Scientific Research: Worship Is Healthy

A research team led by Vanderbilt scientist (and Baptist pastor) Marino Bruce has released the findings from their study of over 5000 middle-aged subjects (ages 40 to 65, across sex and races):

“Our findings support the overall hypothesis that increased religiosity – as determined by attendance at worship services – is associated with less stress and enhanced longevity.”

Perhaps the team needed to perform a separate study of pastoral-liturgical ministers and musicians!

Joking aside (and I do hope the previous sentence is received light-heartedly), I do wish to make a few comments:

  1. Having done my own research on worship and healing (health) now a decade ago (which came to publication in articles and then my 2009 book), I am glad to see that medical and social scientists continue to probe this topic, even as ours becomes an increasingly less-churched society (especially among the younger generations than the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers of this new study). I’m left wondering whether the reported positive effects of worship might vary according to life stages (that is, the full range of youth, adults, middle-aged adults, elderly).
  2. I would argue that working theologically (practically and theoretically) with social-scientific studies does not reduce liturgy (corporate divine worship) to instrumental human purposes. The glorification of God and sanctification (salvation) of people are flip sides of the same coin.
  3. Strangely, a key point Dr. Marino Bruce makes in the video clip does not appear in the Vanderbilt write-up: He argues that scientists have largely attributed the human benefits of divine worship to “social support,” whereas he is proposing a further or alternative benefit, namely, the practice or experience of “holiness.” If the latter intrigues you, I recommend playing the short video included in the article. But I cannot help but wonder, now having completed my sixth year at Vanderbilt, whether there might not be an institution-wide bias (conscious or not) against explicit, detailed presentation of theological categories even when discussing religion. I offer that last musing in relation to the evolving North American version of “secularization.”
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2 comments

  1. I didn’t find the causal link here – that it is religious observance per se that contributes to the healthier/longer lives of the study’s subjects. Did the study examine other activities that the subjects participated in? I know that people who attend worship regularly also tend to have higher rates of involvement in other social/corporate activities. I realize that the “social support” was not counted as a factor, but social connection/interaction for human beings has many, varied, and deep psychological, neurological, behavioral, etc. effects.

    One of the things that many of the subjects did as part of their worship, I’d bet, was sing corporately – another activity that improves health and longevity. As do volunteering, practicing meditation/yoga/mindfulness (other ways of flexing your “spiritual muscles”), exercise (especially in some sort of corporate activity), and so on.

    This isn’t to dismiss the findings of the study, but we can’t understand the positive benefits of religious practice as meaning that ONLY religious practice produces these benefits.

    Part of the ongoing secularization in the U.S. – that manifests itself one way as non-churched growth – is the growth in non-belonging. With the possible exception of sports teams, civic organizations, volunteer groups, amateur musical organizations, and so on have trouble getting people to join and commit to belonging.

    Though the health benefit isn’t inconsequential, I think it remains an un-cracked nut to offer a reason to the upcoming generations as to why this SPECIFIC activity ought to be the one they choose for greater life satisfaction and well-being.

  2. “I would argue that working theologically (practically and theoretically) does not reduce liturgy (corporate divine worship) to instrumental human purposes.”

    I suppose that whatever induces folks to cross the threshold of the church should at least be considered. Still, I don’t suppose we’re looking for studies showing that worship helps me lose weight, reduce wrinkles, meet someone attractive and available, or make money flipping houses 🙂

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