Aug 292012

When it comes to religion in America, megachurches have a particular draw. Each megachurch has at least 2,000 in attendance on a typical weekend, most of them with multiple worship services, and an increasing number with multiple locations. (actually, the largest megachurches in the world are outside of the US.) And megachurches get more than their share of news, whether community impact or when an occasional controversy surfaces.

Recently, news of a research paper titled, God is Like a Drug’: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches, from sociologists at University of Washington, made its rounds in print and online, most of them were a copy/paste of the news release. I linked to all the articles I could find via this diigo list.

Why do large churches get disproportionately so much attention? Because they’re big.  Megachurches get attention for criticism, too, since they’re a big target. Actual numbers differ. An estimated 10% of American Protestants — 6 million worshippers — regularly attend 1 of 1,600 megachurches. And several articles mentioned that 50% of churchgoers attended the largest 10% of congregations – which work out to churches sized 350 and up). The omission of those articles would have had readers infer that 50% of churchgoers were at megachurches, when the numbers are notably fewer. Nevertheless, megachurches do affect a lot of people, and for politicians and researchers, it’s an easier aggregating categories than trying to get a hold of the extremely wide diversity among the 350,000 churches of all sizes in America.

You may have noticed as did I the title of the paper, “God is Like a Drug,” and how it probably triggered some part of your neural brain parts, comparing religion to a drug. The title may connote some kind of a scientific neurological study, but it’s actually a sociological analysis based on self-reporting survey responses. Here’s how it went down:

James Wellman is Associate Professor and Chair of the Comparative Religion at the Jackson School of International Studies, and worked on the research with Katie Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk. The research was the analysis of survey results (470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys) of attendees’ emotional experiences collected at 12 select megachurches by Warren Bird and Scott Thumma. That analysis surfaced four themes noted by keywords: salvation and spirituality, acceptance and belonging, admiration and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service, and correlated these to sociologist Randall Collins’ “interaction ritual theory,” that suggests that successful rituals result in a positive emotional energy for participants, and that this emotional energy “has a powerful motivating effect upon the individual; whoever has experienced this kind of moment wants to repeat it. … the intense emotions that are often evoked are especially intensified by the fact that there are thousands of people experiencing the same thing…” Collins outlines four ritual ingredients that yield strong positive emotional responses: bodily assembly of participants, barriers excluding outsiders, mutual focus of attention, and a shared emotional mood.

You can read the full research paper and even download it for yourself. So it wasn’t so much about drugs, but it does point to a connection between neuroscience and religion, just as neuromarketing is getting developed on a parallel track in our world. Even Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought has made Neuroscience and the Soul their theme of the new school year.

So what does all this attention with megachurch mean? Not too much for most people, except to file this news for that occasion when pundits need talking points and sound bites.

To contrast, here’s a Google+ Hangout with Pastors Mark Driscoll and Rick Warren, 2 of the most prominent megachurch pastors. Yes, they talk about the life of a megachurch from the inside out, dispelling myths, among other things.

Aug 202012

Conferences are kinda of a big deal, even in the 21st century where the internet can deliver content nearly instantly globally and hundreds of digital platforms for online meetings are available, but not yet the norm in most circles. And, it’s big business: RCMA (Religious Conference Management Association) member meetings drew more than 5.3 million attendees last year.

As conference season kicks up this Fall, worlds are colliding, even in the niche area of church leadership in which I swim most often. (Though as the consummate conference junkie, I’m more than happy to attend any kind of conference where they’d invite me.) 3 of them are running during the very same week this October:

National Worship Leader Conference – NWLC California October 9-11 in N. San Diego for worship leaders and everyone who makes the worship service happen

iMinistry October 10-11 in Dallas for online churches and internet ministries

Resurgence 2012 October 9-10 in Irvine for pastors and church leaders

How does anyone choose from 3 great events when we’re physically limited by time and space and are forced to have to choose just one? I’m so torn! One way is to look at the topics; another is location. Then you could look at the roster of speakers.

I’m choosing to attend the NWLC California, because I will be leading 2 workshops: both on social media, one basic and one advanced; and, because it’s part of my work with Worship Leader Magazine. I’d love to meet you there if this event fits you best – do add a comment and I can get you a special discount code to pay less.)

How will you choose?

Aug 092012

My last blog post, Tim Keller explains the systemic problem of white privilege, excerpting a commentary from the Q&A portion of March 2012 event, generated a record-breaking number of responses, mostly retweets. Now what?

Acknowledging the existence of white privilege is a huge step, yet a baby step, 1st of a thousand, towards opening the possibility of addressing the inequity and injustice of this aspect of American society. I’d venture to say that many do not yet acknowledge its existence. With it being a systemic issue, reforming an existing system is probably much more difficult than constructing a new system, or, would it take a revolution of sorts?

2 thoughts to mention. The talk recap from a Redeemer newsletter noted, “… We hope that conversations about race will continue at Redeemer, where over 50 percent of its congregants are Asian or Asian-American.” I’m wondering where was the Asian-American voice on the platform that evening, and who are the prominent Asian-Americans already engaging race conversations at Redeemer NYC if it’s already over 50% Asian?

And, Dr. Anthony Bradley, who moderated that Q&A portion, wrote in a September 2011 article:

As such, I believe racial reconciliation has largely failed for four reasons:

1. Racial reconciliation fails to interrogate white privilege. There is no denying the dominant cultural group in America is Caucasians. Being a white person in America comes with many unarticulated advantages. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh launched a national discussion by suggesting a framework to engage this discussion—a topic that evangelicals have yet to explore. White privilege has been defined this way: “A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.”
2. Racial reconciliation advances according to the limitations of white social norms. Because there is little discussion of power in relation to white privilege, minorities are usually put in positions where they have to check their ethnicity at the door in order to engage.
3. Racial reconciliation does not advance nor advocate whites submitting to minorities in authority. Evangelicalism remains one of the few places in America where racial disparities in organizational structures seem no different than the era of Mad Men. But much of this is simply a consequence of scarcity.
4. Racial reconciliation misunderstands homogeneous ethnic churches as outmoded. This, in part, has much to do with many whites denying that they have cultural norms and the failure to recognize that ethnic minorities do need cultural centers for survival.