God as a drug: The rise of American megachurches

Aug 19, 2012

American megachurches use stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience, according to research from the University of Washington.

"Membership in megachurches is one of the leading ways American Christians worship these days, so, therefore, these churches should be understood," said James Wellman, associate professor of American religion at the University of Washington. "Our study shows that -- contrary to that tends to pass off the megachurch movement as consumerist religion -- megachurches are doing a pretty effective job for their members. In fact, megachurch members speak eloquently of their spiritual growth."

Wellman and co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk, University of Washington graduate students in sociology and comparative religion respectively, studied 2008 data provided by the Leadership Network on 12 nationally representative American megachurches.

Corcoran will present their paper, titled "'God is Like a Drug': Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches," at the 107th Annual Meeting of the .

Megachurches, or churches with 2,000 or more congregants, have grown in number, size, and popularity in recent years, coming to virtually dominate the American . More than half of all American churchgoers now attend the largest 10 percent of churches.

Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music, and what Wellman calls a "multisensory mélange" of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor.

The researchers hypothesized that such rituals are successful in imparting emotional energy in the megachurch setting -- "creating membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality," they wrote.

As part of their study, Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly-Meyerdirk analyzed 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys on megachurch members' emotional experiences with their churches. Four themes emerged: salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service.

The researchers found that feelings of joy felt in the services far exceed the powerful but fleeting "conversion experiences" for which megachurches are often stereotyped.

Many participants used the word "contagious" to describe the feeling of a megachurch service where members arrive hungry for emotional experiences and leave energized. One church member said, "(T)he Holy Spirit goes through the crowd like a football team doing the wave. …Never seen it in any other church."

Wellman said, "That's what you see when you go into megachurches -- you see smiling people; people who are dancing in the aisles, and, in one San Diego megachurch, an interracial mix I've never seen anywhere in my time doing research on American churches. We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That's why we say it's like a drug."

Wellman calls it a "good drug" because the message provides a conventional moral standard, such as being a decent person, taking care of family, and forgiving enemies and yourself. Megachurches also encourage their members, such as by saying, "Things can get better, you can be happy," he added.

This comforting message also is a key to megachurches' success, Wellman said. "How are you going to dominate the market? You give them a generic form of Christianity that's upbeat, exciting, and uplifting."

The researchers also found that the large size of megachurch congregations is a benefit rather than a drawback, as it results in resources for state-of-the-art technology -- amplifying the emotional intensity of services -- and the ability to hire more qualified church leadership.

Wellman said, "This isn't just same-old, same-old. This is not like evangelical revivalism. It's a new, hybrid form of Christianity that's mutating and separate from all the traditional institutions with which we usually affiliate Christianity."

Megachurches, which rarely refer to heaven or hell, are worlds away from the sober, judgmental puritan meetinghouses of long ago, Wellman said.

Wellman will continue studying the topic of the new American Christianity with a book-length profile of Michigan-based pastor and author Rob Bell due out in late fall, and a book in 2013 titled "High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America."

A grant from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion funded the project.

Explore further: Beyond human: Exploring transhumanism

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Are Americans losing faith in religious leaders?

Aug 22, 2011

Americans have significantly less confidence in their religious leaders than they did a generation ago and more than two-thirds would prefer they not dabble in politics, according to a new book by a Duke University professor.

Crystal Cathedral: OMG! Poser tweets as Schuller

Mar 26, 2009

(AP) -- Televangelist Robert H. Schuller has reached millions worldwide with his weekly "Hour of Power" TV broadcasts, but when it comes to the Internet, he had a high-tech headache: an online impostor.

Buddhists and Hindus are on the rise nationally, study finds

May 09, 2012

Hindu and Buddhist groups have grown steadily in the United States since changes in immigration laws in 1965 and 1992, with particularly high concentrations in Texas, California, the New York Metropolitan Area, Illinois and ...

Recommended for you

Beyond human: Exploring transhumanism

22 hours ago

What do pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, Iron Man and flu vaccines all have in common? They are examples of an old idea that's been gaining in significance in the last several decades: transhumanism. The word ...

User comments : 30

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

alfie_null
4.5 / 5 (10) Aug 19, 2012
Peculiar phenomenon. Don't know if it should still be called "religion".
Wellman calls it a "good drug" because the message provides a conventional moral standard ...

Which conventional moral standard? Under the guise of enforcing "morality", lots of evil has been perpetrated.
Eikka
3 / 5 (6) Aug 19, 2012
Peculiar phenomenon. Don't know if it should still be called "religion".


