How Worship & Youth Group Impact Mental Health

In his farewell speech/sermon to the nation of Israel, Moses recounts to them the story of how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt and their wandering in the desert that brought them to the present where they were on the borders of the Promised Land and about to enter. A big part of that story is the relationship that God was establishing with Israel, a relationship that begins with God’s rescue. And Israel’s response to that rescue, according to Moses, is obedience to God. Much of Deuteronomy explains what that obedience looks like in the form of rules, but Moses also throws in a why we should obey God:

So be very careful to act exactly as God commands you. Don’t veer off to the right or the left. Walk straight down the road God commands so that you’ll have a good life and live a long time in the land that you’re about to possess.

Deuteronomy 5:32-35, The Message

This is such an important message because of what it tells us about God: God isn’t an authoritarian handing down arbitrary rules. Instead, God is committed to human flourishing. While followers of Jesus don’t live under the Law in the same way that Israel was called to, the Law helps to shape our imagination for a good life for all where all experience shalom, a Hebrew word that is usually translated as “peace,” but really is more expansive than that. Shalom is universal flourishing where everyone fits and is included and is whole. Shalom reminds us that there is another person on the receiving end of our actions and shalom isn’t possible if those actions bring harm to the other. But shalom reminds us that we are integrated beings too, body, mind, and soul.

With that in mind, what does modern psychology and neuroscience have to tell us about the shalom that is sought when Old and New Testament writers make clear God’s desire for us to worship and to engage in Christian community? Since it’s Mental Health Awareness month, we’ll zoom in on how these practices are beneficial for the mind and soul and contribute to wholeness for teenagers.

Religious Teens Experience Better Emotional & Mental Health

Springtide Research Institute has been looking at the connection between religious belief and practice and mental health among Gen Z (13-25 year olds). These graphs illustrate their findings:

Find out more about Springtide’s Research here

Connection to Supportive Non-Parental Adults

Part of our developmental work as teenagers is to build an identity outside of the primary family unit, which includes relationships with adults who aren’t parents. In a church community, teenagers have opportunities to encounter adults who promised at their baptisms to guide and nurture them. In youth ministry specifically, our small group leaders are trained to focus on creating safe places where relationships that are honest and vulnerable can thrive. Research has found that having these sorts of adults in their life has a variety of benefits: increased academic performance, higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of substance abuse and sexual activity, and decreased incidence of emotional problems.

Exposure to Spiritual Disciplines

In the book How God Changes Your Brain, researchers Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman investigated what happens to our brains when engaged in common spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, and singing religious songs. The results were pretty astounding: 10 minutes of daily practice brought irreversible strengthening to the anterior cingulate. After just a couple of months, research subjects experienced better focus and concentration, improved memory, more positive mood, and a better outlook on life. Interestingly, a stronger anterior cingulate is connected with conceptualizing God as loving and compassionate and viewing others with compassion as well.

Worship is Good for Your Brain

Similarly, the practice of weekly worship is beneficial too. In Neuroscience and Christian Formation, Dean Blevins writes about how the experience of worship affects our brain:

When people gather for worship, they condition themselves through their sense experiences, their emotional regulation and memory, and in their actions in the worshipping community. The very ritual processes of worship, as bodily acts of celebration or contrition, fundamentally shape our brain processes. The stronger the experiences, the more continuous the process, the more profound the change through the strengthening of synaptic connections in the brain. Small wonder people sometimes find themselves in times of stress reacting either in fear or faith, in postures of anger or prayer. Fundamentally our participation in worship changes our brains “firing and wiring,” over time, at the synaptic level.

What is DCPC Youth doing specifically to benefit students’ mental health?

  • Over the last couple of years we have introduced mental health topics like anxiety, and suicide to our teaching and conversations. A recent Harvard study found that relationships are the biggest key to happiness and we frequently teach and discuss how to have strong family relationships, friendships, and dating relationships.
  • The number of students in our ministry living with neurodivergence has increased over the last few years and we are going to be engaging in a process over the 2023-24 schoolyear to make youth ministry activities a better experience for those living with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or ADHD.
  • The adolescent phenomenon of “personal fable” means that teenagers often think of themselves as the center of attention and therefore special and unique. This can create an isolated experience where bad things only happen to them while everyone else is happy and living a good life. Our small groups are places where students with different experiences can come together and realize that whatever is going on, it’s not just them. And, even better, there are adults in their group who have survived whatever it is. Through some of our group practices such as prayer requests and sharing stories about difficult experiences, we encourage students to find connection and hope.