Research suggests being part of a church community can lengthen your life and reduce depression. But why? Deborah Jenkins explores
Former words from an old friend ring unpleasantly in my ears. "Why would I go to church? I feel bad enough about myself already. They’ll just make me feel worse!"
Her scathing implication that the church was a group of unwelcoming, judgemental moralists, shocked me. It was certainly not my experience. But as the years have passed, I’ve met others like her, people who feel that churches have not offered them much in the way of friendship or hope, despite longing for both.
There is of course no excuse for this. Churches should be bodies of people who accept and embrace their own failures through the lens of God’s fierce love and do the same for others.
In fact, there is evidence that this is often the case. Research shows there are good reasons why involvement in a church is likely to provide more than a few hymns and a free coffee on a Sunday morning. Being part of a church community can lengthen life, reduce depression and promote positive mental health.
Church gives me an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. Joining with others to work towards a project or goal takes us out of our own bubbles, allowing us to focus on a big picture. It could be volunteering at a lunch club or food bank, joining a choir or hosting a community celebration (eg for the forthcoming platinum jubilee). Local churches can do this kind of thing well. Joining in with them can help us find friends, a sense of belonging, new skills. It can also give us better perspective on our own thornier challenges in life.
Church also helps me to live in the moment. In our tech-heavy, digital age, we are tapping into other people’s moments all the time on social media. We are prisoners of other people’s moments. How to claim back our own? I always think we’re most alive to the present when we’re doing things with others. Community activities - singing, praying, confiding, listening, laughing, sharing food, celebrating – these keep us anchored to the moment and are good for mental health. They take place in all the churches I have been part of.
Mental health practitioners sometimes advise a person to audit your happiness. This tip is comparable to that of reflecting. The benefits of reflection include allowing ourselves opportunities to pause, untangle problems, find meaning and reset thought patterns. Churches provide spaces for people to do this, at Sunday services and midweek meetings. Many church buildings are open during the week too, offering opportunities to sit quietly or light a candle and pray for a loved one. Reflection allows us to express sorrow, face fears and name what we’re thankful for. Expressing gratitude has been well documented as a tool for improving well-being. And for Christians, it is something we're commanded to do as well (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
Of course, it’s true you could pursue some, though perhaps not all, these things with other community groups too, such as the advice to cultivate a passion. This can lead to improved confidence and resilience with a knock-on effect for self-esteem.
Finally, we’re advised to accept change, however hard that might be. When enduring grief, job loss or the end of a relationship, for example, what better place to heal than as part of a loving church community with supportive people?
If our churches are welcoming spaces where people are invited to participate widely, and embraced for who they are, they may find faith in the God we love. Let’s not underestimate the role strong, loving local church communities can play in helping people discover the hope God gives, both in this life and the one to come.
Deborah’s forthcoming novel, Braver (Fairlight Books, June 2022) explores themes of faith and mental health. The main protagonist is anxious and lonely. When the situation at work threatens to overwhelm her, she asks for help from people at the local church. Feeling welcomed and accepted, she begins to find the courage to face her fears, before a shock accusation rocks the community and friendship is tested to its limits.