As millions around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas, it may be easy to miss one of the greatest gifts that continues to bear fruit throughout the year—the support and service faith communities provide.
Many tenants of Christian faith seem somehow strange to many. An awesome, all-powerful God didn’t come into the world he created as a mighty king demanding awe and respect. He came in a way that was hard for even the hard-hearted to resist. He came as a dependent baby in a remote part of the world, to humble parents, in a stable with only lowly shepherds to bear witness to his birth.
Through his life, death and resurrection Jesus called believers to repent and believe in order to enter into a personal relationship with God and to become part of the family of God for eternity. It’s that final promise of a faith community that even social scientists are beginning to appreciate.
Some say that they can believe in God and not belong to any church. That is most certainly true, but they miss the gift of being part of a caring faith community that nurtures, supports, and challenges fellow believers in the good and the bad times.
Keith Miller observed that it wasn’t the strange and unpalatable doctrines that drew early Christians to the church, it was the power of community: “Generally they did not have to lift a finger to evangelize. Someone would be walking down a back alley in Corinth or Ephesus and would see a group of people sitting together talking about the strangest things–something about a man and a tree and an execution and an empty tomb. What they were talking about made no sense to the onlooker. But there was something about the way they spoke to one another, about the way they looked at one another, about the way they cried together, the way they laughed together, the way they touched one another that was strangely appealing. It gave off the scent of love.”
There is ample evidence that faith makes a difference for believers and those they serve, but only recently has research shown that religious involvement has a powerful and beneficial effect in encouraging hope, meaning and a sense of community. Studies find that believers are more optimistic than non-believers and also regain happiness more quickly after experiencing a crisis.
Studies of healthy and happy centenarians, those over 100 years of age, are often quick to include spirituality as one key source for these senior citizens’ “fountain of youth.” Although no particular faith was isolated, having a strong belief system is a big factor in maintaining personal vitality at any age.
A recent coverage by Michelle Healy explored research that found that attending religious services regularly and having close friends in the congregation are highly correlated with have a happier, more satisfying life.
Although numerous studies have shown that religious people report a higher level of well-being compared with the non-religious, Chaeyoon Lim, lead author of the study released in the December issue of American Sociological Review, isolated what aspect of religiousness — church attendance, prayer, theology or spirituality — accounts for this increased level of life satisfaction. Lim’s study found that assuming similar levels of church attendance, it was the religious connection built around identity and belonging that was the key factor determining happiness. Lim said, “Ninety percent of the correlation between church attendance and life satisfaction can be explained if you have these close interactions.”
In today’s world, you can live in a community with a million people and still feel very much alone. There is very little sense of community on a crowded freeway or in a bustling mall of frantic shoppers. Christmas is a time of year that almost calls out for the closeness that a family provides. As with churches through the centuries, the “scent of love” at the center of the family of God beckons like a flower to the bee. There’s a “family” waiting to welcome you in your community. Risk attending Christ’s birthday party this year, and you just may come away with the greatest gift you could receive this Christmas—lasting friends willing to support and serve with you for an eternity.