Inaugural lecture explores positive outcomes of the worship experience
“Worship is adoration directed towards God—but the outcome may be changed lives and changed relationships,” stated Professor of Psychology Alexis Abernethy in an inaugural lecture delivered at Fuller’s Pasadena campus on Tuesday, April 14. Her lecture, offered as part of a special service marking her promotion to full professor in the School of Psychology, focused on the topic “Relational Conflict, Worship, and Transformation.”
Dr. Abernethy spoke on worship’s role in promoting positive health and relationships. She noted that past research associated church attendance with decreased morbidity and mortality and positive psychological and physical well-being. Current research on forgiveness, she reported, suggests that certain spiritual practices may minimize the effects of negative emotions on the cardiovascular system. In her own research, a pilot study recently found that some psychophysical changes were also associated with the recall of different kinds of worship experiences.
Additionally, Abernethy discussed anthropologist René Girard’s understanding of mimetic desire and “scapegoating,” and suggested that worship might offer a transformational experience that redirects scapegoating and other negative relational tendencies. In her research on Pentecostal and Presbyterian church members of various ethnic groups, she reported, worship seems to positively affect relationships with family, friends, and other church congregants, encouraging attitudes of acceptance, collaboration, and graciousness. Through further research she plans to continue exploring the effects of the worship experience on psychophysical and relational health: “A focus on transformation is reasonable and consistent with the true meaning of worship,” she said. “It’s not the goal of worship, but it’s worth investigating and studying.
Fuller President Richard J. Mouw offered welcoming comments at the inaugural service. “Fuller’s School of Psychology was founded in order to bring about the integration of theology and psychology,” he said. “Dr. Abernethy exemplifies this value of integration, having researched issues such as physical health, gender, spirituality, and musical worship, all from the perspective of a psychologist.”
Abernethy joined Fuller’s faculty in 1998, having previously served for 12 years on the Psychology Division faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Her research at Fuller centers on the intersection between spirituality and health, and she has received grants from the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, California Cancer Research Program, the National Cancer Institute, and the Templeton Foundation. In addition to her study of worship’s connection to behavioral and health-related outcomes, recent areas of her research include the relationship between religiousness and prostate screening among African-American men and religious coping and depression among spouses of people with lung cancer. Abernethy has published multiple journal articles and recently edited the book Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation.