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Is Church Attendance Critical to Our Children’s Health?

By Sarah K. Turney
Director of Communications & Marketing

It wasn’t that long ago that Americans were fighting over the essential nature of church as the government sought to shutter doors across the nation during the pandemic. Despite the wrestling over what many argue was an egregious government intrusion on religious liberties, even post-pandemic, American churches are still experiencing the lowest attendance rates ever seen in our nation’s history, “including conservative evangelical churches.”

According to Gallup, only 20 percent of Americans attend church every week, less than half of Americans (41%) attend church once a month, and a whopping 57 percent of Americans are seldom or never in religious service attendance.

This lack of church involvement has had a significant impact on public welfare. A few years ago, Christianity Today published a cover story on a landmark study that demonstrated how the cultural exodus from church has taken a huge toll on society. The empty pews, the study’s authors argue, has become a public health crisis.

“Religious participation strongly promotes health and wellness. This means that Americans’ growing disaffection with organized religion isn’t just bad news for churches, it also represents a public health crisis, one that has been largely ignored but the effects of which are likely to increase in coming years,” the authors state.

They were not alone in this assessment. As recently as last May, a Surgeon General Advisory raised the alarm about a devastating epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the country. The advisory urged policies that encouraged greater relational connectedness.

“While the epidemic of loneliness and isolation is widespread and has profound consequences for our individual and collective health and well-being, there is a medicine hiding in plain sight: social connection,” the advisory noted.

Of course, Christians don’t prioritize church solely for personal health reasons. The regular meeting together as the body of Christ is a Biblical prescription, a sacred practice. But the foreboding statistics indicate this crisis of abandoning the Body of Christ in practice has even more serious ramifications for today’s youth and the future health of the nation.

Setting Patterns for the Next Generation

Proverbs 22:6 makes a bold claim when it states “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” While there is no guarantee what a child will decide as they mature into adulthood, what is implied is that a parent’s intentional moral shaping early on impacts their future spiritual success. The child will still make their own decisions, but the pattern set by the parent translates to the next generation.

Essentially, children adopt what they see their parents doing. This is good news for those who strongly desire their children to grow up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. But it’s also a sobering challenge. When it comes to church attendance and involvement, studies show that the succeeding generation will almost always take the path of least resistance.

“The less one attended as a child, the more likely one is to seldom or never attend today. Among those who attended close to weekly growing up, 50 percent are rarely if ever at a religious service,” a recent Lifeway study found. “Of those who grew up going to church monthly, 66 percent seldom or never attend. And 4 in 5 (80%) of those who seldom or never attended as a child continue to avoid church today, including 56 percent who never attend.”

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A 2020 Pew Research study showed similar outcomes, showing more clearly how teens were more likely to adopt parent indifference toward church than passion for it. A Gallup poll conducted just a few years later further affirms these findings.

“The vast majority of those who seldom or never attended as children say they seldom (24%) or never (56%) attend religious services today, indicating a stronger relationship between infrequent attendance in earlier and later life than between regular attendance in childhood and adulthood,” the study’s author Jeffrey Jones said.

The Habits We Set Today

In light of these sobering statistics, why are so many professing Christians not attending church? Surveys indicate it is more an issue of habit than a conscious backing away.

“The most common experience of Christians who don’t go to church seems to be less a deliberate choice and more a substitution of habits. Put differently, a large share of Christians are opting to go it alone, moving their faith into quarters so private that even church is not allowed in,” authors Tyler VanderWeele and Brendan Case noted in the Christianity Today cover article.

For good or bad, the habits modeled before children today are most likely the habits they adopt tomorrow. For SBS Alumna Tori Breland, Class of 2003, going to church growing up was essential in shaping her own participation as an adult.

“I knew that going to church was an important part of growing in your faith as a Christian. This was also reinforced at Liberty University where I went to college. All of these influences in my life played a role in how I view church now and how much I participate in church now,” Breland said.

“Now as a parent, I place a lot of importance and value on regularly attending church,” she added. “It plays a huge role in reinforcing what my daughter is being taught at home and at school. I know this was important to my parents as well when I was growing up.”

SBS Alumni Ryan Martin, Class of 2006, admits that his path to prioritizing church participation as an adult was not as clear cut as Breland’s. Because his introverted nature in part often limited deeper connections at church, StoneBridge effectively became his church.

“Thursday chapels were my worship services. Bible class was my Sunday School and my school friends were my Christian relationships,” he said. “If my parents didn’t bring me to church, I probably would not have attended.”

For both Martin and Breland, personal friendships at church as teens were a key factor in their motivation to go early in life. However, both agreed that their parents’ example shaped how they prioritized church participation as adults.

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“My parents viewed church as a place to build relationships with other believers and grow in Biblical knowledge, not just to show up,” Martin said. “They didn’t have the benefit of attending StoneBridge all week and Sunday was their main time for spiritual renewal and relationships. It wasn’t something I fully appreciated back then, but their church views certainly influenced the church search for me and my wife.”

The Impact of Church Attendance

Martin’s story punctuates an important point. The same study by VanderWeele and Case highlights how taking kids to church actually impacts them more than just putting them in the right school. Christian schools like StoneBridge are most beneficial in context when they come alongside parents and churches to reinforce what is being taught at home and at church.

“What we found was that religious service attendance makes a bigger difference than religious schooling,” VanderWeele said. “Religious service attendance has beneficial effects across the different school types and has stronger effects than religious schooling.”

Had Martin’s parents not insisted on going to church when he was a teen, his “church” experience may have faded into memory beyond graduation, despite the biblical training he received at school. Statistically, roughy 74 percent of young adults (18-29) say they were 17 or younger when they abandoned their childhood faith. Attending church regularly appears to make a difference in this outcome.

“Only 12 percent of Americans who report their families attended services multiple times a week growing up disaffiliated from their childhood religion,” the Survey Center on American Life reports.

The adage, “do as I say, not as I do” is often held up as a common fallacy in parenting. Modeling the behavior we hope to see in the next generation is powerful as it’s clear more is caught than taught. But the pattern of attending church has greater impact than just passing down an empty ritual. As noted earlier, the studies show it has far reaching implications on the spiritual, emotional and even physical well-being of the next generation.

While the pandemic forced many churches to stream services online, the study notes that regular in-person gathering still has the greatest impact on our well-being. Religious affiliation and private spirituality are important and meaningful, “but their effects on health and well-being don’t seem to be as strong as those of regular gatherings with other believers,” the authors note.

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In-person gathering has the greatest impact on children. Kids who grow up attending church fare better overall than kids who don’t, even those who attend a religious school.

“Regular service attendance helps shield children from the “big three” dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity. People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer,” the study notes.

Transforming the Character of a Nation

Beyond policies, training up a child in the faith has huge implications on the future character and health of our nation. Participation in church, rather than mere affiliation, often leads to greater community involvement and better overall spiritual and mental health.

At StoneBridge, we often reference a three-legged stool–parents, school, and church–when explaining our partnership with parents. All three are needed to adequately shepherd the heart of a child and fully equip them to be a transformative influence in whatever sphere God calls them. Ultimately, going to church is “central” to the flourishing of our nation.

“Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter,” VanderWeele and Case conclude. “Something powerful takes place there, something that enhances health and well-being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.”

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