When it comes to religious institutions, Americans exhibit some contradiction between their beliefs and their actions.
On the one hand, the vast majority feel that churches and other houses of worship are powerful forces for societal good: according to the Pew Research Center, almost nine in ten Americans say that religious institutions “bring people together and strengthen community bonds” and “play an important role in helping the poor and needy,” while three-quarters believe they “protect and strengthen morality in society.”
Americans’ bullishness on the positive impact of religious institutions, however, doesn’t fully extend to their active participation in them: only half attend religious services on a monthly basis, and even fewer attend weekly.
This number is naturally lowest among those without a particular religious affiliation — a cohort that has been growing in size over the past decade. “Nones,” as they are called, now represent 23% of the population (including over a third of Millennials), about a quarter of which consists of agnostics and atheists, with the rest being those who are simply religiously unaffiliated. Only 4% of these Nones attend religious services weekly, with 24% attending monthly, and almost three-fourths attending seldom to never.
But even among those who are affiliated with a religion, regular attendance at their faith’s services is rarer than one might think. Only 46% of the religiously affiliated attend services every week, with another 35% saying they go 1-2 times a month, and 18% reporting they go seldom to never. Among Millennials, the number is much lower; only about 27% attend services weekly.
When all groups are combined, only 36% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis (and as we’ve discussed previously, significantly less of this percentage is made up of men). That represents a small but significant 3% drop in attendance over the last decade.
Recent decline aside, service attendance has been low for much longer than that. Gallup surveys, which peg the percentage of people who currently go to church or synagogue weekly or almost weekly at 38%, show that even 25 years ago, that number was still only 44%. And if you read books from the early 20th century, and even farther back, the authors remark on how few people were going to church even then.
Church has been a hard sell for a long time.
But there’s still a really good case to be made for going. And not just for the devout or orthodox, either.
Note: In the rest of this article, we will use “church” when referring to religious services, as Christianity-based religious institutions are what almost ¾ of Americans would participate in, if they participated. But the principles outlined apply to attendance at all houses of worship, including mosques, synagogues, etc.
Why Don’t People Go to Church?
We’ve explained why men don’t go to church as often as women, but why doesn’t the majority of either sex go?
A decline in belief seems like the most obvious answer, and while it does explain part of the reason people aren’t attending religious services, it doesn’t explain everything.
The overall rate of church attendance in the U.S. hasn’t declined recently because the ranks of the religiously affiliated are going to church less; belief and practice among this group has actually pretty much held steady over the last decade, and in some areas (though not church attendance), increased. Rather, it’s gone down because the population’s proportion of Nones — who attend church very rarely — has increased.
Yet, contrary to popular assumption (and their negative sounding moniker), Nones don’t eschew all connection to the transcendent and many still evince theistic leanings: 61% believe in God, 40% say they regularly experience feelings of spiritual peace and well-being, over a third say religion is either very or somewhat important to them, and 20% pray daily. So the religiously unaffiliated aren’t wholly nonbelieving; rather, this is a cohort who is likely to describe themselves as “spiritual rather than religious” — and to associate church attendance solely with the latter label.
Thus while a weakening in belief amongst Nones has indeed played a role in decreasing church attendance, so has a general disassociation between belief and the necessity of making some of the outward manifestations traditionally associated with it — like going to church. Even if those in this group experience religious impulses, they don’t feel the need to structure them within the confines of an organized religion.
Weakening of belief is even less of a factor among those who are religiously affiliated, but have been going to church less often than in the past. Rather than citing doubt or theological questions, this cohort, who make up 22% of the religiously affiliated, point to more practical reasons for why they’ve been skipping out on services more often lately: a good church isn’t close by, they’re too busy or admittedly “too lazy,” or there are simply other things they’d rather do instead.
For both groups, then, the common driver behind a lack of church attendance is a rising sense of its optionality. Those who are religiously inclined, feel like church attendance can readily be dropped for the sake of convenience, or substituted, without loss, for a more pleasurable activity. Theistic Nones feel like spiritualty and church-going are not inseparably connected and that the former can be cultivated without the latter. And nonbelieving Nones think church isn’t something that is at all relevant to them.
