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Megachurches: ‘Upbeat, but untaxing’

07 September 2012

STAGECRAFT, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership, and an "up­beat, unchallenging vision of Christianity" enable megachurches to be "potent purveyors of rich, affective experiences", which generate "height­ened spirituality", a new study from the University of Wash­ington sug­gests.

The paper - "'God is like a Drug . . .': Explaining interaction ritual chains in American megachurches" - is informed by visits to 12 churches, where 470 interviews with members, and a survey of all those present in the congregation, were conducted.

The authors, led by James Wellman, Associate Professor of Religion at the university, argue that the megachurches are "interaction ritual venues", where participants seek and receive "emotional energy", a powerful sense of belonging, and "heightened spirituality" (defined as "a desire and affective experience of the ultimate").

The paper highlights the benefits derived by members of such churches, which are defined as having 2000 members or more. The feelings of joy felt in the service "far exceed the powerful but fleeting conversion experiences for which megagchurches are often stereotyped", the authors say. The experience is akin to a "good drug", because it generates "unalloyed joy" while providing "a conventional moral standard".

The study notes the "welcoming, non-intimidating ethos and aes­thet­ic", and the "charismatic bond" between the pastor and members: "They are masters at evoking emo­tions that influence and effect change in the hearer."

Central to the paper is the suggestion that what members de­scribe as a spiritual experience is, in fact, an emotional one. The authors say that what the members call the "feeling of the spirit of God" is "a multisensory mélange of sensory input", involving emotionally charged lyrics and being surrounded by "thousands of people experiencing the same thing".

The sermons are "are understood through the emotions" rather than offering "complicated theological explanations or critical analysis of a biblical text. . . The ideas are arousing and moving, but not intellectually taxing."

The findings of the paper are unlikely to chime with all church traditions, including some mega­churches. Mark Driscoll, the Pastor of Mars Hill Church, based in Seattle, which is attended by 15,000 people a week, has emphasised the importance of sermons' lasting at least an hour. Recent subjects, which are unlikely to be described as "unchal­lenging", include "what we as the church today can learn from Jesus's words to those churches in the book of Revelation".

The number of megachurches in the United States has increased from 350 in 1990 to more than 1200, "with no indication of slowing down". More than half of all churchgoers attend the top ten per cent of the largest churches in the US.

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