“Is Megachurch Worship Addictive?” asks an article published in last month’s Christianity Today. The article was a response to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Washington. The study can be found here: 'God is like aDrug...': Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches.
The researchers first note the way that megachurches have fundamentally altered the religious landscape of the North American church:
The total number of megachurches in the United States alone has increased from 350 in 1990, to over 600 in 2000, and there are now over 1,200,with no indication of slowing down (Hartford Institute for Religion Research). Although the median congregation size of the typical American church is 75, more than 50 percent of all churchgoers attend the largest ten percent of churches in America (Thumma and Travis 2007). While not a particularly new style of worship. . . this large, charismatic, stylistically avant garde, yet typically theologically and politically conservative church format has all but taken over the religious market in many parts of the United States (Miller 1997; Sargeant 2000; Ellingson 2008; Wellman 2008).
Megachurches have not only become potent players in American culture and politics. . . but also in their local religious markets, where they affect growth rates of nearby congregations (Eisland 1997;Wolleschleger and Porter 2011). In light of past research theorizing and documenting the negative effect of increasing congregational size on organizational vitality and various forms of member commitment (Pintoand Crow 1982; Finke 1994; Stark and Finke 2000; Dougherty 2004; Finke, Bahr, and Scheitle2006), the widespread success of megachurches requires further investigation. Moreover, considering the impact megachurches are having on American culture, politics, and local religious markets, it is important to understand why they have such a large appeal. Ellingson's(2010) review of the megachurch literature identifies two major limitations of previous research.
The authors argue megachurches offer high levels of emotional energy (EE) and ritual solidarity. “Megachurch worship services are intentionally orchestrated, complete with elements from pop-cultural sources, which are both entertaining and sensually stimulating. Participants come 'hungry' for EE and leave energized.”
This emotional high is not accidental. The elements of the service are designed to create an emotional impact: “The worship services, through their use of lighting, large screens at the front of the church, and images of others' religious experiences, help create a mutual focus of attention and a shared mood among the attendees, resulting in EE that remains with them even after the service ends.”
The manipulation of emotions at the expense of intellectual engagement is not confined to the singing. After interviewing attendees of a megachurch service, the authors concluded: “Rather than complicated theological explanations or critical analysis of a biblical text, the interview responses suggest that the sermons are understood through the emotions.”
Before I make some observations, let me offer some caveats:
(1) I don’t share the presuppositions of these researchers. I'm certainly not endorsing all of their research. They approach the megachurch phenomenon from a secular viewpoint. Their bias is anti-supernatural, a bias which I don’t share.
(2) The manipulation of emotions is not a phenomenon exclusive to the megachurch movement. I’ve sat in the pew of a tiny country church and noticed subtle-and not-so-subtle—attempts at emotional manipulation.
(3) Not all megachurches engage in this type of methodology. It is not an essential attribute of a megachurch that it engage in the type of activity described by these researchers.
(4) Emotions are God-given and can be used by Him to elicit true, deep, abiding worship. In fact, if there is no emotion to our worship, something is wrong.
(5) I'm certainly not against "contemporary" (or "traditional") worship.
With that said, here is what I find troubling: I want people to worship God and many churches subscribe to a methodology that undermines true, biblical worship.
I want people to worship God, not a soundtrack.
I want people to worship God, not a light show.
I want people to worship God, not pictures of nature.
When people respond on an emotional level with their highest affections to something that is not God, that’s not biblical worship.
Here’s a test: If your ability to experience "true" worship is dependent upon something stylistic—the lighting, the mood, the number of people, the style of music—you’re practicing idolatry. So, while I'm not against contemporary worship, I'm cautioning against a belief that only contemporary worship is "real" worship or even a belief that you need that style of music to truly "connect" with God. That's idolatry.
As we worship, we must be very careful about how we engage the text of Scripture and the way we encourage people to sing. At Bethany Community, we avoid pictures of nature or imagery on the slides during our time of worship that might distract people from the truths about God to which they should be responding—or, worse still, might cause them to engage in idolatry while in our church!
May our worship be emotional. May it lead to broken hearts and true repentance. But may it also be always and ever focused on God as He has revealed Himself in His Word.