Imagine that you are going through one of the hardest times of your life. Your performance at work is much to be desired, and your relationship with your loved ones appear to be going down the drain. You turn to drinking to ease your troubles, but this habit only serves to make things worse.
One day, a colleague of yours comes up to you and starts talking to you about your recent listlessness, and asks you if you were “okay”. You start to tell him how life isn’t exactly going as planned, and that you just started binge drinking to “drown your sorrows”, “like they do on TV”, but that it wasn’t exactly helping.
This colleague of yours then tells you that “maybe you should try going to church”, and invites you to sit in one of these Sundays during mass. Though you tell your colleague you’re not much of a “God person”, and that “it won’t help”, he insists, and you agree if for no other reason than that you’re trying to get her off your back.
After the first church session, you feel a little strange. You’re feeling surprisingly refreshed, and you start to think if God had suddenly entered your life. You do not attribute this to your colleague’s church’s friends welcoming you, nor to the fact that this was the first time in ages you’ve had a decent conversation with anybody, but rather, to the healing effect of the church.
The next day, your boss tells you that he just managed to get a very important client, and apologises if he had been nasty these past few weeks toward you “and the rest of the guys” as he was feeling a little overwhelmed by the pressure getting this client was causing him.
At home, your wife, seeing that you looked a little happier than other days after work, smiles at you, and asks, like she did on all the other days, “and how was work?” Finally after weeks of saying “f***ed”, you reply, “it was great!”
Your reaction causes her to give you a hug and a kiss, and you feel the tension at home lifting already.
Before you go to bed, you start thinking about what changed to cause these events to occur. Then you realise that the only thing that changed was your going to church. You start to attribute all these good things to the church, to God finally saving you, and you decide to attend church more regularly.
Soon, you start going to church even after your bad patch is over, since you’ve made new friends there, and it’s now “part of your life”.
And then you “become Christian”.
But did Jesus really save you from your troubles? Would having conversations outside the church context have helped as much as attending church? Would your boss not have told you about the client even if you hadn’t attended church? and would your relationship not improve just because of that news, allowing you to go home and actually look happy, prompting your wife to hug and kiss you?
Because people tend to go to church when they need it the most, the church doesn’t have to do much to cause you to think that it helps. You could put a horseshoe on your door and your life would have improved, causing you to think that it brings luck.
This phenomenon is called a regression toward the mean, in that in life, there will always be ups and downs. If life appears to be going horribly wrong, chances are good that over time it will start to get better. But because one turns to church during the worst times, regression toward the mean will make it look as if it’s helping.
If we were to start going to church when everything in our lives were going extremely well, and suddenly troubles started to happen, we would think exactly the opposite.
So does Jesus really save? In terms of the church forming a healthy, supportive community, yes, definitely. But in terms of causing miracles and turning your life around through supernatural means, probably not.