In Theory: Do megachurches provide a better experience?

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.”

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.

Crowded. Loud. Too much sensory stimulation all at once. Too little choice about whether you want to be part of it or not. And such focus on the message (sermon) — the speaker’s giant head projected on every screen, his voice piped into the restroom, even — that it felt creepy and cultic.

Many people, of course, enjoy Disneyland and Vegas and monster-truck rallies — the bigger the crowd, the louder the noise, the more sensory input at once, the better, for lots of people. We seem to be in a mode, as a society, of extreme sports, higher-proof alcohol, wall-size TV screens, increasingly scary movies and amusement park rides — as if our senses have over-adapted to normalcy, and it takes stronger and stronger jolts from outside us just to feel alive.

And I guess that translates into church experience too. I know, I know: my kind of church could be accused of erring on the side of melatonin over oxytocin. But I still wonder: What does it say about the numbness in your soul if you need that much stimulation to feel the first stirring of God’s presence? Whatever happened to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)?

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


A church considerably smaller than a megachurch can give a comparable “high,” in my opinion, but is that what church is for, to give everybody a euphoric feeling?

As we all have heard many times, God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. And I am of the belief that God can and will act as he/she sees fit, when he/she sees fit. So it's not as if God acts in smaller churches but not in megachurches, and vice-versa.

God acts whenever and wherever. However, one of the problems in American religion today, in my opinion, is that people seem to want to be entertained, and many clergy seem to be bending over backward to give the people what they want. I don't think that's a good trend.

When Moses was up on the mountain talking with God, his brother, Aaron, gave the people what they wanted: a golden calf. Ministers are in a strange position. While we want to care for our flocks, and while we want our flocks to grow, we are entrusted with a hard message: We have to preach Christ crucified, and how appealing is that!

Of course it is wonderful to feel moved by the Spirit of God (one of our beautiful hymns has the opening line, “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart”). But the Judeo-Christian faith is not all hearts and flowers. Many of the Old Testament prophets suffered for proclaiming the message they believed that God had put upon their hearts; and we all know what happened to Jesus.

So while God may choose to move us in some wonderful way, and I personally am certainly grateful for any time I have felt the holy presence, there's more to faith than getting a good, positive feeling once a week. Why else did Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)?

How's that for a euphoric high?

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada


Whenever we look at the conclusions studies like this make, we must take into consideration the underlying assumptions of the researchers. I wonder if these researchers assume there must be some chemical, biological explanation at the bottom of megachurch euphoria. Would they ever consider the possibility that there really is a God, and that his Spirit actually encourages and uplifts people who worship? I understand that science relies upon observable fact and concrete proof. But there’s more to life, and to worship, than what is observable. “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

I think megachurches are great, as long as they keep their focus on encouraging people to follow Jesus Christ. The same goes for smaller churches. Megachurches have the resources to offer valuable programs that smaller churches cannot. But the fact is, most churches in America have congregations of fewer than 100 people. And many people feel lost in the crowd and unconnected in larger churches. I believe authentic, positive religious experiences in larger churches or smaller ones are always rooted in one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You can have a big relationship with Jesus even in a small church. Apart from that, it’s all just hype and emotion.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


Yes, community worship, church attendance and relationship with God in community can produce a high similar to drugs. But it does not just depend on size. It is the effect of dopamine on the brain. It is a science, actually. And the University of Washington did the science. However, I believe it goes beyond megachurches.

There is a spiritual component unique to worship because of the Holy Spirit.

Physical and biological changes do happen in our brains when we feel connection, joy and love. But these are not unique to church. There is a release of the love chemical, dopamine. When you are in love, your brain generates a “feel-good” chemical that increases the release of serotonin, a euphoric hormone. It causes reward-seeking behavior; cravings. For example, when in the romantic stage of love, serotonin and dopamine levels are high. These are happy chemicals. But they are also released through music, new experiences, religious community, new experiences and even tobacco. Thus the experience of pleasure, joy and wanting more.

So this “experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches” that Wellman says is like a drug? It is absolutely true. But it can happen in smaller church settings as well.

Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian
Kimberlie Zakarian Therapy


The spirit of God isn't limited by the size of the congregation. Whether we feel his influence depends on our attitude toward him and our need. We can be touched by his love with equal power in large, joyous gatherings and in moments of quiet solitude.

The scriptures teach of spiritual manifestations in both circumstances. On the day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts, the spirit was felt dramatically by a “multitude” of people who gathered to hear the apostles. On the other hand, Moses was alone on a remote desert mountain when he heard the voice of God.

