We may only be at the beginning of a major health crisis. But it may not be for the reasons that first come to mind. This is what two Harvard researchers are saying in our cultural moment. Tyler VanderWeele, professor of Epidemiology and director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and his associate director, Brendan Case, recently published an article entitled Empty Pews Are An American Health Crisis. Noting the continuing decline in church attendance in our country, these two Harvard researchers point to a sizable body of research that speaks to how participation in a faith community strongly promotes health and wellness. Here is what these researchers say. “…Americans’ growing disaffection with organized religion isn’t just bad news for churches; it also represents a public health crisis, one that has been largely ignored but the effects of which are likely to increase in coming years.” The Harvard researchers offer this conclusion. “Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter. Something powerful takes place there, something that enhances well being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.…The data are clear, going to church remains central to human flourishing.”
A bold assertion about the importance of going to church coming from university professors and not from pastors or theologians may be surprising. However the idea that human flourishing and human belonging go hand in hand is anything but a new idea. The Bible tells us God designed the family and the local church to be the primary sustaining institutions for human flourishing. Jesus pointed to his called out community when he said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Jesus makes the case that real faith not only rightly believes; it also deeply belongs. A primary metaphor of the local church in the New Testament is a body. The New Testament writers paint a beautiful picture of the body of Christ with its diversity, unity, interdependence and commitment to one another. As apprentices of Jesus our calling is not to just show up at church–that is an essential part–the goal is to truly belong to a local faith community. Martyred German pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of Christian faith as a belonging faith. “We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence. Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or its destruction. This is no mere theory; it is a spiritual reality” (Life Together, pg. 100).
We are not only called to Christ; we are called to each other. We simply cannot grow to spiritual maturity, become whole, or truly flourish without embracing a belonging faith. While Sunday morning attendance is very important for a belonging faith, finding a smaller group of Christ Community brothers and sisters in Christ is also very important if we are truly going to flourish and help others flourish.
Do we have a small handful of other Christ Community members who we are doing life with? Are we taking the initiative to know others and be known by others, to share our stories more fully and truly? Who in our faith community knows our joys, hardships, heartaches, burdens, questions, doubts, dreams, and hopes? Who do we know is praying for us? Doing life together in spiritual community unleashes joy in our lives, but it can also be messy, hard and at times disillusioning. We are all broken with flaws and failings. We all look through a mirror dimly and we may see a good number of things differently. We must remember life together now in local church community is not the New Heavens and New Earth that await us in eternity. Embracing with both head and heart a daily kind of hopeful realism is the order of the day. As yoked apprentices walking in the Spirit, let us prayerfully exhibit sacrificial love, a ton of grace and lots of patience with our dear fellow brothers and sisters in our multi-site church family. Truly loving one another in word and deed forges a belonging faith and is the most compelling witness we have to a watching world.
In this season of Advent let us not only thank God for the gift of the incarnate Son, but also the gift of our local church family. From both the realms of empirical research and biblical revelation we are reminded how much the church really matters in the world. If you have not yet truly embraced a belonging faith and made Christ Community your home, I would encourage you to do so. Reach out to one of our staff about some small group possibilities that are available at your campus. I also believe it is fair to conclude that one of the best ways to love your neighbor is to prayerfully invite them to join you at church. Advent would be a great time to take that loving step.