A Sociological Look at the MegaChurch

A Sociological Look at the MegaChurch August 21, 2012

The megachurch is a topic that fascinates me as a church leader. I’ve been involved in megachurch culture for a couple of decades now and have been trying to think critically about their impact on the health of the church universal. I’ve drawn a lot of conclusions to this point, some of them are in the article “The Failure of the Megachurch” at The Huffington Post.

Interesting new article out from the Religion News Service on the phenomenon of the megachurch and why it appeals to so many. The article is a great example of why I try not to put too much stock in sociological “data.” The major thesis of the article is that the megachurch religious experience acts like a drug – which is to say it mimics the effects of a drug. This of course comes solely from “interviews” of megachurch attenders and not from any sort of physiological data.

The article’s conclusion is, “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.” I’m not sure how you could ever draw that conclusion based on interviews with attenders with the sole criteria being church attendance. This is like saying that people who go to McDonald’s are interested in nutrition simply because they tell you so.

Here’s a quick excerpt… what do you think?

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.”

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  • D

    I haven’t read your conclusions of a Megachurch, so this comment may not be fully in-line with what you are asking.
    I think that the megachurch’s effect on one’s spiritual journey has a lot to do with the individual. A megachurch makes it very easy for a person to walk in and get the euphoria of a sporting event or a concert or any other large social gathering that the focus and energy is spotlighted and walk right back out. However, most megachurch’s offer ways for people to plug-in and get connected to other individuals, hopefully (but not always) in a manner that encourages spiritual growth. There is room for community in a megachurch, but I personally think it is harder to achieve. It is harder to connect to the people that are there regularly, simply because you may not be able to find them in the 100’s (1000’s) of other people that come in and out. If you go to a megachurch or you go to a small church, if that Sunday morning service is all that you are getting…you are personally inhibiting your spiritual growth. Spiritual growth and getting plugged into a community of people that encourage you and lift you up and pray with you and for you, requires work on your part. God will meet you wherever you are at, but you have to be willing to work with him and not shut him out.

  • Joe

    Are you aware of the Willow Creek survey that found many of the members there were unsatisfied with their experience at WC?
    What would George Barna have to say about the mega church? Not much good I don’t think.

  • That RNS article seems to presuppose that church is an expression of God, and that one’s church service embodies one’s experience of God.
    While there are elements of truth there, I suppose, I loved simply how you brought it back to the idea that church is a family, not a government or a rock show. Or even a GOP convention.
    Well done sir.