A couple of months ago, some sociologists of religion from the University of Washington presented a paper entitled “God is Like a Drug: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches.” The authors theorized that large religious events add a dimension of transcendence to the euphoria felt by crowds at other gatherings, like sporting events and concerts. According to the report in The Christian Century (9/19/12: 18-19), “the spiritual high from megachurch services is experienced as an ‘oxytocin cocktail’ of shared transcendent experience and the brain’s release of oxytocin, a chemical thought to play a part in social interaction.”

One of the authors, Ph.D. candidate Katie Corcoran, recounts how one worshipper described God’s love as “such a drug that you can’t wait to come get your next hit.” Another congregant said that the Holy Spirit was visible going over the crowd “like a wave at a football game.”

The high is created by the style of worship in megachurches, which includes a sermon targeted at the emotions, projected scenes of people dancing or crying, and intense music. The pastor is the center of energy and appeals not to reason in the sermons but intuition. The message just “feels right” said the other author of the study, Professor James Wellman. The Sunday worship, with its promise to get one high again, is what brings people back.

After I finished the brief article, I didn’t know whether to be envious or angry. Envious, when I think of how many times I’ve looked out over congregations and seen people stone-faced or exhibiting body language that signaled rejection of the message I was preaching, even as I searched for one or two affirming nods or smiles and worried if the rare visitor would return. Yet here were megachurch pastors pumping their huge crowds full of the God drug, getting them so addicted that they keep coming back for more! Angry, because I despise manipulation, and these pastors with their emotional appeals and their cameras scanning the crowd for faces to display on the screens were in fact little better than the backstreet pusher, selling a product that produced a temporary high, but provided no real coping skills, no solid content for dealing with the difficulties of life.

Of course, this kind of thing has been around since way back in the day. What else is a revival than an attempt to pump the folks full of the God drug so they can keep going till the next tent goes up, with the dynamic preacher and the catchy music? What was that song about in the ‘70s that proclaimed “Jesus made me higher than I’ve ever been before” or Natural High, the underwhelming follow-up to the classic “folk musical” Tell It Like It Is?

I guess I just don’t get it. As I said last week, I think God comes to us in the ordinary stuff of life, whether it’s a simple, dignified, traditional time of worship or simply sitting quietly. I have no desire to be a pusher. I just want to be a pastor, giving people real, sustainable strategies to help them with life in a way no drug, allegedly divine or otherwise, can do. To me, that’s what “just feels right.”

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.