Is Worship A Drug?


Worship DrugThe Religion News Service posted an interesting article last month on the phenomenon of the megachurch and why churches of 2,000 congregants or more continue to grow in size and popularity.  According to this article and accompanying articles, more than half of all American churchgoers now attend the largest 10 percent of churches.  The article was in response to a presentation at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association on August 19 in Denver.  (A link to the Religion News Service article is available below)

The presentation was from the paper, “God Is Like A Drug: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches.”  The author, James Wellman, associate professor of American Religion at the University of Washington; and co-authors, Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk, University of Washington graduate students in sociology and comparative religion based their research and paper on a 2008 study by the Leadership Network on 12 nationally representative American megachurches.

“Membership in megachurches is one of the leading ways American Christians worship these days, so, therefore, these churches should be understood,” said Wellman.  He continued by stating, “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 a parallel article, Daniel Fowler from the American Sociological Association wrote, “Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music, and what Wellman calls a ‘multisensory mélange’ of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor.  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.”

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.”

I would value reading your response to the entire article linked below.  Please respond by clicking the comments tab under the post title above.

Click to read the Religion News Service Article: Does Megachurch “High” Explain Their Success


9 Responses to “Is Worship A Drug?”

  • Patricia Says:

    Not all Christians like the mega-church because of the challenge that comes with getting to know the church community, and many just prefer to be in a small church. Kind of like some people like the amenities of a big city versus the simplicity of a small town.

    However, people like the mega-church because the resources can provide an engaging experience that ushers in an encounter with God. Small churches can definitely have the same experience with God, but the large church has the resources that allow for a greater sight and sound experience.

    The contemporary church is striving to make the church experience engaging so that visitors feel comfortable and members stay and grow in their faith. This new generation of churches is striving to change the perception people have of church to one that energizes and recharges the human spirit which only happens through an encounter with the creator of the universe!

  • David Manner Says:

    Larry, thanks for sharing this testimony of the healing power of God. I believe he often uses others to provide that for us. In one commentary on the article the author indicated that worship as a drug is not necessarily a bad thing but instead a good, healing drug. We automatically thing of drugs as a bad thing but in fact drugs often provide healing and encourage health. Thanks for helping us to look at this in a different and more personal way.

  • Larry Shaw Says:

    I wanted to weigh in..but after I had time to really take in this idea.
    I see this so much I’ve gotten use to it. It’s often bothered me. I’m
    not sure why. I do think some, maybe more than I want to know,
    do get pulled in to a “well everybody else is doing should I”
    mentality. But I had an experience a long time ago, after I had gone
    through an extremely rough time. I was in enormous pain from several
    things. I had a broken heart, left a job and friends behind and more just
    stuff that had built up due to life. I was working in a studio at the time
    producing an album for a woman who just had a real gift. The first day
    she came in she looked at me and didn’t say hi or hello, she said, “you’re
    in pain.” I just started to lose it and I didn’t know this woman from Adam.
    She sat down and put her hands on mine and prayed.. And what I felt was
    very much a drug. It was medicine that I needed from someone who could
    step in the gap for me. It was very narcotic and a peace fell like I’ve never
    felt before or after. So to the question: God can work in this way and it is not
    a bad thing. Now, is everybody feeling this spirit while worshiping? I don’t know.
    But after having that experience, I stopped questioning and decided that this is
    a personal issue between them and God. You just never really know what is going
    on inside a person or what they’re dealing with. It very well could be as simple as
    they are just joining in in the worship on a very surface level. Is that a bad thing?
    I’m not wise enough to know..nor do I feel comfortable making that call. I’m just
    glad these people chose to be there no matter what the case may be. Thank you
    for the opportunity to respond.

  • Alden Says:

    Well, if worship is a drug then I’ve got a lot of folks showing up every Sunday that seem to be immune to it’s affects. Don started down a road of thought that I’d like to add to. The sociologists took notes on the stimuli and responses which they could visibly observe. They observed people seemingly responding to what they saw and heard. In my opinion, what the observers who conducted the study could not account for was a relationship not of person to stimuli, but rather of a child to a heavenly Father. At least I hope that was the case.