Whereas going to church once constituted a central cultural, social, and civic institution, it’s now something to take or leave, depending on one’s beliefs, personality, and schedule. A non-essential for living the good life.
There’s certainly no putting this cultural cat back in the bag. But I’d still like to make a controversial, countercultural, admittedly quixotic case that, optional though it may be, regular church attendance functions as one of the best keys for anyone wishing to create a flourishing life — not just the religiously inclined, but even agnostics and atheists as well.
I’d like to make a non-religious case for religiously attending religious services.
The Benefits of Regular Church Attendance
For those who are already religiously affiliated, the purpose of church services is obvious: to worship God. Yet for more than half of this nominally faithful demographic, this raison d’etre is seemingly insufficient to compel their butts into pews each Sunday. Thus for them, the “secular” benefits of church attendance outlined below will hopefully add another layer of motivation for going.
For the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, I invite you to consider these benefits in light of the possibility that spirituality may in fact thrive most when given a little structure — a prism for focusing one’s feelings, intentions, and thoughts in a more consistent and fruitful direction.
And for the agnostics and atheists, who will surely be the hardest to convince(!), I propose looking at church like something of an anthropologist — seeing it as a common organizing principle of society, weighing whether it might not just be the best possible vehicle for meeting universal human needs, and contemplating the idea that one can admit to having those needs, and rationally accede to fulfilling them through this particular channel, without wholly assenting to their theological foundations.
For all these groups stand to benefit from the myriad social, psychological, physical, mental, and spiritual benefits church attendance has to offer.
Greater Social Support
Anyone who’s graduated from college and headed out into the real world can tell you one thing: making friends in adulthood is dang hard.
It’s quite a bit easier though, if you go to church.
Experts say that two of the three keys to fostering friendships are “repeated and unplanned interactions” and “a setting that encourages vulnerability.” Church amply provides both.
You see the same people every weekend, without having to plan to see them (and trying to sync your crazy schedules to make a meet-up happen). “Repeated and unplanned interactions” obviously happen in the context of things like work and the gym too, but church has the added benefit that its participants don’t just feel moved to get to know people if the mood strikes, but consider themselves duty bound to foster a tight community; they see fellowshipping as part and parcel of the whole purpose of church. Principles of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, charity, confession, and unity underpin congregants’ efforts to get to know each other, and even if they don’t always succeed in being animated by these lofty impulses, such virtues still function as touchstones and ideals that inform their relationships. In other words, church provides a “setting that encourages vulnerability” in a way few others can match.
Church isn’t just a good place to make some buddies either, but to simply extend and deepen your bench of social connections as well. As The New York Times reports, “A study conducted in North Carolina found that frequent churchgoers had larger social networks, with more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those people than their unchurched counterparts.” Getting to know different people, from different walks of life, widens the roster of people you can call on should you find yourself looking for work, or needing advice, or beset with a familial crisis.
In a time of greater isolation and shrinking social circles, when people lack face-to-face contact and have few they can turn to when in trouble, churches provide a last bastion for intimate, close-knit community.
A Chance to Remember/Reorient/Reflect/Re-center
There are a lot of things that sound great in the abstract — things I think will work in theory, but don’t pan out in practice.
I want to believe that I can still be just as productive if I don’t plan my week. But I’m not.
I want to believe I can get just as strong without counting my macros. But when I don’t watch what I eat, I just get fat.
And I want to believe I can be spiritual without being religious, without going to church – because how seemingly great would it be to have a robust spiritual life without having to take on any of the time-requiring responsibilities and inconvenient disciplines required by attaching your beliefs to an institution?
But alas, through experiment and experience, I’ve found that I simply can’t maintain my spiritual life on as high a plane without giving it some structure.
We all feel like we hypothetically should be able to keep our moral compasses pointed north, our minds on deep matters, our hearts looking for ways to help others in the absence of external check-ins and prompts. But day-to-day life has a terrible way of intervening with our best intentions: we sacrifice ethics on the altar of convenience; we pay attention to what’s urgent instead of contemplating the infinite; we turn increasingly inward, and end up thinking far more about ourselves, than others.
