Saturday, September 22, 2012

Getting High at Church

Here's an interesting article that's worthy of some thought.  It's a report on a study that examines the emotional and biological response of people who attend worship services at megachurches.  The study finds that people who worship at megachurches experience something of a natural high while worshiping.

Part of this is just due to the fact that when you get a lot of people together in one room for one purpose there's just a different emotional tone to everyone involved.  Ever been to a big concert?  A big sporting event?  There's just a different emotional energy that rises when people are together in one place for one purpose.  The difference, the researchers say, is that Christians gathered at megachurches interpret this energy as a transcendent or divine experience.

Before I go any further, let me say that I don't go to a megachurch, and the times that I have been at a megachurch have not necessarily made me want to go back.  I guess I didn't catch that high.  But I will say that there have been times when I've attended conferences that have been pretty amazing times of worship - more so than "regular" worship on Sunday mornings at my church.  The most recent being a conference I attended last year with about 5,000 other pastors.  It's quite an experience to be singing praise to God along with 5,000 other voices.  I remember thinking that that experience was just a small glimpse of what heaven would be like: uncountable voices singing praise to God.  Would I describe my feelings as transcendent or divine?  Probably not.  Was I excited about it?  Definitely, yes.  Did it make me feel good?  Give me a "high?"  I suppose you could say that.

But there's an important distinction that I would make, and that is this: the emotional elevation I felt at that time was not determined by the setting, but the reality of what was happening at that moment, and what that event foreshadowed.  That is, I wasn't just jazzed because there were a lot of voices singing the same thing at the same time (although that was pretty cool), but more because there were 5,000 voices united in praising God.  I'm used to only about 200 voices (Maybe more like 180, since it's a Baptist church and not everybody sings!) united in praising God.  There's a difference between 5,000 and 200.  There just is.

So that was part of it.  The other part was the glorious image the experience brought to mind of millions of voices being united in praise to God in heaven, and that some day I would be one of those millions of voices.  Again, I think I wasn't so impressed even by the idea that in heaven I will one day hear millions of voices singing in unison.  Rather, I was (and still am) impressed by the thought of millions of voices singing together in unison to a God who is worthy.  That's what gives me shivers.

One study participant comments on his experience: "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."  This sentiment is absolutely nothing like what I have experienced in the past, nor is it like what I've described above.  What is this guy experiencing at church that makes him feel like this?  The study gives some answers.

" and appeals to emotion to create a shared experience in congregations....The upbeat modern music, cameras that scan the audience and project smiling, dancing, singing, or crying worshipers on large screens and an extremely charismatic leader whose sermons touch individuals on an emotional level...serve to create these strong positive emotional experiences."

Huh.  That doesn't sound like anything more than emotional manipulation to me.  Do we go to church just to get an emotional high?  To feel good?  Isn't there something more involved in worship?

The study goes on to describe pastors of megachurches as "energy stars" whose messages are practical and emotional rather than analytical or theological.  In other words, he's a spin doctor who is whipping the people up into an emotional frenzy to make them feel good about themselves.  And what we've seen in American churches for the past 10 years or so is that when the high wears off the people leave, exposing the fact that they were never there to worship Christ the King, but were there for their own selfish purposes.  People go to church for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with worship.

To be fair, this isn't just a problem with megachurches.  I've seen it happen in several different ministries and settings throughout my life and ministry career, and even in my own church.  In fact, I'm not sure there's anything surprising or new about the findings of this study.  This is something that a lot of people have known for quite a while: people go to church to get high.

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