The 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.”
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