It's more commonly known as "selling out".

But then again, religions are pure memes - they don't have to conform to anything real or make any sense - the sole reason to their existance is that they manage to spread and hold ground.

Ironically, religions evolve to meet external pressure, which is also the reason why it's not such a big deal that they preach morality. A happy-go-lucky megachurch can be seen like a better virus in a world that finds itself increasingly in trouble with religious fundamentalism. If the religious values harm the members, they are eventually discarded, or rather, replaced by another religion or ideology that doesn't.

EyeNStein
1 / 5 (7) Aug 19, 2012
It certainly happens that reality gets lost in the torrent of hype. But we also need a repeated spiritual kick up the backside to remind us what is real sometimes. If we dont love the unlovely or experience at least minor miracles: We probably need a reality check.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.6 / 5 (28) Aug 19, 2012
"American megachurches use stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience, according to research from the University of Washington."

-This has been the NORM throughout history for the state-sponsored religions. Huge piles of cut stone with a priest on top sacrificing virgins. Huge temples with secret inner sanctums and the pleasing smells of barbecued offerings. Huge cathedrals full of organ music and incense. Imams singing from tall towers at dawn. The Hajj. Spectacle is something that religions have lost.

Architecture has always been central to the experience. A cathedral provided the most awe-inspiring experience one could have in a city. It took generations to build and an enormous amount of money.

People have always loved a good show and religions have always known how to capitalize on this. And then along came the Protestants.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.4 / 5 (23) Aug 19, 2012
It certainly happens that reality gets lost in the torrent of hype. But we also need a repeated spiritual kick up the backside to remind us what is real sometimes. If we dont love the unlovely or experience at least minor miracles: We probably need a reality check.
What is real. Sensurround is not real. Spiderman is not real. God is not real. Is it any wonder they need spectacle and the rush of the epiphany to sell it?

'Ignore the man behind the curtain.'

Even protestants need to evoke the images of parting seas and collapsing city walls and fire and brimstone from time to time. Jebus WAS after all a little boring wasn't he? I can walk on water with styrofoam you know?
antialias_physorg
3.3 / 5 (3) Aug 19, 2012
"Membership in megachurches is one of the leading ways American Christians worship these days, so, therefore, these churches should be understood,"

When all that is being taught to you from birth is: "The worth if anything must be judged against its dollar value", then having mega-churches is the next logical step.
Maximize income with while minimizing effort - no sense why religion shouldn't hop on that bandwagon.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.2 / 5 (20) Aug 19, 2012
"Membership in megachurches is one of the leading ways American Christians worship these days, so, therefore, these churches should be understood,"

When all that is being taught to you from birth is: "The worth if anything must be judged against its dollar value", then having mega-churches is the next logical step.
Maximize income with while minimizing effort - no sense why religion shouldn't hop on that bandwagon.
And so this is why the rabble piled into notre dame?
Didymus
2.7 / 5 (7) Aug 19, 2012
Isn't it great when you can be so superior and look down on those little people with their meagre beliefs?

We all know the happiness is not real, it is not based on reason, it is not based on science. Miserableness and criticizing those who aren't is the reality of this universe - after all, it's all based on despair, just ask Bertrand Russell. Of course, I'd rather be a miserable human being pretending I've got it all logically worked out.

Now where did I leave that revolver? Yes, the joy on here is deafening.
TehDog
5 / 5 (2) Aug 19, 2012
And then along came the Protestants.

Made me chuckle :)
Good post btw.
SatanLover
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 19, 2012
sigh....
Shootist
2 / 5 (8) Aug 19, 2012
Peculiar phenomenon. Don't know if it should still be called "religion".
Wellman calls it a "good drug" because the message provides a conventional moral standard ...

Which conventional moral standard? Under the guise of enforcing "morality", lots of evil has been perpetrated.


Mayhap. Man will be man. But far more good than evil regardless of who propagandized you.
PeterD
3.2 / 5 (14) Aug 19, 2012
Religion has done more harm to humanity than anything else humans have invented. We would all be vastly better off if religion did not exist.
ab3a
2 / 5 (8) Aug 19, 2012
Religion has done more harm to humanity than anything else humans have invented. We would all be vastly better off if religion did not exist.


Without religion we would not have a working civilization, so your point is moot.

Religion provides a common set of laws, traditions, and social framework; based upon a mnemonic story which is easily remembered.

