Based upon observations of Christian Evangelical churches he has studied, Luhrmann offers three possible explanations.
Larger social networks: Frequent churchgoers have larger social networks, with more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those they know than their unchurched counterparts. “People in churches”, Luhrmann observes, “really do seem to look out for one another”. Many churchgoers, for example, belong to small groups (bible studies, choirs, fellowship groups, mission teams) that meet frequently and provide opportunities for people to talk about their faith and lives. “We know that social support,” Professor Luhrmann writes, “is directly tied to better health.”
Healthier behavior: Studies indicate that although many churchgoers struggle with behaviors they’d like to change, on average, regular church attendees drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous than others. Churchgoers who have stepped away from risky behaviors find the support and encouragement of their faith and faith community to be crucial to their success.
Sense of transcendence: Churchgoers experience the world as more than what is material and observable. Because God is immaterial, believers must use their imaginations to represent God. This does not mean that God is imaginary, but rather that the experience of God is dependent upon one’s capacity to imagine what God is like, a capacity that can be taught, learned and improved with practice. “What I saw in church as an anthropological observer”, writes Luhrmann, “was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be God’s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier – at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.”
So there you have it. Evidence suggests that weekly church attendance is good for your health! Although Christians don’t generally pursue the religious life for reasons of health per se, experience has taught us – now affirmed by anthropological study -- that the faithful practice of religion, combined with intentional participation in the community of faith, can lead not only to a greater awareness of the presence of God, but to an increased sense of wellbeing, hopefulness and purpose.