In phase 3 of our study, we looked at the mental health of dechurched evangelicals, and it became clear that anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts were major factors in their lives. When asked to rate themselves on a scale of 0–100 in these areas, with 0 being very negative and unhealthy and 100 being very positive and healthy, they scored 39 on anxiety, 34 on depression, 35 on loneliness, and 25 on suicidal thoughts.
There is strong scientific evidence that supports the correlation between church attendance and improved physical and mental health. Tyler VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology in the Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Harvard University, has conducted some of the largest studies ever on the role of religious attendance along with colleagues at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard. Tyler and his team concluded that “compared with those who never attended religious services, individuals who attended services at least once per week had a lower risk of all-cause mortality by 26%, heavy drinking by 34%, and current smoking by 29%.” Their writing continues to note that “service attendance was also inversely associated with a number of psychological-distress outcomes (i.e. depression, anxiety, hopelessness, loneliness) and was positively associated with psychosocial well-being outcomes (i.e. positive affect, life satisfaction, social integration, purpose in life), but was generally not associated with subsequent disease, such as hypertension, stroke, and heart disease.”
Another 2016 study from the same Human Flourishing Program at Harvard of 74,534 women concluded that “frequent attendance at religious services was associated with significantly lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality among women. Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients.”
The mental health picture we saw in our study was sad for the dechurched, showing such low self-reported figures on anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts. There is no doubt that the underlying reasons for these numbers are varied and complex, but there does seem to be strong scientific evidence that regular, especially weekly, church attendance is good for your mental and physical health.
Davis, Jim, Michael Graham, Ryan P. Burge, and Collin Hansen. 2023. The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
What will it take to bring them back?
I suggest a long-term perspective. We didn’t get here in a day and it will take more than a day to get out. I’d suggest a three-year approach. It took roughly three years for Jesus to make his followers into fishers of men. It may take us at least that.
While most churches are struggling, many churches are not. The churches that are not struggling are doing evangelism differently. They don’t do Sunday School. They don’t do VBS. They don’t do revivals. What do they do? Here is a good summary of how many of them are doing evangelism:
If I had to summarize what the research and my experience told me about what those around us are looking for, I could do it in one word: friend!
The research confirms it. What else would you call someone who listens without judgment, offers you wise counsel but helps you make your own decision, and loves you no matter what? That’s a friend!
Friend /frend/ (noun)—a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection
It’s that simple. It’s also that challenging. People are looking for you to be a friend. They are looking for a friend who will live the good news, be good news, and then share the good news in the form of their own story. In that order! Wow! It was that simple “Aha!” that brought me back to the Bible and opened my eyes to see that this is exactly how Jesus did it.
“Friend of Sinners”
Do you know what Jesus’s nickname was? It was “Friend” (Matthew 11:16–19 NIV). More specifically, “Friend of Sinners.”
Who gave Jesus that nickname? Religious leaders who watched how He lived His life and didn’t like it. But apparently Jesus liked it so much that He kept it!
It was easy for “Friend of Sinners” to stick because everywhere Jesus went, He befriended people and was a blessing to them. His entire life and ministry were a rhythm of befriending and blessing. Jesus blessed every person and every place He encountered. — BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson
Simple as this is, I think it will take a while to get there. Here is what I suggest. Every year, starting in January or August, do a church-wide study of evangelism. (You might consider a sermon series to go along with the study.)
- Year #1, Study BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson
- Year #2: How to Talk about Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan.
- Year #3: Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael frost
Each of these studies is about six weeks and are available on Amazon or as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription system. www.MyBibleStudyLessons.com
During the rest of the year, I recommend you spend five or ten minutes each week in each group talking about such questions as:
- Who are you praying for that is far from God?
- Who have you had the opportunity to listen to this week about their walk with God? What have we learned about why people are leaving church?
- Did you share a meal with anyone this week who was far from God?
- What service project could we do to “let our light so shine before others that they would see our good works and glorify our father in Heaven”?
In addition, I’d encourage each group to host a fellowship every month and invite every member and every prospect. For more on this, see https://www.YouCanDouble.com/
I close with a quote from the last book above:
As should be obvious by now, I’m not merely promoting these five practices as a one-off program. I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life. You see, doing a short-term project, like Forty Days of Purpose, is great. But missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them. — Frost, Michael. 2016. Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.