Many maga-churches in the United States use a tremendous amount of neuro-sensory stimulation in their services, something researchers at University of Washington label stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity, to give participants a powerfully emotional religious experience.
"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 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."
In 2008, a grant from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion funded a study by Wellman and co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk, University of Washington graduate students in sociology and comparative religion. The researchers studied data provided by the leadership of twelve mega-churches around the country. They then presented their findings in a paper called "'God is Like a Drug': Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Mega-churches," at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.
Researches mega-churches defined as churches with more than 2,000 members. They found that these churches grew tremendously in size and popularity in recent years and dominated around the country. More than half of American attend 10% of some the largest churches around country.
Many of these churches present themselves as “come as you are” churches and include Christian rock music and other nuero-sensory items, which Wellman calls a "multi-sensory mélange" of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses. In addition, many of these churches include a charismatic preacher, which also stimulates the senses.
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.
Included in their study, Wellman et al analyzed 470 interviews and 16000 surveys, asking members about their emotional experiences in mega-churches and found that four themes emerged out these interviews and surveys. The four themes they found were “salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service.”
The researches also found that feelings of joy emerged from such services far exceeded conversion experiences. Many participants in mega-churches used the word “contagious” in relationship to the services and stated that many people came to services hungry for an emotional experience. After they service, they stated the left feeling “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 related these feelings to that which people experience when on a drug high.
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."
He also stated that the comforting messages that mega-church preachers give is also the key to mega-churches’ success.
“How are you going to dominate the market? You give them a generic form of Christianity that's upbeat, exciting, and uplifting."
Researchers also found the massive number of attendants helps with the success of mega-churches, instead of hindering it. The resources used to acquire state-of-the-art technology also magnify the emotional experiences for people who attend these churches, as well as the ability to hire leaders that are more qualified.
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."
Wellman also stated that mega-churches refer to heaven or hell and called them worlds away from the sober, judgmental puritan meetinghouses of long ago.
Wellman and others continue studying this topic with a book written by the Michigan-based mega-church preacher and author Rob Bell called "High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America." The book is due for purchasing in 2013.