A couple of Sundays ago, I used a stage monitor as an object for the children’s word and told the kids about how it helped me hear what I was playing and singing that day. I invited the children to pay attention to what they say and reminded them that sometimes we need others to be our “monitors”  because we’re not always aware of how our speech either hurts or helps others.

Too bad everyone hasn’t learned that important lesson. Mark Coppenger, for instance. He is the professor of Christian apologetics and director of the Nashville campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When told how Unitarian Universalists are growing in numbers*, he said he wasn’t surprised. Coppenger said he’s sure that those “inclusive groups** are made up of nice people who would be good neighbors. Even so, their take on faith is wrong, he said. ‘Just because you are drawing a crowd doesn’t mean you are saying something that is true…’” (emphasis mine).

Uh, huh. So I wonder if Dr. Coppenger would apply the same logic to some of his own congregations and any number of evangelical and fundamentalist megachurches in America. They pack ‘em in. But what they say “ain’t necessarily so.”

Maybe the professor should listen to himself.

————–

*According to an article in The Christian Century: “In Tennessee, Unitarians grew by 20.8 percent from 2000 to 2010. During the same time frame, they grew by 22 percent in Georgia and by 42.5 percent in Colorado.”

**“Anthony David, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, which has about 1,000 members, says that Unitarians would rather be kind than right. ‘In our tradition, you get to be wrong,’ he said. ‘God is big. God is magnificent. You can’t tell me that we know everything there is to know about God yet.’”

All quotations from http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-10/unitarian-universalists-see-chance-growth-growth-secularism.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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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.