All the talk of federal deficits and rising costs of health care here in the United States over the last years could not have been avoided unless one was practicing for the role of Rip Van Winkle. Rising health care costs are a national concern. We have made national campaigns to educate people that smoking is bad for your health, so is lead, mercury, asbestos, among others; each campaign has had the effect of increasing our average health and, in turn, lowering our health care costs.
Being a minister of God, I have another important campaign to increase our personal health and lower our national (and personal) health care costs: come to church and participate in the faith community there.
There is a well-studied cause and effect relationship between one’s attending church or temple and one’s average health. If one Googles “Religion and Health Research,” more than 264 million items will show up — that is a great deal of study. And the results are undeniable that attending a faith community regularly has a positive health effect for people. I spent time sorting through and reading compilations of recent study summaries to share some of the more straight-forward examples.
One study found the lowest levels of physical pain experienced by patients were found to be directly related to people who weekly attend religious activities. This remained true across the range of severity of the physical cause of the pain. A different study showed that the severity of physical illness was reduced for people who regularly attended church or regularly participated in spiritual practices of prayer or Bible study.
A significant 53 percent reduction in length of hospital stays was found in another study for people who frequently attend religious services and participate in personal faith activity such as prayer or Bible study. That alone would translate into significant cost savings if taken over the national population.
Another study showed that people who demonstrated faith and practiced daily spiritual experiences such as prayer had shorter hospital stays and the study further showed those people tended to have fewer diagnostic tests and fewer number of total procedures. This reduction in hospital stay carries over to nursing home stay length for rehabilitation care according to another study for those of faith who regularly participated in daily spiritual practices of prayer or Bible study.
Even our mental health is positively affected, as numerous studies of situational depression caused by an event such as becoming ill have shown. As in one study, medically ill patients who do not participate regularly in religious activities were more likely to be depressed than those who did participate in regular faith activities.
The more our participation in faith communities or in daily spiritual practices such as prayer had lower mortality rates (lived longer) than those who did not participate. Further it found that those who volunteered in the faith community on average lived the longest.
All these studies, along with almost all other studies like these, are about people already in the medical system in some way. Many of us in the ministry know with confidence that the more an individual is involved in the church or temple, the less likely they are to get sick. That being the case, the positive effects mentioned here would be amplified greatly. I have not yet found a study of the general population, but I am on the hunt.
Maybe as important on an everyday level is the clear relationship between church attendance and lower levels of anxiety in people; and that is so important in our society that we all live in today. as it is culturally at a high level of anxiety in general, and that anxiety seems highly contagious.
I could keep on going but the picture is clear. While it is important to have a personal faith, the real significant improvements to one’s over-all health come from actively participating in that faith as part of a community. The more one is involved with others in the faith community, the greater the positive effect on one’s health, the quality of their life and even the length of their life.
From these relationships that have been found in study after study, it is no surprise than that as our nation’s church and temple attendance has dramatically declined from its peak in the late 1960s down to about 20 percent today that there has been as dramatic a rise in our nation’s health care costs, to say nothing of the anxiety level in the country.
We struggle in life to take control over what negatively impacts us — here is a clear place where we have direct control over improving our lives and contributing to the national good. For not only would we reduce medical costs all around, but we would benefit from being in church ourselves, and those sitting with us also benefit from our presence. When we volunteer and get involved in bringing our faith into the world outside our church, we benefit even more and so do those we come in contact with. This is the win-win-win relationship God calls us to in life.
See you in your church or your temple, and be healthy.
The Rev. William Main is interim minister at Union Congregational Church of Amesbury.