A new study has revealed that megachurches in America with congregations larger than 2,000 people are not only growing, but also satisfying the spiritual needs of their members.
"The megachurches movement is one of the leading indicators of how American Christians exercise their faith these days, so therefore they should be understood," said James Wellman, associate professor of American religion at the University of Washington and one of the-co-authors of the study. "And our study shows they're doing a pretty effective job for their members, based on self-reports, contrary to public opinion that tends to pass them off as a type of consumerist religion. In fact, their members speak eloquently of their spiritual growth."
Wellman and his team used 470 interviews and 16,000 surveys of people attending megachurches, and their research noted that many found what they were seeking from America's largest churches, mainly acceptance and belonging, salvation and spirituality, and genuine admiration for the charismatic leaders. The churches create "membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality."
"(T)he Holy Spirit goes through the crowd like a football team doing the wave. … Never seen it in any other church," explained one unnamed megachurch member in the study.
Evidence of the successful growth of megachurches in America was also found in the statistics – today more than half of all churchgoing Americans attend the largest 10 percent of churches.
"Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music and what Wellman calls a 'multisensory mélange' of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor," the study explains.
Wellman described the experience of people at a megachruch as a "good drug" because of the moral values the churches promote.
"That's what you see when you go into megachurches – you see smiling people; people who are dancing in the aisles, and in one San Diego megachurch an interracial mix I've never seen anywhere in my time doing research on American churches. We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches," the associate professor said.
The messages preached at megachurches are also less likely to directly refer to heaven or hell and pass judgment on people, the research concluded.
"This isn't just same-old, same-old. This is not like evangelical revivalism. It's a new, hybrid form of Christianity that's mutating and separate from all the traditional institutions with which we usually affiliate Christianity," Wellman added.
The leader of the largest megachurch in America, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Texas, has often been criticized for preaching a "watered-down" version of the Bible that excludes discussion about eternal damnation.
"Our message is God is good. He's on your side and He wants you to live a blessed life. Part of message too is that even if you've made mistakes you can get to where God wants you to be," Osteen has said in defense of his ministry.
"I think I do talk about the negative things and adversities but the Bible says it's the goodness of God that leads people to repent. I believe there's enough pushing people down. I like telling people you may have made mistakes, but God can forgive you," he added.