Does megachurch ‘high’ explain their success?

Religion News Service photo courtesy of Southeast Christian Church

(RNS) Maybe religion really is the opiate of the masses – just not the way Karl Marx imagined.

A University of Washington study posits that worship services at megachurches can trigger feelings of transcendence and changes in brain chemistry – a spiritual “high” that keeps congregants coming back for more.

Southeast Christian Church, a Louisville, Ky., megachurch, holds services like this one during Christmas time.

Southeast Christian Church, a Louisville, Ky., megachurch, holds services like this one during Christmas time.

“We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That’s why we say it’s like a drug,” said James Wellman, an associate professor of American religion who co-authored the study.

The study, “‘God is like a drug’: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches” was presented Sunday (Aug. 19) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver.

Large gatherings of shared experience like concerts and sporting events also trigger feelings of euphoria, said Katie Corcoran, a Ph.D. candidate who co-authored the paper. But, she said, “churches seem to be somewhat unique in that these feelings are not just experienced as euphoria but as something transcendent or divine.”

The authors theorize the spiritual high from megachurch services is experienced as an “oxytocin cocktail” of shared transcendent experience and the brain’s release of oxytocin, a chemical that is thought to play a part in social interaction. Emotion and group experience have been shown to raise levels of oxytocin.

One congregant reported, “God’s love becomes … such a drug that you can’t wait to come get your next hit. … You can’t wait to get involved to get the high from God.”

Another said “you can look up to the balcony and see the Holy Spirit go over the crowd like a wave in a football game,” Corcoran said.

Megachurches create this high through their unique style of worship, Corcoran said. Megachurches use technology and appeals to emotion to create a shared experience in congregations that number in the thousands.

“The upbeat modern music, cameras that scan the audience and project smiling, dancing, singing, or crying worshippers on large screens, and an extremely charismatic leader whose sermons touch individuals on an emotional level … serve to create these strong positive emotional experiences,” Corcoran said.

The pastor functions as an “energy star” who engages the congregation through an accessible, informal and emotional sermon. Rather than being analytical or theological, the message “just feels right” or “just makes sense” for congregants, Wellman said.

To extend the spiritual high beyond Sunday, churches feature small group activities such as Bible study, book clubs, and volunteer activities, the researchers said. But it is Sunday worship that brings people back.

The study bucks the idea that larger churches produce weaker member commitment; nearly 80 percent of congregants said church size did not hinder their spiritual growth.

An estimated 10 percent of American Protestants — 6 million worshippers — regularly attend one of 1,600 megachurches.

Researchers observed services and conducted 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys at 12 megachurches for the University of Washington study.


About the author

Chris Lisee


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  • I don’t need a church (or its congregants) to get an emotional high…I don’t even WANT an emotional high…church is about the spirit, not the mind…believe me, I catch my buzz contemplating the stars, the rolling thunder, and the power of the universe displaying HOW GREAT HE IS…and I can be completely alone…

    I’ve been in some of these churches…and I am troubled about the endless droning of the worship songs and the ever increasing volume of the worship leader as he incites the crowd…I wonder if they feel that they have failed God if they don’t see the masses doing the WAVE during their worship…

    And don’t even get me started on the histrionics of some of these preachers…I saw a bumper sticker once that said “Dear Lord, Please Protect Me From Your Followers” and when looked at through the “eyes of those in the world”, I don’t blame them one bit for their stand-offishness and NOT wanting to be like that…

    My two cents…

  • You know, I have used drugs in the past… and the feeling that I get when I am in church is not the same as with drugs. My RELATIONSHIP with God is so much more than just a Sunday morning high experince.

    And yes, I agree that there are many churches that have worship songs that are sometimes over the top and you can get super charged up and all that but to me that is a manipulation of the spiritual world. With ever increasingly loud music often played and the power points that sometimes can lead you to outerspace or a major snow blizzard driving at night with the high beams on experince it is a wonder that people don’t do the WAVE or something during the worship in some churches.

    I think that the RELATIONSHIP that God intends with His people is manipulated in that way. If one only listens to some of the words instead of getting caught up in the moment you will be able to tell.

    I had an aunt and uncle that spent their entire lives as missionaries to tribal people and the 1 thing that they always said was that the “BEAT OF THE DRUMS” would indicate how the tribe reacted. SO, does that also not hold true for worship? And if we are manipulating that time with God is it even real? or Holy?

  • Sooo Billy Graham Crusades, circa 1960s-70s… just expanded, polished, and perfected for maximum effect today. Sheep indeed.

  • OOPS… that 3rd paragraph is to read

    I think that the RELATIONSHIP that God intends with His people is one that is not manipulated in any way. If one only listens to the words instead of being drawn into by the beat you will truely see the difference. Worshipping God is suppose to be all about Him and not about me. I am so undeserving of all that He has done for me that I just want to show Him. I don’t think God is influneced by our manipulations.

  • For many people, this kind of experience, may help them to live lives that are up-building, morally conscientious, and open to the Spirit’s promptings to do as Jesus would do.
    I can imagine that some are comfortably anonymous in the crowd, sharing the euphoria.
    Jesus, however, reminded his disciples to “Do this in memory of me.” with reference to having a meal where they broke the bread of which Christ said, “This is my body.” and sip the wine of which He said, “This is the blood of the new covenant.”
    Such is the opportunity to share life, consider the meaning of God’s call to us as individuals and as members of the Body of Christ.
    Worshiping God with others is very important. Learning about how to follow the teachings of Jesus is also important. Christian life has other components, not the least of which is joining with others to share our lives and to help build the kingdom of God.
    It’s best to do this too, as Jesus did, with a small group of close friends, not always on the hillside with the multitude.