The reality is that we’re forgetful creatures who need regular tune-ups to keep our course. Without such, earthly, immediate concerns crowd out everything higher, something even research bears out: folks who are not religiously affiliated are less likely than those who are to think about the meaning and purpose of life.
Weekly church attendance invites us to reflect on our gratitude for the good things in our lives, reinforces our moral values, fosters reverence and humility, and re-focuses us on our larger purpose. It’s a chance to re-center and re-orient our lives.
There is, after all, only so far you can get off track in seven days.
The structure provided by weekly church attendance constitutes a spiritual discipline, and services typically offer encouragement towards the tackling of others: prayer, alms-giving, meditation, scripture study, fasting, etc.
Aspects of the service itself also develop inner discipline: you’re often encountering one of the few things in modern life not tailored to your personal demands, and your restless monkey mind must weather pockets of boredom without checking your phone. It’s a chance to recalibrate your attention span. It’s a chance to engage with the thing we try to avoid in all other areas of our life: friction.
The discipline you build at church will further extend into your pursuits outside of it; research shows that when you increase willpower in one area of your life, you can employ its newfound strength in others.
This increase in grit may be one reason why doubling the rate of religious attendance raises household income by 9.1 percent, a finding that holds even when other variables are controlled for.
The Rhythms of Ritual and Routine
In our corporatized, homogeneous, very flat-feeling postmodern world, one of the most underappreciated benefits of church attendance is the capacity of this ritual to add a little texture to our lives.
To step through the threshold of many churches is to feel one has left the “profane” world in which one almost entirely lives, moves, and has their being, and entered into a bit of sacred time and space. It can be a pocket of existence that feels refreshingly different from ordinary life; stained glass windows replace fuzzy cubicle board; candlelight displaces the glow of screens; ancient words supplant current headlines. The liturgy lends regenerating seasonality to a world that otherwise runs relentlessly, linearly along like the ticker at the bottom of a 24/7 news channel — constantly novel, yet stultifying uniform.
Even in attending churches that strenuously work to make their edifices not feel any different than what you would encounter at the mall or movie theater, there’s still something to be said for the simple satisfaction of having a weekly routine. Though it can sometimes feel annoying to get the kids ready and out the door for a service, such a family tradition creates the ebbs and flows that ultimately function as a hedge against anomie.
According to a study on the effect of religious service attendance on relationship quality, couples who attend church together are more likely to be happy, than couples who don’t. This holds true even when controlling for differences in race, age, education, marital status, region, and other factors. The study’s author, W. Bradford Wilcox, further importantly notes “that some of the benefits of religious participation appear to be temporal, not spiritual, and hold even for churchgoers who may be uncertain about their own devotion.”
Why does church attendance enhance a relationship? Going to church reinforces a couple’s shared values, lends the relationship a higher purpose, and establishes a tradition in which the pair spend time together – all things that build a solid marital friendship and contribute to a healthy relationship bank account.
Church also facilitates the making of shared friends. As Wilcox reports, “men and women who have more than half of their friends at the same religious congregation are about 11 percentage points more likely to report they are very happy in their relationships than those who do not.” Why? “Enjoying shared friendships in a religious congregation may boost relationship quality by giving such couples a sense of belonging and community, as well as other models of successful relationships.”
Church further enhances happy marriages by encouraging couples to pray together. Those that do “are 17 percentage points more likely to say they are very happy together,” likely because joint prayer “fosters a heightened sense of emotional intimacy, communication and reflection about relationship priorities and concerns, and a sense of divine involvement in one’s relationship.” It seems the old aphorism may have had it right all along: couples who pray together, stay together.
Interestingly enough, it should be noted that couples where the man attends church, but his wife does not, are also happier than both couples where neither partner attends, and where just the woman attends. Why? When a woman attends solo, she may feel resentful that her partner is absent, and disappointed that her husband doesn’t measure up to the models of manhood she sees at church. However, when just the man attends, he’s less likely to care that his wife is MIA, and the services leave him more motivated to reengage and invest in his family.
