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.

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