Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
About 1900 years ago, the writer of the epistle known as Third John began with these words: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 1:2). Though this is not an absolute promise in the way “health and wealth” preachers often claim that it is, it certainly is more than a casual greeting like our familiar, “have a nice day.” For many, good health is a benefit of living a faithful, Christ-centered life.
We all know that regular exercise, a balanced diet and adequate sleep contribute to a long and healthy life. What is less well known is that church attendance also makes a positive contribution. This was demonstrated by careful analysis of the extensive data gathered by the National Health Interview Survey (www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis.htm), which has been monitoring U.S. health since 1957. What researchers discovered in this data was that people who attend religious services regularly live up to 7.5 years longer than those who do not. Even when factoring in health status, socioeconomic status, social ties and other variables, researchers “still found a strong (1.5x) and significant (p<0.01) positive impact that attending religious services has on the life expectancy of attendees.”
The bottom line is this: regular church attendance apparently does increase the odds of living a longer life.
Historian Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington, explored this phenomenon in a Christian History magazine article entitled, “Live Longer, Healthier, & Better: the untold benefits of becoming a Christian in the ancient world,” Stark explained that Christianity spread not through elaborate campaigns or glitzy evangelism, but through the generosity, self-sacrifice and concern for the poor and downtrodden shown by Jesus’ early followers. These Christians demonstrated to the harsh world of the Roman Empire that there was a better, more compassionate way to live. Many pagans were attracted to Christianity when they saw how membership provided tangible benefits as well as eternal, spiritual ones.
Stark noted that in a world entirely lacking social services, Christians were their “brothers’ keepers.” At the end of the second century, Tertullian wrote that while pagan temples spent their donations “on feasts and drinking bouts,” Christians spent theirs “to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to the house.” This commitment to care for less fortunate people tended to tear down barriers of social class at a time when the gap between rich and poor was growing.
As Stark points out, the Christian message was not that “everyone could or should be socially or politically equal,” but that all are “equal in the eyes of God” and, therefore, the more fortunate have a responsibility to help those in need. Because Christians did so, they could expect to be helped when they were in need. Because they nursed the sick and dying, they would receive such nursing. Because they loved others, they in turn would be loved. This gave them a health-inducing sense of security and provided them with care that tended to prolong life.
Today, at least in the developed world, the contrast between believers and non-believers may not be as striking as it was then. But contemporary research shows that active participation in religious activities continues to yield many physical benefits, including better health and longer life. Such benefits, of course, are not the main reasons we gather for worship. We do so to hear again and to enjoy the truth and reality of the gospel and so be rooted and built up in our communion together with Christ. As the author of Hebrews put it, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
“Health and wealth” should not be dangled out as bait. Doing so seriously distorts the gospel message. But peace of mind and a life of service in communion with God, with the fellowship and friendship of like-minded people, does seem to lead to health and long life. It is another of God’s blessings, for which we give thanks.
In conclusion, I sign off with the phrase made famous by Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame. Actor Leonard Nimoy borrowed the phrase and its accompanying hand gesture from the synagogue he attended where the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:22-26 regularly was recited. Here it is:
Live long and prosper!