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.