By David Briggs
My wife and I had just moved to Fairfield County in Connecticut, and were searching for a church. We were impressed when as visitors to an Episcopal congregation, the priest invited my wife to work with other volunteers at a craft fair.
She looked forward to the opportunity to meet people in a new town. Until it was time for lunch, and all of the women from the church working with her went to eat together, leaving only my wife behind to staff the table.
We never went back.
In a religious world that can often seem hierarchical, from clergy leading services to regional and national offices making decisions that impact local churches, the significance of the role played by each person in the pews can often be overlooked.
Yet a growing body of research is showing how worshipers treat one another can have a significant impact on the congregation and the spiritual life and physical health of its members.
In a new study using data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, researchers found informal support from church members was more associated with spiritual growth than worship service attendance or belonging to formal church groups.
Conversations before services or at church suppers may be even more effective than Bible study groups or Sunday School classes in that they provide give-and-take opportunities with trusted companions that can directly address the spiritual needs of individuals, say researchers Neal Krause of the University of Michigan and Cynthia Woolever of the US CLS.
Several other studies also uphold the benefits of this type of positive social support within the congregation.
For example, a study of older adults over time found that greater spiritual support appeared to be associated with having fewer doubts about religion. In contrast, older people who encountered more negative interaction with other church members reported having more doubts.
Those people who have negative experiences with others also are more likely to suppress those doubts, an action associated with less favorable health, researchers Neal Krause and Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at San Antonio reported in an article on “the doubting process” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
In a separate study on self-forgiveness reported in the Review of Religious Research, Krause found results suggesting older adults who were more satisfied with the emotional support they received from church members were more likely to forgive themselves than those who were not satisfied with the support they received.
At their best, what worshippers say to one another at coffee hour or in the grocery store reflects the prayers they recite during services.
When other church members model messages of love and forgiveness that are at the foundation of a faith’s teachings, it reinforces belief and the value of being part of a congregation, Krause says. If the messages are contradictory, with church members gossiping about or criticizing one another, it can place those beliefs in question.
Amid other pressing concerns such as church finances and programming, congregations need to evaluate how members are expressing their faith in their relationships with one another, Krause advises.
“Are the people in our congregation getting along? Are they supporting one another” are among the questions that need to be asked, he said.
The choices members make when they are together matter, whether it is to offer spiritual support in an environment of trust and mutual caring or even for a group of church friends to decide to go to lunch in two groups so a newcomer will not be left alone at a church fair.
It is in those settings, Krause says, "where the real business of religion takes place.”