New research reveals the latest path to better health and wellbeing. Go to church.

But the true link to the health benefits may not be what you expect.

Gallup found that people who regularly go to church make better health choices, experience fewer daily negative emotions, and are less likely to be diagnosed with depression. And the very religious are more likely to eat healthy foods, exercise more frequently, and generally experience higher life satisfaction.

Great! So, shall we advertise that sitting through an hour at church each Sunday will make everyone healthier? Not so fast, said the researchers.

It turns out that it’s not really worship routines that correlate to better health and wellbeing. Actually, it’s friends. Churchgoers are happier and healthier because of their church friends. And church friends lead to greater life satisfaction than friends outside of church.

But churchgoers who have no friends at church are less happy than those who do not go to church at all.


Though few churches would say health and wellbeing are their primary ministry goals, these are certainly desirable side benefits. And though the Gallup study did not measure spiritual growth in this research, an earlier Gallup/Group study did find links between friendships and faith. We discovered that 74% of those with good church friends say their faith is involved in every aspect of their life. But only 54% of those without a best friend at church say the same thing.

Knowing how church friends affect wellbeing and faith, we must wonder how well churches are intentionally seizing this benefit. Yes, I know every church says it’s friendly, offers groups, hosts occasional meals and events, and so on.

But what about the “main event” of the week–the weekly worship service–the time when most people make their only connection to the church? How well do most churches encourage and facilitate friendship during and around that time? Some would boast they prod worshippers to “meet and greet” for the obligatory 60-second handshake frenzy each week. But everybody in the pews knows that ritual has little to do with friendship.

If we want to encourage more friendship, we’ll need to devote some real time and attention to it. Provide times–during the worship hour–for meaningful conversation. Let people talk with one another about how God is working in their lives. Pose thoughtful questions for people to respond to with two or three others around them. Encourage interaction. Break out of the spectator emphasis of the American church experience.

To be honest, I used to be bothered when I observed the ushers gathering and chatting in the lobby during the singing on Sunday morning. But now, after seeing the true friendship–and faith–that those guys share, I think maybe I’ll apply for my usher badge.