I was recently speaking with a close friend about the importance of being a part of a church community.
Doing a quick Google search of “health benefits of being engaged in a religious community” brought up dozens of sites, pointing to the validity of community engagement. Perhaps the most interesting one was an article found through the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The article, Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy, written by Deborah Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, delves into the topic that social relationships have both short and long term impacts on health, which can either be positive or negative, depending on the relationship.
During the conversation, I also recalled a community organization class I took as part of my graduate program. After searching through boxes of books, I came upon one which addressed the importance of social relationships. As Robert D. Putnam asserts on page 264 in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,
As yet, this remarkable, well-established, and disturbing trend toward suicide, depression, and malaise among America’s younger generation has no widely accepted interpretation. One plausible explanation, however, is social isolation.
Putnam continues on, quoting Martin Seligman, who argues:
Individualism need not lead to depression as long as we can fall back on large institutions – religion, country, family. When you fail to reach some sort of personal goals, as we all must, you can turn to these larger institutions for hope …. But in a self standing alone without the buffer of larger beliefs, helplessness and failure can all too easily become hopelessness and despair.
All of my rudimentary research bolstered my belief I shared with my friend – church community has a pretty powerful impact.
I say this not simply because Jesus informed His followers in Matthew 18:20,
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Church communities have routinely provided me with other benefits that have been immeasurable. Given the nomadic lifestyle our military family leads, the first place I stop at a new duty location is the chapel. While there are secular resources available, I have ultimately found more support through the chapel communities.
Within chapel communities, I find friends who are facing challenges similar to the ones I am struggling, specifically in regard to parenting with a Christian focus, and trying to instill Christian values in my young children. Within chapel communities, I can usually find ladies who are willing to fill in as surrogate grandparents for my children – to spoil my children with attention and affection. Within chapel communities, I can find an avenue of emergency contacts, ready to help out and assist during periods of crisis in families. Within chapel communities, I can find a prayer chain, ready and willing to pray for intentions, or offer up extra prayers of thanksgiving for answered prayers.
And, I am able to reciprocate.
Being involved in a chapel community challenges me to leave behind myself and focus on contributing to a larger community. I try to provide support to others facing challenges in their lives, I try be a surrogate friend and sister to those living far from their families, and I also try to be an emergency contact.
Most importantly, I am one more prayer warrior, offering up other women’s spoken and unspoken petitions and intentions.
I used to argue I could worship God anywhere – He hears us no matter where we are saying our prayers. Yet, I have found there is a feeling of unity when I am in a Mass, saying prayers, alongside others.
I have physically felt my emotional batteries recharged, attending a Mass where not many others attend (shameless plug for daily Mass or Adoration). I have felt my anxiety fade away, nestled in the comfort of the Church’s arms.
Because I am introverted, I may occasionally have difficulty sitting among others in the church. Yet, I have to maintain faith that they are not there to judge me, and not even there to see me.
Instead, I have to believe we are all there together, joined with the angels and saints, focusing on God.
Not all communities are created equal, and while it may take some time to find one that is most comfortable, I encourage everyone seek a religious community. The benefits far exceed the risk – there are studies out there that point to the benefits provided are not just spiritual, but also impact one’s emotional and physical health as well.