JACKSON, Tenn. – April 24, 2006 – If you have ever considered our country’s collective ecclesiology to be overly ego-centric, then the nature of David Hall’s recently published study in the “Journal of the American Board of Family” comes as no surprise. Funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, this general surgery resident at the University of Pittsburgh who is also an Episcopal priest found that people who attend weekly religious services have a longer life expectancy than those who sleep in on Sundays.
Other previous studies have shown that physical exercise often adds three-to-five years of longevity and that taking cholesterol-lowering prescription drugs can add an average of 2.5-3.5 years to one’s life, but Hall suggests that church attendance might be a more appealing route toward older age. Rather than sweating so profusely or spending large amounts of money on medicines during however many years one has, going to church certainly seems less strenuous and more cost efficient.
The headline, “Study: Go to church, live 3.1 years longer,” joined a tired list of other studies concerning church attendance in America. George Barna reported that 45 percent of American adults attended church in a typical 2004 weekend, not including weddings, funerals or other special events. He also has stated that during that same year, 58 percent of Republicans attended a church service over the weekends while only 46 percent of Democrats did the same. An ABC News poll recently reported that 60 percent of those 65 years old and older attend religious services weekly while only 28 percent of those ages 18-30 do so.
Studies analyzing church attendance are many, but this latest analysis speaks to a perceived benefit of going to church regularly — namely, a longer life. Hall suggests that church attendance is comparable to other commonly recommended therapies that might contribute to the lengthening of life. Being a significant part of a close knit community or experiencing the “enhanced sense of purpose” that comes from attending church also may be positive factors which contribute to his findings. Regardless, the time, energy and money invested into this study resulted in the less-than-definitive conclusion that going to church may help you live longer.
Granted, many things may help you live longer. Wearing seat belts, sleeping a certain number of hours each night, eating the right foods, brushing your teeth, and the list goes on.
However, thinking about church attendance in light of life expectancy seems to be incongruous. It simply has a self-centered and overly pragmatic feel to it.
Scripture nowhere promises longer life for those who go to church. In fact, Psalm 139:16 indicates that the number of days formed for us are already written in God’s book. Moreover, elsewhere, the psalmist prays for a greater realization of how short his life is when he says, “O Lord, make me know the end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Psalm 39:4)
In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira certainly felt the brevity of their days when their deceitful spirits joined up with their apparently regular church attendance. For them, going to church was disastrous. It brought a tragic end to their life. If Ananias and Sapphira were around today, they probably would question Hall’s study.
If those Scriptures are not enough, Jesus’ prediction to some of those in the Smyrnan church can be heard as nothing less than an early death sentence. The message to them was, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for 10 days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)
Believers need to think of church not in terms of what earthly benefits it may provide, but in terms of its nature and God-ordained purpose. When we Christians bear these things in mind, we will be reminded regularly that we are not a people who go to church. We are the church.
Hebrews 10:24-25 states, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Yes, studies may show that going to church may lengthen one’s life, but Christians should neither expect lengthened years nor be motivated by them. The Bible’s command is reason enough to assemble together.
This Sunday, as we pile into our vehicles and head off to our churches’ gatherings, let us do so not with a desire to live longer, but with the desire to live obediently.
By Todd E. Brady, Minister to the University