The following is excerpted from Ericka Andersen’s new book “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women,” set for publication Jan. 17.
The faith community has long been a source of support for people around the globe. As church attendance dwindles, more people find themselves isolated, unsupported, and mentally unwell. That contributes to less healthy individuals and families—and society as a whole.
Since the advent of the internet, connections online have become legion, but interpersonal relationships have suffered.
We’ve become superficially overconnected and authentically underconnected.
There are certainly genuine, meaningful relationships formed online—like friendships forged over hobby blogs and writing groups, Instagram interests, and Facebook pages. But by and large, avatars and comments sections have too often replaced lunch dates and movie nights with friends, among other traditional in-person get-togethers.
Many of us now work from home, communicating with co-workers exclusively via Zoom, order and receive groceries on our doorsteps via apps, and if anything, stream random church sermons to our cellphones.
Even answering the phone to speak voice-to-voice is uncommon now: Calls have been replaced by series of texts, and social media memes joke that millennials and Gen Zers are horrified if their phones actually ring.
Sadly, communicating via texts and emojis lacks the human empathy and honesty that a caring voice can convey. It also makes it very easy for someone to struggle in isolation, covering up their hardship with the right responses, smiley faces, and exclamation points.
As use of the internet has skyrocketed, rates of depression have risen significantly among Christians and non-Christians alike.
Depression has always been more prevalent in women than in men, even accounting for postpartum depression. Every year, at least 12 million women experience depression, and rates have tripled across the entire population since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
It’s quite common for women to feel lonely in their adult lives. (Despite many of us believing that marriage will solve the problem, it often doesn’t.)
These days it’s common to live far away from extended family. Since people are getting married later, it’s easy for singleness to become a weight of isolation. Many stay-at-home moms feel the struggle of loneliness as they spend days at a time without any real adult community outside of nightly conversations with their husbands.
It’s no coincidence that declining rates of church attendance and departure from faith line up with more internet use and more depression.
After one year of the pandemic, those who attended church weekly (in person or online) during that time reported higher levels of mental health than those who attended less frequently or not at all.
Even people who went to church sporadically scored lower. Apparently, there’s something about the regular rhythm of church community that contributes to spiritual and mental health in a way nothing else does.
In his 2018 book “Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope,” Johann Hari reports that “[d]epression is—in fact—to a significant degree a problem not with your brain, but with your life.”
He discovered that a person’s circumstances and environment are far more predictive of whether they have depression than their brain chemistry is. For example, “In rural Spain, depression was extremely low—because there was a strong community protecting people.”
We don’t always automatically have that kind of strong community, but we can create one in a church family. You see tight-knit, happy communities in the Mormon population in Utah and among the Amish in various parts of the country.
Could we replicate some of their family-style spirituality?
The word “community” can at times be overused in conversations related to mental health—but it can’t be replaced.
Whether a person is religious or not, healthy community matters for everyone for a host of reasons. Research proves that community is essential to good mental health. Hari wrote that “the opposite of addiction … is human connection.”
It makes all the difference. And the church is one of the few open communities, barrier-free and available to people of every color, creed, socioeconomic background, and sexual orientation.
One eye-opening study found that American women who attend religious services at least once a week are five times less likely to die by suicide than those who don’t.
In fact, there’s ample strong evidence that people who attend church or synagogue regularly are less inclined to take their own lives than other people are.
Some 45,000 Americans take their own lives each year, and 25 times as many attempt to do so.
Organizations dedicated to reducing suicide, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, do not suggest religious services as a lifesaving resource. (To which we would ask: Why not?)
Data also reveal that those who regularly attend church are happier and less anxious than those who don’t.
That’s not to say that churchgoing Christians don’t suffer from depression or mental illness. It’s also not to suggest that church attendance is a magical cure.
Therapy, medication, and strong relationships are also vital parts of staying mentally healthy. And sometimes a mental illness—because it is an illness—overpowers every other factor.
But the numbers don’t lie: A church community does contribute to better mental well-being. It can be there as a buffer when life hands you a lemon.
If you aren’t already going to church regularly, it’s very unlikely you’ll develop the habit of doing it when life gets more difficult. But if you have a regular spot and end up in the pews out of habit, God can meet you there, when you’ve subconsciously opened your heart up for healing.
In moments of darkness, we often don’t know what we need until God provides it. So, create the best opportunity for God to move in your heart by showing up at his door every week.
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