This dynamic also holds for parents’ ability to pass on their faith tradition to their children. When a father attends church alone while his kids are growing up, they’re not only more likely to become churchgoers themselves in adulthood than if just mom attends, but even when mom and dad go together!
Develops Successful, Well-Rounded Kids
Even if instilling your faith into your children isn’t a big concern for you, you should know that numerous studies show that church attendance offers them a whole lot of other benefits and has a profoundly positive impact on their life.
Kids who regularly attend church have higher GPAs, complete more years of schooling, do better in college, are less likely to use drugs or alcohol, commit a crime, or get in trouble at school, and go on to have lower rates of divorce in adulthood.
This isn’t simply a case of correlation, where smart, well-disciplined, privileged kids are more likely to attend church in the first place and thus skew the results. The effect of church attendance can be seen when tracked solely within low-income communities, and becomes more positive the more the poverty level rises.
The effect isn’t largely a function of specific doctrine being taught in churches, either. It’s seen across faiths, suggesting that the causal factor is really to be found in the overarching routines and habits church attendance helps cultivate. As mentioned above, going to church builds discipline, and this is no less true for kids than adults. Children need to get dressed up and out the door, sit reverently during the service, and endure a little boredom. Church teachings typically reinforce moral principles, and often encourage kids to work hard, stay out of trouble, cultivate healthy habits, look to the future optimistically, and think about the kind of people they want to be when they grow up. Children are commonly asked to make commitments that help develop self-control and the capacity for delayed gratification.
This capacity for commitment and discipline seemingly transfers over to “secular” areas of children’s lives, strengthening their other habits, and solidifying a foundation that helps launch them toward good character and success.
Access to positive role models likely also plays a role in why church attendance helps shape well-rounded kids. As we’ve discussed previously, children ideally need three “families” in their lives to grow up well. Their immediate family has a huge impact, but kids also benefit enormously from being surrounded by other adult role models – mentors who can contribute advice and be an example in a way that’s different from a child’s own parents, and thus uniquely nourishing.
The Rare Chance for Communal Singing
Singing together used to be fairly common; people would gather around the piano in a parlor and belt out some tunes simply as a way to pass the time.
Today, if you’re not a regular churchgoer, you probably rarely, if ever, sing along with other people.
Which is a shame. Communal singing is truly one of life’s great pleasures. It’s a chance for a singular kind of emotive, spirit-elevating expression that finds outlet nowhere else. And the vibrations you send out, reverberate back, producing an effect that brings harmony to your health. Singing with others releases pleasure-producing endorphins as well oxytocin, which lower stress and ward off anxiety and depression.
Singing with others also bonds you together with others in a unique way — quite literally as it turns out; studies show that the heartbeats of those signing together sync up with the music and with each other. The oxytocin released further increases these feelings of connection and trust, which is why group signing has been shown to lessen feelings of loneliness.
Breaches Your Echo Chamber and Connects You With People From Different Walks of Life
There’s been a lot of talk these days about how people are cordoning themselves off into more and more self-selecting groups. The people they rub shoulders with all share the same race, age, socio-economic status, and beliefs. Whites hang out with whites, the college educated with the college educated, 20-somethings with 20-somethings, Democrats with Democrats — and vice versa down the line. The news that folks get is based on who they follow on social media (generally those with whom they already agree) and what shows up in their feeds, which is based on what they’ve “liked” in the past, and so skews to stories that affirm their preexisting ideology. There’s a legitimate fear that we’re all retreating into increasingly isolated echo chambers that are squeezing our minds into narrower and narrower chutes.
It might seem that churches would actually exacerbate this trend, rather than mitigate it. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. once called 11:00 am on Sunday morning “the most segregated hour in this nation,” and close to 90% of churches in America today remain pretty homogenous in the racial make-up of their membership. Many congregations select for income too; there are churches almost entirely attended by the middle and upper classes, and those almost entirely composed of those from the lower classes.
But even among racially homogeneous churches, the typical breakdown between the majority and minority segments of their membership is 80/20 — which, though it may not be super diverse, constitutes a greater mix than what’s found in many other realms in people’s lives (what’s the majority/minority breakdown of your suburban CrossFit box?). And racial diversity isn’t the only kind. Plenty of churches still attract folks from a wide range of places and stages in life: blue and white collar workers, folks of all ages, people on both sides of the political aisle. It’s a mix that, again, is often greater than what a lot people otherwise experience at work or at the gym or even within their entire neighborhood.