    As worship pastors we seek to use songs, instrumentation and visuals in such a way that people will turn their focus onto Jesus and worship him. In this way they are responding to external stimuli, but they are responding ultimately to a person, Jesus. The lyrics of the songs and the symbols use as visual guides should turn our eyes upon Jesus. I don’t really read that the study accounted for a real, living God who actively inhabits the praises of His people.

    Not trying to over-spiritualize this, but they started it!

    I hope and pray that we are not using our technology and our finely tuned musical skills as manipulation, similar to the notion; “gettin’ high helps you find God, man.”

  • Tom Says:

    I would venture to say the most enthusiastic members and attenders at my church (500 attendance) are the ones who are not in leadership. They are the ones who come each week and enjoy what we offer in worship and other programs. But the ones who end up in leadership, or on committees and have to deal with the “underbelly” of church life, with the relational conflicts and the frustratingly slow process of making changes, tend to be less satisfied and enthusiastic. Could it be that the megachurch has more satisfied customers, I mean attenders, because they have a greater ratio of members/attenders not in any kind of leadership/committee involvement? Megachurches tend to have streamlined the committee structure so more folks can find their ways to small groups and ministries they are passionate about.

    I also wonder where the emerging future/ancient worship model fits into this. I’ve attended several churches jam-packed with 20-year-old hipsters where the worship is uplifting, but it’s not a rock concert. Some boomers might even call it melancholy, yet it is filled with young people who appear to be engaged. While I love what’s happening there, my cynical side begs the question if the appeal to those churches is based on image as much as anything else. Why does it feel so much cooler when a 28-year-old guy with a beard and skull cap leads in a reading of the Apostles’ Creed than when a 54-year-old man in a suit and tie does it?

  • Frank Wheeler Says:

    Not to quibble about semantics, okay, really I am, but it is interesting that the writer implies that the actions of people engaging in lively worship are similar to the actions of those affected by drugs. I assume he’s not talking about aspirin or tylenol, but rather those types of drugs which affect actions and feelings. What is interesting is that he is, perhaps without realizing it, failing to realize that happiness, joyfullness, positive feelings, emotional significance and heightened sensations of spirituality are all pleasures that God created for man to enjoy when they are in proper relationship to Him. I have noticed how those who use alcohol or drugs are truly seeking to imitate the happy feellings, perhaps without knowing it, of true worhip and fellowship with God. It feels good to be happy, fulfilled and satisfied. A chemical shortcut to obtain these same or similar feelings can possibly, temporarily mimic or mask the deep inner yearning in us to achieve that goal. Much the same as an illicit sexual affair can temporarily give a feeling which can help hide the emptiness in their life. Wow, what a jump, but perhaps that why God uses the marriage symbolism to illustrate our relationship to Himself. I can’t wait to see Jesus!
    So really, it’s just interesting how he formed his comparison, without realizing the implications.

  • David Manner Says:

    Don, I agree. It seemed like the study was a little short-sided and limited in its scope. It would be interesting to look at the details of their study more in depth to see if it did consider some of the things you mentioned.

    Eric, I agree that not all megachurches are stylistically contemporary. I also agree that some of the dynamics they determined from their study are probably also present in much smaller congregations. Although the media and tech possibilities are probably not as accessible in the smaller congregations, some of the responses from the congregants would be similar. Based on what I have read of their study I am not sure they considered any congregations beyond the stylistically contemporary megachurches.

  • Eric Benoy Says:

    Hmmmm — I do wonder, though, how different this is from the field/study of large group dynamics in general. I have not looked at that since seminary days, but it does not sound too different, but I would need to see the whole paper presented to see what specifics are noted that make megachurches worthy of study now (and not earlier or later). I note, too, that the study apparently was done at megachurches of contemporary style and not traditional (or at least not mentioned in the article). Wonder if that would have made a difference. Ooo — for some doctoral student — juxtapose this study of contemporary megachurch against similar study of traditional megachurches — OR against a study of small congregations (50 and under) with contemporary style — lots of possibilities and outcomes here … sorry – I do get carried away

  • Don Henrikson Says:

    Thanks for pointing us to this interesting article!
    I wonder what the religion professor/sociologists would conclude if they encountered a service where the congregation, as they encountered God’s holiness, experienced godly sorrow, leading to repentance?
    I think I might have a slightly different view of worship than the authors of the article and the study – I’m pretty sure there is more to it than “strong positive emotional experiences.”

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