Today our society is suffering from an epidemic of self-harm, culminating in the most final form of suffering on this earth—in “deaths of despair.”
These deaths speak to the harm inflicted on oneself through overdosing, suicide, or health issues from alcoholism. They manifest despair as a way of coping (or trying to end) one’s suffering of physical or mental pain.
A new study makes the case that a loss of religion has played a significant part in this rise. This does not necessarily entail atheism, as many of these people may continue to believe in God or some other kind of spirituality. Rather, it involves no longer participating in organized religion within a faith community.
Previous research has shown that men and women who regularly attended religious services at least once a week were less likely to die of despair. Which means, as Tyler VanderWeele and Brendan Case point out in a CT article, “Empty pews are an American public health crisis.”
The individualization of religion and the isolation of its experience are two factors contributing to this trend. We live in times of great confusion regarding how God created us—and among the lies we struggle with is believing that community is something we can take or leave.
When God declared of Adam “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), he revealed that he’d created human beings to be inherently social by nature. What was good for Adam was community, of which his marriage to Eve was the first manifestation.
The partnership of marriage, as well as other communities today—including neighborhoods, civic organizations, and political affiliations—all lack sufficient or healthy participation. This results in a loss not only for these social groups but also for the people who are disconnected from them.
But the absence of organized religion contributes to the sense of despair for many in way that is particularly detrimental. Removal from participation in the body of Christ starves the soul, denying it the spiritual food it so desperately needs.
First, without church, we lack full communion with God.
Human sinfulness has opened a rift in that relationship that, left unaddressed, results in pain and despair. Yet by faith, God reconciles us to himself, restoring to us what we most needed all along—a relationship with him. In his Confessions, Augustine wrote to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” And in Psalm 43, the psalmist sings of God as his “exceeding joy” (v. 4, ESV).
So where do we find God? Certainly, he can save us wherever we are, and yet God has promised his presence in church community in a special way.
Matthew 18:20 reminds us that God’s presence is with us whenever we gather in his name. We see this manifest in corporate settings through the preaching of God’s Word, praise of the Lord together in worship, and sacraments like Communion. Through these, God speaks to us, joins us in unity, and binds us to himself.
Second, without church, we lack full knowledge of God.
Scripture remains our primary, norm-establishing source for understanding the things of God. And while we live in an age when the Bible is more accessible to every individual, we still learn about God’s Word far better in community.
The story of the early church in Acts shows how the believers gathered together to learn and grow in their faith.
For instance, at Pentecost, Peter and the other 11 disciples preached to thousands of their fellow Jews—helping them understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ was a fulfillment of ancient promises to Israelites in the Old Testament. Afterward, the Scriptures say that the early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” and that “all the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:42, 44).
When Paul preached to a Jewish synagogue in Berea, the Bereans “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true,” comparing his words to the Old Testament’s teachings (Acts 17:11) And in Acts 8, when an Ethiopian eunuch was struggling to understand a passage in Isaiah, Philip came alongside to explain it to him, share the gospel, and eventually baptize him.
Likewise, churches today are a context in which we are taught about God’s attributes, commands, and deeds—whether that comes from the public reading of Scripture, preaching, liturgy, Sunday school, or Bible studies. The church teaches us essential truths of God’s Word; or as article 20 of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion says, the church is a “witness and a keeper of Holy Writ.”
Third, without church, we lose out on authentic, restored human community.
The Fall recorded in Genesis 3 does not just tell of the tragedy of our broken relationship with God; the entrance of sin into the world also infected our connection with each other. The beautiful poetry Adam uttered upon seeing Eve for the first time, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23) gives way to shame and accusation: “The woman you put here with me” (3:12).
Cain’s murder of Abel in Genesis 4 completes the picture of how human relationships were distorted, bent toward selfish destruction rather than loving partnership. We live with this reality every day as we struggle with our own sins and those who sin against us. So often, brokenness in our relationships with others—along with the guilt, shame, and hurt it brings—can give us cause for despair.
But in restoring us to himself, God also restores us to each other. We are all united as members of the living body of Christ—not separated, isolated organisms. And through this unity, we receive forgiveness for ourselves as well as for one other: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Thus, Christianity without a church fails to show the full scale of the gospel.
In a redeemed community, we can experience God’s declaration that we are righteous—not inherently but through the work of his Son (2 Cor. 5:21). And only through that mercy can fallible people live together in harmony. Within God’s church, we find the means of grace through which God begins to heal the disease of our sin. Sanctification follows justification, as we’re given new hearts not only to love God truly but also to love each other rightly.
Our church community stands with us as we continue to struggle against our foes—the world, the flesh, and the devil. Paul said to believers in Galatia,“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), just as he called on the church of Rome to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15).
These instructions can guide us in answering the cries of help from those who feel lost in their despair. So many struggle with temptation to address their sense of despair by giving in to sins that would destroy rather than heal them. Thus, the response of a congregation to its members in despair must include physical provision as well as spiritual balm.
But the Bible also calls us to serve those outside the church who are facing despair. In Matthew 25, Jesus instructs his disciples to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and visit the sick and imprisoned—for “whatever you [do] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you [do] for me” (v. 40).
We need to recover this understanding of human flourishing for the sake of our hurting neighbors, as well as for ourselves. Doing so will take renewed effort by the church in word and deed. We need a revived confidence that God works through his Word, by his Spirit, and in his church to save.
Proclamation of God’s Word should never be shortchanged in the name of entertainment or cultural conformity, for Scripture tells us that we do not live “by bread alone” but by the Word of God. But we must also recover true love—as proper doctrine should always lead us to sacrificially give of ourselves financially, emotionally, and physically for the sake of others.
As we continue to confront the despair pervading our society, we must seek to be the means of God’s grace toward those struggling with the threat of death. And as churches foremost—but also as political communities and society as a whole—we must help people find spiritual life.
In the end, a healthy church community encourages those in despair with the hope of final glory. Then our starving souls will be finally and eternally filled at the wedding supper of the Lamb depicted in Revelation. All tears will be wiped away, and death will be no more—and despair itself will be cast into hell.