I honestly encounter a greater diversity of people and opinions at my church than in any other area of my life; its members are a motley crew — folks of different ages, socio-economic backgrounds, political beliefs, and disabilities — who truly help keep me from getting lost inside the echo chamber of my social media feeds and self-selected peer groups. It forces me to interact with folks I wouldn’t normally encounter or choose to hang out with; it pushes me to be patient with the old lady who makes rambling, 10-minute comments in Sunday school, be friendly with the autistic kid who wants me to be part of his imaginary rock band, and listen to the woes of the guy who lives on a different side of town. Church provides me a chance I otherwise wouldn’t get to exercise my capacity for empathy and understanding.
Contributes to Greater Free-Thinking and Your Diversity of Ideas
This may seem like another contradiction: don’t churches present a one-sided version of the truth, and typically discourage dissent from it?
But let’s go back to that echo chamber effect again: if you’re almost exclusively interacting with people who believe the same things you do, your thinking will end up far more limited than “free.”
Religion is another voice in the marketplace of ideas and if you’re truly dedicated to hearing and understanding all of them, then it’s one you should at least occasionally engage with. You can’t truly decide what you believe until you’ve examined all the possibilities.
That’s the philosophy embraced by a segment of atheist and agnostic scientists who work at top universities in the country and were surveyed by the sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund. Ecklund found that 17% of these nonbelieving researchers still went to church more than once a year. Why? Partly for solidarity with an attending spouse and partly out of the desire for community, but also because, rather than seeing attendance as contrary to their scientific identity, they saw going as part of it. As Ecklund explained in an interview with ABC News, “They want to teach their children to be free thinkers, to give them religious choices, and so they take their children to religious organizations just to give them exposure to religion.”
These nonbelieving scientists didn’t want to indoctrinate their kids with atheism any more than with religion; in allowing them to be exposed to all possible sources of knowledge, they let their kids make up their own minds and ensured their choice would be an informed one.
Sound thinking for kids, as well as adults.
Lessens Bitter Partisanship
The rise of secularism was supposed to pacify the culture wars. Instead, they’ve simply grown more rancorous.
As Peter Beinart incisively observes in The Atlantic Monthly, as the influence of traditional religion has waned, people have been transferring what is arguably an innate “religious” impulse — a penchant for higher purpose, strenuous ideals, and rigidly drawing lines between good and evil — towards the arena of politics. Issues of race, nation, and social justice are today being forwarded with the kind of single-minded, absolutist zeal once reserved for the principles of faith, a trend that has deepened bitter partisanship and made increasingly impossible the kind of consensus building and compromise necessary for a democracy to function.
This effect is seen not only amongst the wholly secular, but those who are nominally religious, but don’t regularly attend church. Perhaps this is because, as discussed above, church keeps people in touch with folks from different walks of life, and promotes a message of universal brotherhood that mitigates the acrimony that arises between different segments of society. For all groups, the decline in church attendance has eroded a shared language of love, charity, mercy, and forgiveness that formerly built bridges between those on opposite sides of the aisle. The civil rights movement, for example, grew out of black churches, and the fact that leaders like MLK employed the shared language of Christianity to promote the cause of black Americans, helped its message to breach the walls of whites. In contrast, the polarizing rhetoric of today’s identity politics — whether on the right or the left — appeals to little common ground, and alienates and divides, rather than unites.
Without the common touchstone of church attendance, Americans have lost part of their shared language, and seem destined to continue to talk past each other.
Ample Opportunities (and More Motivation) for Service
The idea that you’ll do service whether you’re going to church or not is another one of those things that sound great in the abstract, but rarely work out in reality. For certain, there are non-church attending folks who are self-motivated and find ways to tirelessly serve in their communities.