  • Interesting. I’ve been invited to be part of a discussion on a Seattle NPR show on this so I’m investigating.

    I’m all for God-as-Drug and believe that the purpose of going to church is to get “high” through multi-media, sensual experience. But this is what high liturgy–represented by Anglican, Orthodox, sometimes RC sometimes Lutheran churches do. Megachurches, relentlessly lower-middle-brow do garbage–plastic, formulaic, vulgar trash that appeals to people whose emotional lives are so truncated that the this manufactured cheer is the closest they can get to being “high”–and whose taste is so bad that they think Disneyland is the height of aesthetics.

    And, of course, the leopard doesn’t change its spots–for all the window dressing they’re a bunch of stinking fundamentalists. This stuff is poison.

  • It would have been good if the sociologists had also looked at indicators other than getting “High” like; small group, bible study, and church school for adult and child types of attendance and participation. We can’t measure or come to a conclusion about someone else’s heart in worship. From the reading of some blog sites there are people in pastor/leadership/worship roles that have difficulty measuring their own hearts.

  • We enjoyed a weekend Retreat at our church this weekend, the experience being fresh with me is the background for my comments At 17 yrs old I turned from a Catholic lifestyle to a quasi-fundamentalist Protestant Baptist conviction. In my 30″s I attended a baptistic college and became a pastor. After 5 yrs in ministry I returned to the work force outside of the church.The following years have provided many a reason to review my beliefs and how I my value of those beliefs to God in worship either , privately , shared or collectively . The “shared” context is a small, selected group which is a meeting of the middle between what are different contexts and can be taken to excess.Excess is potentially present when I give control to someone else to lead me In the ” collective” venue , or excess can creep In when alone without any accountability or guidance.
    The church I am attending now , on the surface would seem an unlikely choice for a former Baptist ” loosely fundy ” pastor. Charasmatic Theology was not fostered in the churches I frequented. What I want to share is not about seeing the truth of the gifts and the theology of a denomination, and how that influenced my worship. No what I will try to share , is much more vital its the truth about THE TRUTH This is what informs my worship , This is my motivation, this is unchanged by externals this is the life behind the ultimate act of worship found in the heart of the greatest letter on salvation and our response to that sacrifice for us,,,in Romans 12: 1,2 Through the process of letting God be God in my everyday life I draw closer to Love. How? Because I draw to Love incarnate In this Person is Truth Love Life INCARNATE We who know Christ have all that is necessary for life But what is Life ? This answer will touch every part of our being . The collaborative efforts of the discipline studies in phylosophy , humanities, anthropology , theology, and health and sciences have made advancements in understanding the modern man. Specifically within the mental health field of understanding. Its rise has been labelled by many Christian practitioners as the “psycho-spiritual ” area of the human identity. The recognition of this component of the human make-up has brought resolution to many people wrestling with anguish fears guilt and much more.
    As this area of our being is aligned with our body soul spirit a fuller picture of life comes into meaning. To omit any one area of life from your experience is to live un filled. Thus when we present our bodies in worship it is the sum of all four components that are brought to bear in my experience with my Creator.
    It behooves us to know these elements of our being to present them ” holy and acceptable to the Lord.” To know their function and distinctives. To know their nurture. In doing so we find , a synchronisity, an integration and authenticity that can only be connected to the pleading of Paul to believers everywhere to “Put off the old man and put on the new” that being the only man that experienced abundant life Jesus the Christ. AND THIS LIFE WAS SANS ANY COMPARISON TO ANYTHING ELSE LET ALONE DRUGS We of all people need to learn from experience how to communicate a transcendent relationship, which should be our normal experience to an unfulfiled family, friend or worker.

  • Having grown up in the pentecostal movement (been to all the “revivals” including healing services), I was wary of a lot of the meetings I attended both as a child, and a high school student. I agree with the comparison between rock concerts and the gradual but steady movement in those services from church to individual behaviors. Most of the “revivalists” were handsome yong men (inclined to bring the girls). I have little respect for “drumming up feelings” during church services. However, I have often felt the Holy Spirit during various “anglican” serivices. Its a whole lot different feeling, more of a “still small voice”, almost puts you in awe at how wonderful it will be in heaven.

  • I work for one of the TV networks….not going to say which….I’ve seen the inside….the REAL inside. If you want to see the truth, check out Youtube….It’s true, I can verify it, I’ve seen it, been in it, helped propogate it (a LONG time ago).

    Megachurches are for the most part, harmless derivations of Rock concerts. Harmless in the emotional sense, because very little bad or good comes of them or their services….

    If however, they do get serious, there are a few problems that are concomitant with the body….

    1. What to watch out for…
    healings, that they aren’t cherry picked
    unleashed tongues, of the five major language families, are they speaking one of them, or Hebrew. Hebrew is most likely the Heavenly language. Are Scriptural instruction used to control the glossolalia
    prophecy, are people beyond the limits of the church being told things and are they specific, or is the prophecy of someone in the church….a true prophet was stoned in the Old Testament if wrong just ONE time!

    When Jesus healed, people were healed instantly…when the apostles spoke in tongues, they preached to the incoming foreigners in Jerusalem and 3000 got saved.

    Churches were held in people’s homes and sometimes out in a forest because of the heavy persecution. I’m not against a megachurch…I’m against the weak Christians that come from them.

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