In a recent official government report, the Biden administration has warned that Americans’ “health may be undermined” due to their “decline in participation” in church services and other religious activities.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued the first-ever government advisory on the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” earlier this month, calling persistent isolation an “urgent public health issue” that impacts the physical and mental health of millions. “Research shows that loneliness and isolation are associated with a greater risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death,” says Murthy in an online video released to coincide with the report.
Loneliness is as bad for individuals as smoking 15 cigarettes a day — a pack-and-a-half daily habit — and harms physical health “even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity,” the report notes.
Unfortunately, Murthy writes, Americans have become disconnected from one of the institutions that can forge deep and permanent social connections: church attendance. “Religious or faith-based groups can be a source for regular social contact, serve as a community of support, provide meaning and purpose, create a sense of belonging around shared values and beliefs, and are associated with reduced risk-taking behaviors,” Murthy writes. “As a consequence of this decline in participation, individuals’ health may be undermined in different ways.”
“Membership in organizations that have been important pillars of community connection have declined significantly,” including “faith organizations,” writes Murthy. “In 2020, only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. This is down from 70% in 1999 and represents a dip below 50% for the first time in the history of the survey question.”
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Experts have known about the fraying web of meaningful personal relationships for decades. For instance, the percentage of American men who said they have no close friends had increased 500% between 1990 and 2021. But a persistent sense of abandonment reached societal proportions during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Church attendance and health issues have an inverse relationship, according to multiple studies, including a new report released by evangelical pollster George Barna.
The percentage of millennials who attended a church worship service, either in-person or online, dropped by seven percentage points over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, says the study from the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University (ACU), where Barna is director of research.
The retreat from faith has devastated young people, Barna told “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins” recently.
Separate ACU polls found that 75% of millennials “say, ‘I don’t know why I should get out of bed in the morning,’” said Barna. A majority “admit that every day they’re struggling with mental health issues, severe depression, anxiety, fear,” and “the highest suicide rate of any generation we’ve ever seen.”
That’s roughly the percentage of millennials who do not attend religious services: Only 28% take part in services in any way.
Young adults’ isolation persists despite the fact that millennials desperately yearn for meaningful social interactions at a core level. “They believe that relationships are vitally important. They want to be connected. They want to belong. They want to be part of a community,” Barna told Perkins. “But they say it’s not working. It’s not happening.”
In part, Americans became disconnected from churches, at least in part, because of government policies shutting down churches during COVID.
“The last three years have been a time of high anxiety for tens of millions of adults. It was an ideal time for the Christian church to provide wise guidance and emotional calm. Unfortunately, most churches agreed to the government’s dictate that they close their doors and remain mostly silent,” says Barna in a statement accompanying the ACU’s research.
“Obviously, that has not worked out so well,” Barna observes.
Millennials were not the only demographic to give up congregational worship. Generation X saw their church attendance fall 13 points, from 41% to 28%. Although 53% of the oldest American generation attends church, that’s a three-point drop from 2020. Only Baby Boomers became “more likely now than they were before COVID-19 to read the Bible, praise and worship God, seek and do God’s will, and attend church services,” says the report.
During the pandemic, “every generation turns to their worldview to navigate the challenges,” says Barna. “As a nation, we may be past the danger of COVID-19, but we’re in the thick of the danger brought about by people relying upon syncretism as their dominant worldview. Biblical churches must see this as a time for an urgent response to the direction society is taking.”
The surgeon general is not the first to find that frequenting a church increases longevity and improves overall health. “[A]ttendance at religious services had a dose-response relationship with mortality, such that respondents who attended frequently had a 40% lower hazard of mortality,” wrote researchers at Emory University in a 2017 research paper.
The correlation between a strong faith and psychological well-being is well-attested by social science. “Young-adult Gen-Xers in the strongly religious class across the three measurements generally reported better mental health when they reached established adulthood than those in the nonreligious class,” reported a 2022 study by a team of analysts from Syracuse University. “Findings suggest that religiosity may serve as an important resource for mental health in the transition to established adulthood.”
Barna says this is a perfect time for the church to proclaim the Christian message, for Americans’ spiritual and physical health. The Bible encourages deep connections to fellow believers across the boundaries of time, space, and culture. Scriptural anthropology begins with the observation that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). The New Testament exhorts Christians to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
“While the Left pursues the Great Reset, it is time for the Church to pursue the Great Renewal — leading people’s hearts, minds, and souls back to God and His life principles,” wrote Barna.
The full section of the surgeon general’s report reads:
“Membership in organizations that have been important pillars of community connection have declined significantly in this time. Take faith organizations, for example. Research produced by Gallup, Pew Research Center, and the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey demonstrates that since the 1970s, religious preference, affiliation, and participation among U.S. adults have declined. In 2020, only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. This is down from 70% in 1999 and represents a dip below 50% for the first time in the history of the survey question. Religious or faith-based groups can be a source for regular social contact, serve as a community of support, provide meaning and purpose, create a sense of belonging around shared values and beliefs, and are associated with reduced risk-taking behaviors. As a consequence of this decline in participation, individuals’ health may be undermined in different ways.”
This article originally appeared at The Washington Stand and has been reprinted with permission.
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.