But a lot of folks, perhaps most, find they don’t follow through on their intention to get involved with charitable giving and organizations unless they’re encouraged to do so at church. Reams of research bear this fact out. Pew has found that “the 40% of Americans who describe themselves as ‘active’ in religious organizations…are more likely than other Americans to be involved in all types of volunteer and community groups, from sports leagues to arts groups, hobby clubs and alumni associations.” A comprehensive study by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam similarly found that those who attend religious services are more likely than their non-religious peers to volunteer not only within their church, but to help their community’s poor and elderly, mentor youth, work in schools, serve in hospitals, and even give blood.
While the religious might see this as a reason to crow about the fruits of their faith, Putnam and his co-author, David E. Campbell, found that this greater motivation to serve was not a result of doctrines preached from the pulpit. As Campbell reports, “we could find no evidence linking people’s theological beliefs and their rate of giving — which also helps to explain why the ‘religion effect’ varies little across different religions.”
Instead, Campbell reports, the link between church attendance and higher levels of service turns out to be a function of “the social networks formed within religious congregations. The more friends someone has within a religious congregation, the more likely that person is to give time, money, or both, to charitable causes.” As Putnam puts it, “Faith is less important than communities of faith.”
It makes sense. Not only is it easier to figure out what to do and how to get started with service when presented specific options for doing so at church, it’s also harder to say no when it’s a friend who asks you to get involved, and is counting on your participation in a project. Plus, it’s just more enjoyable to serve alongside people you like. This social expectation towards engagement extends to service beyond a church’s walls; seeing one’s buddies out serving in the larger community nudges you to join in.
Campbell poses the same question you may be asking: Could a secular organization “replicate the sort of tight, interlocking friendship networks found within religious organizations,” and thus have “the same effect on charitable giving…Or does the boost to charity found within religious congregations require religion?” “The jury,” he says, “is still out.”
Greater Mental and Physical Health
People who regularly attend church have lower blood pressure and higher immune systems, are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, show lower rates of depression and suicide, and are more likely to live longer than non-churchgoers. The more they attend, the greater this life-extending impact becomes, and the effect is found even when other variables are controlled for.
Researchers say it likely isn’t just one factor about going to church that creates these benefits to mind and body, but a combination of many of the things listed here, and the way they impact so many different areas of a person’s life. Positive peer pressure from fellow congregants, as well as church-sponsored addiction programs, may help people quit smoking or drinking. The kind of robust social support church provides has repeatedly been proven to bolster physical and mental health. The discipline learned at church can carry over into things like diet and exercise. Messages of hope and a sense of purpose may lift participants’ spirits.
And of course, there’s all that singing.
Answers to Queries and Objections
If you’ve made it this far, you might be taking some umbrage to one or more of the above points, and have some (possibly irate) questions/objections to pose. Allow me to preemptively respond to them.
Are these benefits the result of correlation rather than causation?
That’s a good question. When the benefits of X thing are laid out like this, one should definitely apply healthy skepticism to the claims, and inquire as to whether the effect of X is due to causation or correlation. In this case, the question on the table is: does church attendance make you healthier/happier, or are healthier/happier people simply more likely to attend church?
Know that the MIT economist Jonathan Gruber studied the data, and found that church attendance does indeed causally produce many of the above benefits.
Further, many of the studies cited did control for other variables that would have potentially skewed the results. Where such is the case, it was explicitly mentioned above.
With a few other of the studies cited, untangling causation and correlation is indeed difficult. Even in these cases, however, I think it’s worth pondering why it is that the healthier/happier crowd is more likely to go to church, and whether it might not be wise to follow where they’re headed.
The remaining observations are obviously simply anecdotal. Their resonance and mileage with you may vary.
But couldn’t I get the same benefits by participating in another kind of social/cultural/civic organization?
Hypothetically speaking? Certainly. Realistically though, getting the benefits of church in the absence of church would be difficult to accomplish for a few reasons.
First, even if you wanted to join one, there just aren’t that many non-religious community organizations to be a part of these days. Sixty years ago you had things the Freemasons and the Rotary club to participate in, but most civic or largely secular institutions have shriveled in membership or gone extinct (given the connection between church attendance and community engagement, we may surmise that they likely evaporated because church attendance has gone down, and that ironically enough, secular organizations depend on faith-based ones to thrive.)
