I came across an interesting study yesterday that examined the relationship between anxiety and church attendance. I’ll share some data and challenge the assumptions the study authors…and most church leaders would make at first glance.
The Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University has conducted three national surveys of American religious beliefs, values and behaviors with the support of the National Science Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation. The third wave of the Baylor Religion Survey was conducted in the fall of 2010 in partnership with the Gallup Organization. In this wave, a random sample of 1,714 adults were interviewed with one major theme involving the relationship between health and religiosity. We’ll look today at data examining relationships between religious practice and mental health.
The study authors inquired whether worried people are more religious than non-worriers. They defined worriers (17% of the U.S. population) as people who self-identified as feeling worried, tense or anxious for ten days or more in the preceding month.
The authors found that worriers were less likely to attend religious services.
- 33% of worriers NEVER attended religious services in the past year (vs. 25% of non-worriers)
- 17% of worriers attend religious services every week (vs. 37% of non-worriers)
Worriers are significantly less likely (13%) than non-worriers (29%) to read the Bible on a weekly basis.
Worriers are less likely (19%) to consider themselves religious compared to non-worriers (39%).
Worriers are more likely (18%) than non-worriers (12%) to describe themselves as unaffiliated with a religion.
There are no significant differences in the frequency with which worriers and non-worriers pray.
The conclusion that most pastors and church leaders make when they look at data like this is that there are clear benefits in anxiety reduction from attending church, and people in general experience anxiety reduction as a result of attending church because of spiritual growth and the relational benefits of being part of a larger faith community. But what if these differences reflect (to some degree) a selection bias?
Is it possible…or even likely that an important reason people attending church report less anxiety is that the regular experience of anxiety causes people to have more difficulty in attending church? It’s interesting that worry impacts church attendance but not the frequency with which people pray. I’d also wonder if the difficulties people with anxiety have in engaging in corporate worship contributes to the self-perception that they’re less religious?
What do you think?
Key Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!
Ill health might have an effect on this study. Those who have ill health might tend to worry and to have trouble getting to services.
When I had hit a “low” (maybe adrenal fatigue) after finishing a difficult degree program, planning a subsequent wedding, experiencing writers block for an undergrad thesis, living with my in-laws while my husband finished college (!) I felt quite anxious and insecure but maintained religious activities. When my husband and I moved in with my parents to live closer to my new job, I hit an all-time low after my first child who (as we later found out) had FXS and Autism (at the time she had many symptoms of dyspraxia, trouble nursing and sleeping, and GDD). We stopped attending church because we were both exhausted and because we didn’t know anyone. I was just about work, sleep, and baby. When Baby 2 came along my husband had found a job: we moved again and I stopped working and became a stay-at-home Mom of THREE because we also gained custody of my stepdaughter. We resumed going to church because we finally had our own home: I wasn’t exhausted “out of my mind” and investments in the community were likely to result in a long-term return. So, based on my entirely subjective experience I think the following would be useful to know: (1) does the incidence of worry differ in different family demographics (newlyweds, young families, blended families) and how are these groups represented in this overall study; (2) what contribution does transience play in these statistics (newly moved, non-permanent residence, student or migrant worker or temporary business arrangement, etc) because people who know they are moving on may not engage in religious services and also experience high anxiety; (3) what is the severity of anxiety? I can understand that depression could cause someone to not feel motivated to make healthy attachments, anxiety could cause someone to not want to deal with the anomalies and uncertainties of social engagement, and exhaustion can keep someone very isolated in the attempt to minimize “resource-depletion”. I’ve experienced all three of those things but my church attendance only suffered when I was transient. I wonder if the severity indicates the cause, whether a lack of religious activity contributes to increased worry or increased worry contributes to a lack of religious activity; (4) finally, background. I would hypothesize this would be the most statistically significant finding; I think my upbringing in the church was more significant than the post-degree, post-wedding, post-partum and post-diagnosis depression and accompanying anxiety (and all of those were pretty bad for me and my personality as my husband would attest to). I wouldn’t be surprised if the habit of going to church is dependent more on generational factors than circumstantial ones, including family methods of dealing with anxiety; that is to say that some worriers may go to church because it is ingrained and that learned behavior results in a healthy scaffolding for further relief. I would expect to see among the worriers, a reduced percentage of parents attending church regularly than the non-worriers. Some would interpret that as non-Christian families suffering from anxiety more, but I think it could also mean that religious behavior is best supported at the family-level, as are coping methods.
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I am so blessed to have read this post. I have anxiety and PTSD from a trauma that occured in my life. Since then, I have not been able to work, and after becoming a Christian in 2014 I have missed quite a few services. I do have to make a mention that not all anxiety is worry. I can have panic attacks that seem to arise from nowhere. My body is almost always physically tense from neurological symptoms that leads to me feeling achy and exhausted. Feeling this way everyday makes it hard to leave home, even though I am 22 years old. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who’s missed due to anxiety. I rely on God everyday to get through, praise His Name.
My mom used to take me to church as a kid, so I’ve been wondering if I should be taking my kids to church now that I am a mom myself. I had no idea that people who are worried more often are less likely to attend religious services. It seems to me like going to church may be a good way to feel uplifted and worry free for a little bit. I’ll be sure to share this with my kids and see if they would want to go. Thank you for the information!