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The Health Benefits of Congregational Life

Does participating in a faith-based community make you more healthy?

Officer [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons
Young Woman at Iftar
Source: Officer [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons

The month of April drew many Americans to churches for Easter and to family homes for Passover Seders. Ramadan arrives May 5th, and there may be an increase in Muslims attending mosques or coming together for post-Ramadan Iftar dinners. Why is it that Americans find support in religious communities, and do we still find support even though we are becoming a more secular society? Also, are there health benefits to be gained by participating in faith-based communities?

Yes, there is convincing evidence that: 1) religious communities provide needed support; 2) those who are part of religious communities have better health (less depression, less substance abuse, and less chance of suicide) than people who are not part of such communities.

Americans are not as involved in religious communities as they used to be, and a recent article in The Washington Post reported on “How Easter Celebrations are Changing with the Growth of Nonreligious Americans.” Yet, a minority of people still congregate at churches and in other communities of faith on a regular basis. Part of the reason they gather with others of the same faith is to experience spirituality; part of the reason is to join with others with similar values and approaches to life. Individuals in faith-based communities appreciate the support of those whom they see as similar, at least in terms of being religiously similar.

Lance Laird, a medical anthropologist, and a team of student researchers recently investigated how an African-American church and a Sunni African-American mosque, both in a large Northeastern city, took care of their congregations. The team interviewed staff and congregational members and found that each of the religious communities engendered “connection,” meaning, in part, a sense of belonging and a “network of support.”

The research team reported that the church had a relatively organized system for support, with formal ministry groups arranging visitation of the sick and shut-ins. The mosque outreach was less formal, partly because the imam had less assistance for programs. Nevertheless, the mosque included initiatives to visit the sick and those recently out of prison.

Over the past few decades, researchers have suggested that religious activities promote good health. It is difficult to discern if these positive effects are due to spirituality or to the support one gets from being in a religious community. Perhaps it is a combination of the two. Dr. Dan Blazer, a Duke University-based psychiatrist, was one of the first medical researchers to promote faith-based efforts in treating depression. He suggests that medicine and traditional counseling are helpful in depression treatment, and he also proposes that being part of a religious community can uniquely help those with depression and depressive symptoms.

Dr. Harold Koenig, another Duke University psychiatrist and current Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, describes religious people as having more resilience, “more reserve as they face the stressors of life.” He lauds participation in a faith community, and notes that though it is difficult to study the relationship between religiosity and health, persons who are in faith communities have better health markers such as lower blood pressure and better psychological traits such as higher optimism.

Professor Marino Bruce of Vanderbilt University concurs that participation in religious activities improves health. His recent research study showed that those who attended church have less of a chance of mortality. The authors of the study emphasized that social support and compassion as given or received in religious communities might have contributed to the positive outcomes.

Another health-related advantage to participation in a faith-based community is the presence of health ministries. Such ministries have become more commonplace and serve as sources of support and health information. For example, many African American churches have prioritized ministries that address high blood pressure or healthy eating. The National Baptist Convention, for instance, has endorsed faith-based efforts at exercise, healthy eating, and combating the obesity epidemic. Other religious entities have encouraged initiatives that combat stress and improve healthy behaviors.

The jury is in—people get much-needed social support and health benefits from being part of a religious community. And sometimes the results are quite surprising. For instance, J.K. Rowling found support from an older woman in her church, who watched Rowling’s young daughter while she wrote her first book, giving the author much-needed time and peace of mind. We might not have had the Harry Potter series if it were not for the support of a church!

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