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Is going to church good for your mental health

Synagogue is fine also so long as the Rabbi stays away from "current events".


The Mental-Health Benefits Linked to Going to Church

Places of worship can provide community and belonging, which are big drivers in mental well-being

By Clare Ansberry, WSJ

April 13, 2024


Active religious practice, such as going to churches, synagogues and mosques, is linked to mental well-being, according to a growing body of research.


One possible explanation for the link, researchers and clergy say, is that places of worship can provide community and belonging, which are big drivers in mental well-being, and help counter isolation and loneliness.


The findings come at a time of declining regular attendance at services across nearly all faith denominations and rising rates of depression and anxiety. Young people in particular have low rates of church attendance and report often feeling lonely and anxious.

Eddie Olewinski says his religious practices reinforce a sense of belonging and community.


“There is a mounting body of empirical evidence suggesting that people who are active in their faith tend to be the recipients of a number of important physical and mental-health benefits,” says Byron Johnson, professor of social sciences at Baylor University.


Believing in a higher power can foster a sense of connection, research has shown. Helping others, which many religions facilitate through organized-outreach programs, builds compassion, which psychologists have found can improve mental health.


Eddie Olewinski, a 23-year-old in the Chicago area, attends Catholic Mass on Sundays, and during the week he joins interdenominational groups for supper or volunteer work. He also attends pancake breakfasts hosted by a Catholic fraternal organization.


“All those reinforce my sense of belonging and community,” says Olewinski.

In recent years, many people have left churches, or never attended in the first place, because they don’t feel accepted. Young people, in particular, have expressed feelings of alienation over some religions’ stances on gender, abortion and sexual orientation, and of exclusion because they don’t fit a religious community’s mold.


A sense of belonging

Baylor’s Johnson co-directs a study on what makes people flourish. He and researchers at Harvard University, in conjunction with Gallup, found that among 200,000 people surveyed worldwide, those attending religious services weekly had higher “flourishing” scores than those who never attended.


Scores were determined through 12 questions about happiness, close social relationships, financial stability, physical and mental health, and religious practices.


Michael DeChaun Adams-Lee says his role in a church deepens his sense of belonging but acknowledges that not everyone feels the same.


A study by Sapien Labs, which conducts a global online survey of 240,000 people in 65 countries, found that countries with the lowest mental well-being scores have lower levels of active religious practice, such as attending services, practicing rituals or prayers, and reading scriptures. Sapien defines mental well-being as the ability to handle adversity and function productively.


Religion provides a framework for coming together regularly, but you can’t just show up to benefit, says Tara Thiagarajan, founder of Sapien Labs. “You have to actively participate,” she says. When people are more socially engaged, she says, they tend to feel more love for others, which enhances mental well-being.


Michael DeChaun Adams-Lee, an Atlanta-area engineer, teaches Sunday school at his United Methodist church, going beyond scripture to talk about things that matter to teens such as jobs, college and relationships.


“I feel like I have a role in the church and can make a difference,” says Adams-Lee, 33.

It also deepens his sense of belonging at his church, he says, adding that not everyone feels accepted because they have tattoos or bright red hair and some church members complain about their appearance. His church has two locations, including one with less traditional services so those in casual clothes and piercings feel comfortable.


It doesn’t have to be Sunday

Places of worship, with weekly services, Sunday schools and potluck dinners, have traditionally been places of community, says Abigail Visco Rusert, associate dean at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Alexandria McCrory has friends who ‘walk their faith’ Monday through Saturday, but opt out of Sunday services.


When she was growing up, she says everyone at her small church knew her name. When she went to college, a church member sent her cards at holidays and encouraging notes during finals week. “She nurtured me so tirelessly,” she says.


Rusert believes a person can be actively religious without attending services weekly. “Are we going to put rules around showing up in order to be a real Christian? I believe in active participation. I just think young people are doing church differently—with or without our permission.”


Alexandria McCrory, 28, helps lead a teen group, attends Sunday services at a Baptist Christian church and volunteers at a church soup kitchen. Many of her peers, she says, are active in their churches, helping with food pantries or youth programs, but don’t come to Sunday services.


“They love and serve each other, but opt out on Sunday because it feels more shallow,” says McCrory, owner of a Chicago-area graphic design company.


New ways to create community

Some religious organizations are trying new ways to foster a sense of belonging, especially among younger people.


Rabbi Ben Spratt, senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, and a fellow rabbi at a New Jersey synagogue decided to let young people create their own organization, giving them a budget to develop activities. The resulting Tribe, which organizes gatherings including trivia nights, Shabbat and schmoozing events, has attracted more than 6,000 young people.


Chloe Guillot, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, is working on finding a sense of belonging in church again.


Chloe Guillot is director of community life and local engagement at a church in Seattle. Guillot is also a member of Gen Z and identifies as queer and nonbinary. “Belonging has been up and down for me,” says Guillot, who uses the pronoun they.


They grew up in Kansas, where they attended a conservative Pentecostal church and volunteered. Guillot left that church because they no longer felt accepted. “It reached a point when I realized those people who loved me my whole life didn’t love every part of me,” Guillot said.


After studying theology in school, they joined Quest Church in Seattle, a progressive church, working there in community development. Guillot attends services regularly, organizes pickup basketball games and dinners for the unhoused.

“I’m working on finding belonging in church again,” Guillot says. “I think I lost a little bit of that.”


Write to Clare Ansberry at clare.ansberry@wsj.com


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