It may be flawed. Most such things have flaws in some form or another. But to condemn the edifice in its entirety is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

All that said, Many people are seeking a sense of community. They don't get that in today's mega-cities. The rampant Screw-You, I Got Mine attitude is utterly corrosive and does not promote moral behavior. Churches cultivate and promulgate the view that your neighbors are decent and want the same as you.

THAT is what builds civilization, not some foolish atheistic view that smugly declares themselves smarter than 99% of humanity.
malapropism
4.7 / 5 (9) Aug 19, 2012
Churches cultivate and promulgate the view that your neighbors are decent and want the same as you.

Until such time as your neighbors have a different religion, or maybe even just a different denomination in the same religion, to the one you do. And that's when suddenly the neighbors are different and don't want the same as you and they're evil because they don't worship exactly the same god as you or in exactly the same way as you and then the persecutions and the ethnic cleansings start...
pokerdice1
1.5 / 5 (2) Aug 19, 2012
"But then again, religions are pure memes..."

Yet memes are based on reality. How else can it be? It is obvious that even a meme has something that underlies it. For instance, it is also obvious that memes are mind derived and that mind acts as that qualitative agency that chooses, interprets, unifies and coordinates other aspects of reality, relating it to the personality... sort of like a crystal bending light within itself.

It is clear that both scientific and religious understandings can employ memes. It is with that understanding that we see their potential commonalities of role, in the SINCERE struggle for truth.

Despite the quibbling over "today's facts and religious constructs", provision must be made for growth of meanings at differing ages, in successive cultures, and in the passing stages of advancing civilization. The chief inhibitors of growth are prejudice and ignorance; the common danger attendant with incomplete understanding.
kochevnik
3.2 / 5 (13) Aug 19, 2012
Religion provides a common set of laws, traditions, and social framework; based upon a mnemonic story which is easily remembered.
No, that would be Aesop's fables
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Aug 20, 2012
Yet memes are based on reality. How else can it be?

Peopel can make stuff up. If enough other people belive it then it will turn into a meme.

ALL pantheons throughout history are memes - and I'm pretty certain you don't think there is a basis in reality for (thunder) gods? Do you?

History is chock full of stupid traditions that make absolutely no sense. Memes based on delusions go FAR beyond reliogous teachings alone (e.g. any kind of superstition, like astrology).
Didymus
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 20, 2012
Amazingly sweeping statements being made...Such (lack of) thinking or proper insight and research makes for bad scientists, let alone rounded human beings.

How can people with such little knowledge (in fact pitiful amounts of knowledge or their own careful thinking)really think of themselves as such experts on all religions? It is an insult to everyone else's intelligence to be such arrogant ignoramuses.

If I spoke so unknowledgeably, and ignorantly of some areas of science, sport or art then I would deserve to be ridiculed. However, it seems to be open season for blockheads to be able to spout what is frankly nonsense about religious beliefs, especially Christianity.

I mean, it is embarassing the argumentation employed by some about something that others have arrived at after careful consideration of physical evidence, circumstantial evidence and personal experience. But hey! My dismissive (unthought out) statement wins the day. Simply pathetic.
Deathclock
2.6 / 5 (10) Aug 20, 2012
If we don't ... experience at least minor miracles: We probably need a reality check.


Wow

For the record, what do you consider a "minor miracle"?
Deathclock
1.6 / 5 (7) Aug 20, 2012
Amazingly sweeping statements being made...Such (lack of) thinking or proper insight and research makes for bad scientists, let alone rounded human beings...


Congratulations, you said nothing in 150 words.

Why don't you give even one example of what you are talking about? The fact is, there just isn't that much to know about religion, it's shallow and has no substance... comparing the depth of scientific knowledge to that of religious knowledge is comparing the ocean to a kiddy pool.

Sorry... it's true.
Deathclock
2.3 / 5 (9) Aug 20, 2012
We all know the happiness is not real, it is not based on reason, it is not based on science.


Of course it is, what are you talking about?

Happiness is an emotion like any other, and it serves a purpose like any other. Happiness feels good, and that good feeling drives us to take action to bring it about. Those actions are good for us physically, so they help us to survive. Those that are more likely to survive are more likely to pass on their DNA to more offspring... happiness is predicted via evolutionary theory, just like fear. Fear causes us to be alert in dangerous situations and increases are chances of surviving those situations. Most "feelings" encourage us to do things that are healthy for us and discourage us from doing things that are unhealthy, and so the path of natural selection leading to them is clear.

Now where did I leave that revolver? Yes, the joy on here is deafening.


