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In Theory: Do megachurches provide a better experience?

August 30, 2012

Megachurches are loved by some and derided by others, but a new study from the University of Washington claims that people who attend services at these huge churches can experience a change in brain chemistry that researchers are calling a spiritual “high.”

“We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That's why we say it's like a drug,” said James Wellman, an associate professor of American religion who co-authored the study. Large gatherings of people at shared events such as sports events and rock concerts can engender similar feelings, but megachurches “seem to be unique in that these feelings are not just experienced as euphoria but as something transcendent or divine.”

The researches think the spiritual “high” is caused by oxytocin, a chemical that's thought to be involved in social interaction. It's thought that megachurches achieve this through several ways, starting with huge congregations who can share the experience, the use of technology, upbeat modern music, charismatic leaders and appeals to emotion. One respondent to the study said, “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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Q: What do you think? Do megachurches provide a bigger religious “hit”? Or can any church provide that kind of experience, regardless of size?

I’ve only attended a megachurch once. I went mostly for professional reasons, to check out what the competition is doing. And I had some personal curiosity, too; I’m always inspired to see what causes the light of God to be in other people’s eyes. So I went there genuinely open, both personally and professionally, to take in the best they have to offer.

I want to emphasize that openness, because here’s what I’ll say next: I would rather put out my eyes than worship that way again.

Far from a spiritual high, for me that experience was the emotional equivalent of combining a day at the DMV with an airport strip search, the dark side of Disneyland, the worst kind of blanging, claustrophobic Vegas casino, and that scene at the end of “A Clockwork Orange” where they’re holding the guy’s eyes open and forcing him to watch rehabilitative films.

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