Why the surgeon general is worried about declining church attendance

Congregants sit in largely empty pews during service at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., on Sunday, April 16, 2023.
Congregants sit in largely empty pews during service at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., on Sunday, April 16, 2023. | Jessie Wardarski, Associated Press

Loneliness has become a “profound threat” to public health in part because many Americans have stopped going to church, according to a report on the healing effects of social connection released by the United States surgeon general earlier this month.

Vivek Murthy and his team noted that religious services, like other types of community events, have long been an important source of social connection. Without them, many Americans struggle to form meaningful bonds.

“Religious or faith-based groups can be a source for regular social contact, serve as a community of support, provide meaning and purpose, create a sense of belonging around shared values and beliefs, and are associated with reduced risk-taking behaviors. As a consequence of this decline in participation, individuals’ health may be undermined in different ways,” the report says.


The side effects of loneliness and isolation can include mental and physical challenges, according to the report, which says “(loneliness) is associated with greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death.”

To avoid these negative consequences, Murthy and his team recommend being more intentional about how you spend your free time.

The report encourages readers to seek out close relationships with others, keep phones put away in social settings and join community groups, like houses of worship.

“Participate in social and community groups such as fitness, religious, hobby, professional, and community service organizations to foster a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose,” the report says.

As the Deseret News has previously reported, this advice is easier to give than to follow at a time when many Americans are prioritizing individual pursuits.

“There’s been a real shift away from community and civic organizations toward personal endeavors,” said Daniel Cox, the director of the Survey Center on American Life, to the Deseret News last year.

In other words, if everyone you know is focused on their career or kids or fitness goals instead of social connection, it becomes harder to swim against this tide and invest time in community groups.

Over the past decade, the share of Americans who attend religious services at least a few times per year has fallen by 13 percentage points, according to a survey released Tuesday by Public Religion Research Institute.

In 2022, 43% of U.S. adults attended religious services at least a few times each year, compared to 56% in 2013, the survey showed.

In the new report, Murthy and his team highlight a number of related findings, including data showing that fewer than half of Americans now report being a member of a house of worship.

Other community groups, like social clubs and labor unions, have faced similar drops in membership, the report says.

In a letter accompanying the report, Murthy calls on Americans to take these trends seriously and to do what they can to reverse them. By focusing on building meaningful relationships, we can tap into a hidden source of healing, he writes.

“Answer that phone call from a friend. Make time to share a meal. Listen without the distraction of your phone. Perform an act of service. Express yourself authentically. The keys to human connection are simple, but extraordinarily powerful,” Murthy writes.