—that comes from aligning oneself with the true and ultimate reality. What we find in frequent worship services is helping us fulfill the purpose of life, what we could call biblical happiness: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We don’t go to church to feel happy; we go to church to seek the source of our happiness (Ps. 16:11).