Your ignorance is your own worst enemy.
Argiod
3 / 5 (8) Aug 20, 2012
"...stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision ... to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional ... experience..."

Priests, Shaman, Magicians, politicians and CEO's have used these techniques since the earliest traces of human society, to modify and control mass human behavior.

Mass psychology suggests a form of brain-entrainment when you get everyone to think alike.

It has been discovered that even the cave drawings of ancient times were capable of producing 'special effects'. When torch light is manipulated correctly in the cave, it creates the illusion of animation.

Old saying: caught between Church and State: the former controls through guilt, the later through fear.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.1 / 5 (21) Aug 20, 2012
Old saying: caught between Church and State: the former controls through guilt, the later through fear.
Its a little more efficient than that. The state has the power to eliminate heretics.

"(CNN) -- An 11-year-old Christian girl has been arrested after being accused of blasphemy by burning pages of the Quran in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad..."Poor child is already suffering from Down Syndrome.... The legislation makes it a crime punishable by death to insult Islam, the Quran or the Prophet Mohammed."

"Three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot have been found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in a prison colony."

-Religion legitimizes the state, the state preserves the religion. This was true when pharaohs and japanese emperors were gods. It is just as true when the queen is the head of the churc of england.

When obama claims to believe in god he endorses all the evil that any religion is capable of, anywhere.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.1 / 5 (21) Aug 20, 2012
State-sponsored religion inevitably results in people like this gaining power to make laws:

"U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Missouri, said Sunday he misspoke when he said in an earlier interview that "legitimate rape" rarely resulted in pregnancy. Akin also expressed opposition to abortion in cases of rape...The comment by Akin, who won Missouri's Republican primary to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November, drew immediate criticism from Democrats and some Republicans."

-Laws which would force religion to be taught in schools and science, including evolution, to be banned.

"[Boko Haram] is a Jihadist group that seeks to establish sharia law in the country. The group is also known for attacking Christians and bombing churches...The movement, whose name in the Hausa language, Boko Haram, translates as "Western education is sinful"..."
cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.1 / 5 (21) Aug 20, 2012
"Creationists in South Korea won a campaign to remove evolution from high school textbooks...a group called the Society for Textbook Revise mounted an effective petition drive and is claiming credit for the removal of the evolution "error" from student's textbooks in order to "correct" their understanding of the world."

-Well thats on the other side of the world isnt it?

"There are states that teach the criticisms of evolution, such as Kansas and Ohio. And others who teach Creationism along with evolution, including Kentucky. Colorado and New York..."

-Would this be the judeo/xian version(s) or the original sumerian one which they stole? Which came first, light or the thing that makes it? God got this backwards at least once.

So many to choose from...
http://en.wikiped...on_myths
RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (3) Aug 20, 2012
Considering the BS involved, I assume that the God drug is taken in suppository form ...
ryggesogn2
1.9 / 5 (9) Aug 20, 2012
I see people walking around with these things stuck into their ears attacked to a little domino shaped thing. They play with some controls and seem to feel better.
And these people completely zone out to the world with these things stuck in their ears.
Is this some kind of drug?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2012
Happiness is an emotion like any other, and it serves a purpose like any other. Happiness feels good,

As someone once so succinctly put it: Endorphine is the one (and only) drug you are addicted to.

It's the addiction that drives us. While this may not be very 'spiritual' or 'miraculous' it's good enough for me.

Now where did I leave that revolver?

Spoken like a true believer.

Or do you plan on doingthe world a favor and turning it against yourself? Don't miss: your brain is a difficult target.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.2 / 5 (20) Aug 21, 2012
I see people walking around with these things stuck into their ears attacked to a little domino shaped thing. They play with some controls and seem to feel better.
And these people completely zone out to the world with these things stuck in their ears.
Is this some kind of drug?
Yes many people listen to hymns and gospel music on them. And this guy:
http://www.joelos...dex.aspx

-Because it makes them feel good. Or even this guy:
http://www.davidicke.com/

-Who is a pleasant sort of nutter.
extinct
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 22, 2012
until the day when Christianity and other major religions destroy the planet with their nuclear bombs and such, they will continue to deny that they are based on experiences had through the use of magic mushrooms, long before Christianity or any major religion came along. Fungi are the oldest life forms on land, having come along about half a billion years before the first photosynthesizing plant. Eat a shroom and change your life forever, for the better. Or sit there and wallow in stupefied fear that a demon will strike you down for exercising curiosity. decisions, decisions...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.