Second, even where alternate communities do exist, like, say, a close-knit gym or a nonprofit, such groups don’t offer as many of the above benefits as churches. At the gym you’ll get some social support, better health, and a chance to build your discipline, but it probably doesn’t attract a great diversity of people, prompt you to ask big questions about the meaning of life, or move you to do community service. A nonprofit is going to get you engaged in the community and put you in touch with folks from different walks of life, but it may not create as much social support for you, nor provide too many opportunities to break out in song.
You could then cobble together a bunch of different interests — belonging to a gym, participating in a community choir, volunteering at a homeless shelter. A viable option. But again, realistically, most people won’t make good on all these intentions; having even one interest outside work/family seems too burdensome and stressful for a lot of folks.
Church thus offers the advantage of conveniently compiling the most benefits under one roof. This may be why the study that found that church attendance decreases your risk of dying, also found that “The effect of religious attendance was stronger than that of any other form of participation in a social group like a book club or a volunteer organization.”
Finally, when it comes to many of the alternatives to church, while they’re good as they go, they don’t succeed in getting you outside of your own head — something most of us are in desperate need of these days. In fact, they throw us back on ourselves. The gym is all about you — your body, your gains. Work is about you and your career and your financial success.
How often do you engage in something that’s centered around a purpose bigger than yourself? How often do you engage in the world beyond your head? If you don’t ever lose your life, will you ever be able to fully find it?
Why go to church when I have a more uplifting experience in nature?
Many people say they have more spiritual moments in the outdoors than they do at church — and I count myself among them! The woods and the mountains have been the backdrop for many of my most transcendent experiences.
Yet I don’t think hiking can fully substitute for churchgoing. It may lift certain parts of my soul, but it lets others lie fallow. Being out in nature is relatively easy because it doesn’t care if I’m there or not and doesn’t want anything from me. The mountains don’t confront me with different opinions. The trees don’t ask me to tend to their needs. The rocks don’t ask for sympathy and a helping hand. It’s easy to become very zen and insightful, and yet devolve into a stubborn misandrist (as someone like Thoreau arguably was), if plants are your only companions.
To be fully human, to develop one’s empathies, one’s compassion, the woods aren’t enough. We need to meet the brokenness of flesh and blood humanity eyeball to eyeball, and learn the love, patience, and unselfishness that comes with trying to help piece it back together.
Rather than being mutually exclusive, doing service (the opportunities for which, again, come most readily through church) and experiencing nature can enjoy a symbiotic relationship. When Jesus grew tired of the crowds who beseeched him for healing, he retreated into the solitude of the wilderness, only to return refreshed and ready to resume his ministry.
Rather than choosing one or the other, do both.
Are you saying you can’t raise good, moral kids without going to church?
Of course not. But church can serve as an enhancement of your own parenting efforts, and most parents are happy with any help they can get.
Why would I want to attend something that reinforces values that I don’t agree with (and don’t want taught to my children)?
Obviously, you wouldn’t. But if you haven’t been to church in a long time, or ever, you might be surprised by the content of the sermons offered from the pulpit these days (and the fact that pulpits are rarely even used anymore). While there are some churches that do still preach hell fire and damnation, concentrate on specific theological issues, and advocate for more “conservative” takes on the scriptures, there are also a ton that offer messages that actually don’t even talk that much about God, or “culture war” issues, and essentially offer general self-help principles supported with a few Bible verses (even these you can choose to receive as “literature” rather than “scripture”). You’ll hear uplifting messages on being a good neighbor, moderating your use of technology, being less selfish, improving your marriage — sound, practical advice for better living.
While this trend is anathema to the orthodox, who feel it represents the watering down of Christianity, it’s a boon to the growing number of folks who aren’t sure about their beliefs and are looking for a church that teaches good principles unattached to a very specific theological position.
If that’s you, look for a large “megachurch” where this kind of “preaching” (they wouldn’t want you to call it that — even church “services” are often called “experiences”) is common. Life Church is a good one, with campuses around the country.
