The relationship between depressed mood and church attendance

Baylor Religion Study 3This past Thursday, we discussed an interesting study examining the relationship between anxiety, church attendance and religious practice among U.S. adults.Today, we’ll look at findings from the study describing the church attendance and spiritual practices of people who self-identify feelings of sadness or depression.

The Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University 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 sampled 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. Participants were asked whether they had felt sad or depressed within the past thirty days, and the frequency with which they experienced these feelings. The data compares spiritual practices of adults who identified themselves as experiencing sadness or depression for ten or more days (11% for the overall sample) during the preceding month to those who reported no sadness or depression in the preceding month (39% of the sample).

Compared to those who reported anxious mood, differences in spiritual practices between “depressed” and non-depressed people were more striking…

  • Depressed vs. Non-Depressed39% of the “depressed” never attend religious services vs. 22% of non-depressed.
  • 15% of the “depressed” attend religious services every week vs. 36% of non-depressed.
  • 13% of the “depressed” read the Bible every week vs. 28% of the non-depressed.
  • Religious Affiliation Depressed vs Non-depressed20% of the “depressed describe themselves as “very religious” vs. 37% of the non-depressed.
  • 23% of “depressed” respondents identify themselves as religiously non-affiliated, vs. 23% of non-depressed.
  • 23% of “depressed” respondents pray more than once daily vs. 32% of the non-depressed.

I think it’s important to state the obvious by noting the major limitations to this sample. Readers may have noticed the use of quotation marks around the word “depressed” in listing the study’s findings. The inclusion criteria for “depression” in this survey are different than the DSM-5 criteria that physicians, psychologists and counselors use to diagnose major depression. Experience suggests that the word “depression” is used very differently from one person to another. I would also presume that significant overlap would exist between those in the study who described themselves as sad or unhappy and those who identified themselves as anxious or worried.

In examining differences between spiritual practices of adults with anxiety/worry vs. sadness/depression, one might speculate that those who identify with more depressed mood may experience relatively more functional impairment than those with anxiety. One of the signs of depression is the propensity to withdraw from established relationships, interests and activities…presumably that would include one’s relationship with God, possibly explaining the differences in frequency of prayer reported among the “depressed” not seen in those with anxiety or worry.

We don’t have much data examining the impact of mental illness on church involvement or attendance. While many experts in the mental health or Christian counseling fields acknowledge the mental health benefits of a vital faith, this data appears to represent a signal that self-reported symptoms associated with anxiety or depression may be significant barriers to church attendance.


shutterstock_118324816Key Ministry has put together a resource page for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents with interest in the subject of depression and teens. Available on the resource page are…

  • Links to all the posts from our recent blog series on depression
  • Links to other outstanding blog posts on the topic from leaders in the disability ministry community
  • Links to educational resources on the web, including excellent resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), a parent medication guide, and excellent information from Mental Health Grace Alliance.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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