Hooked on a Feeling: The Addictive Nature of the Modern Church

A preface from Grace Centered Magazine: This article is a calling out of some churches who are large in size and use certain strategies to grow their numbers. We know that many well-meaning churches use some of these strategies and bring people to the Lord as a result, but there are other groups who, like the article suggests, allow their congregation to confuse predictable and even pre-planned emotional highs with genuine spirituality or the Holy Spirit. We believe that this type of manipulation can often produce shallow Christians who are not able to grow in spiritual maturity as they should. As stated above, this article is not describing all large churches or all modern churches, just some who employ such practices. We believe that iron indeed sharpens iron and that reading views that might oppose our own or make us examine ourselves can have positive results.

by Jason Charles

Pastors and Christians who read their Bibles daily are confronted with both extremely positive verses and horribly negative verses. You simply can’t get around that fact. Yet the average megachurch has not only been able to dance around the negative aspects of the Bible, they have managed to build massive followings by cultivating an atmosphere of total positivity that for some has become as addictive as any controlled substance, adrenaline rush, concert or sporting event. Church for the average Christian has become synonymous with any other culturally accepted fantasy based “escapism.”

Anybody that has a cursory knowledge of scripture and has studied how the early church operated knows that the modern megachurch atmosphere has little if anything in common with that founding generation of believers during the first century. Reading through the Books of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament we are awed by the depth of spiritual insight on a massive spectrum of topics that affect the day to day life of professing Christians and even non-believers alike. Topics like life, death, morality, creation, salvation, marriage, family life, holy living, social issues and even dare I say politics are all addressed in numerous passages throughout Scripture. These were all topics the Apostles in their writing expected the addressed churches to be knowledgeable about and teach about to their congregations at length. Some of the topics these epistles addressed like Christ’s love, brought great joy to the congregation members. While other letters and chapters dealt with the fallen nature of humanity and the often hostile political climate the churches continually dwelt with brought sorrow and grief to the listeners. These two emotional extremes are represented throughout the Bible, both the grief and sorrow surrounding the fall of mankind into all sorts of sins, and the hope we have in Jesus Christ. Understanding both good and evil is a command, and dealing with both these topics are a critical part in cultivating the fear of God which according to scripture is the beginning of all wisdom.

Focusing on just the positive without giving heed to the negatives of life like a naive child is exactly what some megachurches are doing, they are arresting the spiritual development of Christians, and furthermore the moral fortitude of the culture at large as a result. The Bible says that pastors that employ such childish teachings and tactics need to be re-taught themselves and weaned off the milk they feed themselves and their congregations continually. God demands that we teach wisdom pertaining to both good and evil.

For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.Hebrews 5:12

With this being said I feel it is important to look at how the average megachurch-attending family is assaulted with Madison Avenue style marketing, euphoria inducing activities, and addictive social programming a family will experience on any given Sunday. The science of keeping you coming back for more is hugely subliminal, pleasure based and as a result is hugely successful. These churches have more in common with Disney Land than the first century church.

Mega-Church Programming of the Average Family

Speeding down the highway, a smiling dad looks into the rearview mirror and sees the kids excitedly talking amongst themselves about all the things they plan on doing when they get to church. Playing X-box, seeing their friends, sliding head first into the ball crawl at the play park all spark giggles of anticipation from the back seat. Smiling, dad turns to his wife and lovingly talks about how wonderful their church is and how fulfilling it is to be part of such an incredible church community. She flashes a quick, knowing smile and reaches for his hand to give it a quick squeeze of acknowledgement.

Family Euphoria: Given the hectic schedule of your average family, often times the vast majority of the week is spent in disunity and stress as families rush around to jobs, school, activities and more. There is nothing like the feeling of closeness and unity a Christian couple experiences while attending a church that caters to all of the interests of the family. The whole spectrum of love has been studied and has been shown to have a full body effect on our minds and chemical processes. The endorphins we experience as an unconditional loving family in the car ride to church trigger the same pleasure centers as making love according to recent studies on the effects relational “love” has on a person.

As dad turns the corner, the sprawling church complex opens up before them, the orange-vested parking lot attendant quickly points to him with his flag and waves it in the direction of the row of cars with empty parking spaces, indicating that is where he needs to go. The kids jump out of the car hurrying mom and dad through the maze of cars and people up the steps to the grandiose main entrance of the church.

Impressive Edifices: A paper entitled The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept, utilize 4 different studies that document the effects massive, ornate structures can have on the psyche. Study 2 captures the essence of this effect and is quoted, “the experience of awe is associated with a sense of the smallness of the self and the presence of something greater than the self, as well as some disengagement from awareness of the self.” This diminishing of the self is exactly what the builders of Washington, DC had in mind when erecting the monuments, public buildings, and roads that all led to the White House. They wanted to so impress the foreign visitors that they would instantly subject themselves to the might of the American empire. Is this the same effect the magnificent megachurches wish to have on their visitors? I would say yes, that is exactly what they want. They want to impress the weak mind of a believer who thinks big budget buildings equate to God’s blessing when in reality it usually equates to massive debt.

As the family begins the long walk up to, and underneath the large columns you can’t help but notice the large space above the doors emblazoned with the church logo, an ambiguous symbol alongside the church name adorning everything from coffee cups, volunteer name badges, programs, massive banners and even to the pulpit itself.

Brand Management: Marketers say it takes the average person 7 times of seeing a logo in 7 different places to begin to form familiarity of your product, but once the association is made it can never be unmade. Or in other terms it becomes as familiar to the mind as apple pie. By the time the average church goer walks into the megachurch for the first time, they have been bombarded by the churches marketing team and budget in the form of radio spots, print ads, billboards, web ads and even word of mouth as other converts of the church tout its magnificence in casual conversations as ground level MLM sales reps.

