|Worshippers gather for a church service at the Crystal Cathedral megachurch in Garden Grove, California, March 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn
The "multi-sensory mélange" of music, visuals and an inspiring message experienced by American megachurchgoers amounts to "a good drug," a professor of religion told the 107th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver Sunday.
Using "stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience," megachurches have grown in number, size, and popularity in recent years, Prof. James Wellman of the University of Washington told the conference.
Megachurches, or churches with 2,000 or more congregants, feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music and a charismatic pastor.
"Membership in megachurches is one of the leading ways American Christians worship these days, so, therefore, these churches should be understood," he said. "Our study shows that -- contrary to public opinion 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 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.
Many participants used the word "contagious" to describe the feeling of a megachurch service where members arrive hungry for emotional experiences and leave energized, the study says.
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."
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."