I believe there is a difference between the influence of the Spirit and our emotional and physiological responses to social interaction. The story of Elijah, following his confrontation with the priests of Baal, gives us some insight on this. Elijah was shown an earthquake, fire and wind strong enough to crumble mountains. But the lord, the Bible tells us, wasn't in any of those powerful sensory experiences. God's words came in a “still small voice.”

So it is with us. Our worship, whether subdued or ebullient, whether performed with others or alone, invites the lord into our lives, but ultimately he speaks softly, to our hearts.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


Anyone who's ever sat shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of like-minded football fans at the annual USC/UCLA game has experienced an oxytocin high. Levels of oxytocin, a “feel-good” neurochemical, are raised when heightened emotions are created by a group of people focused on the same experience.

According to a University of Washington study, megachurches (more than 2,000 members) create an oxytocin high through their unique style of worship. They use multimedia technology, rock worship and appeals to emotion by charismatic leaders to create a shared experience amplified in a congregation of thousands. Researchers postulate that it is their ability to deliver a bigger religious “hit” that explains the dramatic growth in the size and number of megachurches.

But by studying only megachurches, the researchers have ignored the fact that virtually all churches begin with a small membership. When the present-day megachurch was still small, before it could deliver a bigger religious “hit,” why were people attracted to it?

Not surprisingly, the researchers overlook the possibility that if a being like God truly exists, his presence can directly interact with and affect people physically, emotionally and spiritually. Scripture actually confirms this. Psalm 16:11 states, “In your presence there is fullness of joy!” Now doesn't that sound like an oxytocin high?

God's presence is not limited to large gatherings. One of the biggest religious “hits” of all time occurred when 120 people were visited by the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts 2. And there are multiple instances of people like Moses, the prophet Daniel and the apostle Paul who experienced God's presence while alone. His presence can and does still touch people today.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


This question feels to me as if it’s really two questions — one asking if megachurches are good, and the second, if the Christians’ experience in them is legitimate. I’m glad the report noted that even secular venues can elicit great emotional response from audiences, because it shows that it’s not bizarre to experience feelings en masse. The fact that megachurches (and perhaps the big evangelistic crusades or Women of Faith/Promise Keepers-type stadium events) provide mountaintop experiences only seems to exhibit something desirable that’s happening. Saints should hold to factual tenets of Christianity, but also feel them with passion.

I’ve worshiped in megachurches and I’ve enjoyed the sensation that God-focused multitudes provide. There’s empowerment felt in such, as everywhere you look, people believe in Jesus Christ. Small churches also feel blessed in praising God, and we enjoy a believing fellowship, but sometimes we suffer an Alamo mentality, thinking there are only the few of us in the community that really care at all about God and we have to hold the fort till the end. Pews are half full, pagan community members criticize our Bible-centric commitment, and budgets don’t afford professional orchestras, so we dismay about whether truly spiritual people can only be enticed to techno-gadgetry, CD-producing Praise Teams and Jumbotron graphics.

Still, God shows up in both places, and both provide manna for mood and mind. Perhaps the drug-like effect of worship in the super-atmosphere results from both humanly sensual tones and divinely inspired words. We can all excite about favorite songs, but spiritual songs have transcendent truth attached that transports us to heaven. Maybe it’s more about participants than platforms, but God made us both thinkers and feelers, and he ordained brain chemistry that makes it enjoyable. Mega or micro, church is what churchgoers make it.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


This research from the University of Washington seems to make sense, and Wellman makes an intriguing point. I can definitely see and appreciate how a mass of people, gathered for a spiritual purpose, can create a unique environment. This charged atmosphere can be very powerful, and perhaps even addictive. Thankfully, this is an example of a healthy obsession that stands in stark contrast to the many negative influences that often permeate our lives.

At the same time, however, I feel that our awe for these huge religious gatherings should not come at the expense of the small, community-based houses of worship that form the spiritual backbone of our nation. Our local churches, synagogues and mosques have dedicated clergy, laymen and parishioners who are committed to improving their neighborhoods in a multitude of ways. Their tireless grassroots efforts enhance the lives of many people on a daily basis.

Most important of all, the focus on the individual is paramount in a neighborhood house of worship but is practically impossible in a megachurch. The “personal touch” of a local religious leader or fellow congregant is often a life-changing experience, something equal to, or even more powerful than, the “high” of worshiping with 10,000 people. This special aspect of attending services at a smaller house of worship should be celebrated and cherished. It is a uniquely uplifting element that has a lasting impact on so many lives.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center

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