More liberal denominations (see below) also frequently offer very inclusive sermons that focus on the social justice implications of Jesus’ ministry or expound on general wisdom from around the world, and even from other faith traditions.
Keep in mind that whatever church you choose, you’re never going to agree 100% with what the minister (or your fellow congregants) have to say. I’m largely aligned with the faith of my own church, and yet I’m still almost guaranteed to hear at least one thing every Sunday from which I dissent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’re trained these days to swipe (literally or metaphorically) away from anything that doesn’t wholly line up with our personal beliefs and opinions, and to become infuriated when anything deviates even a hair from what we think is right.
Not only is this approach to the world incredibly infantile, it’s entirely fruitless. No media outlet, and especially no church, is ever going to exactly parrot back our personal worldview. And if it did, and we were never challenged, we’d all end up as absolute pinheads.
If the church you’re attending is consistently preaching a message that is diametrically opposed to your core values, by all means you should leave, and find another community. But if there are simply tidbits here and there that you’re not wholly on board with, just ignore them, and concentrate on the good you are getting; don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Even the stuff you hear that you don’t believe will often spark productive contemplation that helps you figure out what you do.
Even when you have kids, it’s simply a matter of talking to them on the car ride home: “You know when the minister said X? Well, we don’t believe that.” Kids are more savvy than you think. They’re not just going to automatically adopt some position they heard at church. The instruction they get in your home will be far more impactful. As will the message that you don’t have to wholly write-off everyone with whom you disagree.
Ultimately, we could all use weekly reminders on the sound principles of good living, and no one can receive such without the ability to pick out what’s useful, while discarding the rest.
Would an atheist really be welcome at church?
At every church? No. At the great majority? Definitely. Looking at reddit threads where atheists have asked the members of r/Christianity (see here, here, and here) whether they’d be welcome at church, the response is almost universally positive. Folks point out that while in some churches you won’t be able to take part in some of the sacraments reserved for full members, or be invited to teach Sunday school, you will be able to participate in just about everything else. They offer the obvious heads up that some congregants will likely try to convert you, but say that if you civilly let them know you’re not interested, and in turn respect the beliefs of others and don’t act contentious or combative, most churches would be totally cool with having you in their ranks. A third of atheists say they attend church every once in a while anyway, so there may very well already be another nonbeliever in the pews.
Atheists should check out more liberal denominations like Unitarian Universalists, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ which celebrate their diverse, pluralistic memberships, and extend a welcome to one and all. Even if you’re the only atheist there, there’s bound to be plenty of other unorthodox folks sitting in the pews next to you. At the Unitarian church here in Tulsa (which keep in mind is right in the Bible Belt), they even offer a “Humanist Hour” — a service for folks who may not believe in anything divine, but enjoy music, fellowship, and the expounding of universally sound wisdom.
If you choose to attend a megachurch, your lack of theism won’t be an issue there either, for the simple fact that the church is so large, that they won’t know you from Adam, much less what your exact level of belief is. You’ll have the freedom to come and go without anyone bothering you, and to engage to whatever degree you’re comfortable with. I have a family member who’s somewhere between agnostic and atheist, but goes to a megachurch each week with his believing wife and kids. He says he actually enjoys it — there’s free childcare, free snacks, good music, and a practical, uplifting message — and it’s helped bring his family together.
Look around and try out some different options. You’re bound to find one where you feel right at home.
Is church really going to be more beneficial for me than doing something else?
I think it will. But you’ll have to find out for yourself. View it as an experiment. Try out some different churches — each will have more or less of the benefits outlined above, depending on its size and type. Once you find one that seems like a good fit, go every week for a few months and see what happens.
Keep in mind that the benefits of church attendance accrue in the long-term, rather than being front-loaded and immediate. In that way, it’s a lot like another discipline: working out. You don’t always want to go to the gym. You don’t always enjoy the workout. But over time, you notice that you’re getting stronger.
Similarly, don’t gauge the effect of your church experiment by your fluctuating mood from week to week, but the effects you observe overall, over time.
You have little to lose. Even if you decide church isn’t for you, you’ll have had an interesting cultural experience that’ll have given you insight into the fabric of modern life, and probably gotten you thinking a lot about your own.