As the family approaches, greeters begin to extend their hands grinning ear to ear echoing one another’s calls of “hello brother,” “welcome sister” and even occasionally bending down to say “hi” to the small children whose eyes are fixated on the massive play area at the end of the hall. Instantly the atmosphere of the church begins to envelope them. People are everywhere, some moving with the purpose of staff, others casually standing, talking, laughing and greeting one another with handshakes and pats on the back. Mom slips off down the hallway marked by murals, Sunday school staffers and shrieks of playing children with the kids eagerly in tow.

Children’s Entertainment: Children, not the adults are an ever increasing deciding factor as to where the mom and dad chose to attend church. In a extremely enlightening article analyzing how over 700 mega churches spend their money, a research director had this to say about the importance mega churches place on entertaining kids:

“The most strategic churches we work with are realizing that a premier children’s pastor/leader can become one of, if not the largest growth engines for the church. And such churches are paying accordingly. We are seeing an increasing trend of churches who pay the top person over children’s ministry more and more.”

Two things are wrong with this scenario. One, parents are allowing their children to rule the spiritual direction of the home by determining where they attend church and two, they are avoiding the adult instruction under a pastor in the “big church.”

Dad ventures over to wait in line at the cafe with a double-shot latte espresso in mind only to be stopped by two or three people who all give hearty hellos, handshakes and blessings. As he looks up at the big red numbers on the wall ticking down, he realizes there is only 3 minutes until the worship service starts and breaks away from the conversation with promises of get togethers and future study groups.

Positivity Overload: The feeling of recognition, being seen and heard and also socializing is hugely important to humans in general and a fundamental human need. Unfortunately the megachurch and smaller churches that copy the door greeter/customer service bombardment model have taken this fundamental need and exploited it to an infinite degree. At every turn you are greeted by volunteers who have been told to look for new faces and engage them. If you don’t think pastors are going to great lengths to suck newcomers in by any means possible, then read this article on how a N. Carolina church pastor sent a email requesting “only white people” are to greet at the doors. The pastor who sent the email was, believe it or not, black. You read that right, fortunately a black outraged church member sent this to the local news station shaming them for such outrageous tactics. The pastors focused on church growth read the books, watch the videos and go to all the seminars, and these are the kind of things they are taking away from it all.

Coffee finally in hand and the buzz kicking in, the unmistakable driving beat of drums breaks out over the foyer speakers drowning out the hundreds of conversations as everybody begins to make a break for the doors of the sanctuary. A familiar figure slips in next to him announcing the kids are secured in their respective classes and how they both need to hurry because the worship is the best part. As they both wiggle through and across people with hands outstretched, eyes closed and faces to the ceiling, the worship leader bathed in smoke and lights begins to professionally timbre down a popular worship song and pray fervently to the quiet intimate music layered beautifully by his team of hip young professional musicians.

Music Induced Rapture: One of the scariest components and ever evolving aspects of the megachurch is the addictive nature of the worship service. You will often hear people say they attend these churches for the worship music. A study from the University of Washington interviewed 470 attendees at 12 different churches and stated that many church congregates frequently use language like “spiritual high” when describing their worship experience.

“Worship services are addicting because worshipers believe they are experiencing God. They don’t have a problem saying God is like a drug. They want and need to regularly experience God, and the megachurch worship service is a primary means by which they do so.” Katie Corcoran, sociology Ph.D. student, University of Washington.

Are Christians confusing an endorphin overload caused by the rush of loud, ear shaking rock and roll with the Holy Spirit? Isn’t this highly inappropriate and plain manipulative, even blasphemous? Without question it is, and the pastor is not only okay with it, but exploits it to the purpose of taking offering during that time and using it to transition into his own masterful skills as an orator which can also induce the same effect.

As the ushers start to pass the offering plates, the music slows, barely registering underneath the voice of the lead pastor who encourages people to dig deep and support the church ministry. Mom starts sifting through her purse, the thought of tithing to such an incredible production comes naturally considering just how much the church programs and production have served their family from the moment they arrived. The fact is, we are used to paying for entertainment, and this situation is only different in the fact that there is a veneer of spirituality that overlays it making the task of giving that much easier.

The pastor in perfect form, begins his message, he opens with a welcome to members reminding them to stop at the info booth or to fill out the cards in front of them with contact information and boxes to tick off as to their interests and spiritual needs. He then introduces the topic with a witty joke that perfectly sets up the topic of God’s infinite grace. He then gets serious and personal, retelling a story from his past that illustrates his own need for the mercy of God that cleverly transitions into another hugely humorous pastor joke. As the mood lightens he goes into how we are new creatures in Christ and that the church offers everything one might plug into to show God how thankful you are for that mercy and grace by serving continually alongside other Christians in your new church family.

He ends with a paragraph from his book you can conveniently buy in the church book store and then asks everyone to stand as he delivers the final prayers. Prayers that talk about our struggles outside the church and how thankful he is that we are all there together, wishing each and everyone continued blessings on the week until next time they gather.

Cult of Personality: Lead Pastors are not paid the big bucks because they have multiple degrees in theology, are sincere counselors, or leaders. No, they are the highest paid staff member because they are incredibly charismatic orators. Christians often mistake charisma in the pulpit with the “anointing of the Holy Spirit.” They literally chose their pastor in the same way they chose a politician, based on a personality contest.

Think about all of the Biblical characters old and knew who the Bible said had a special anointing on their life. You can go through the list and none of them were loved by all, in fact almost all the anointed prophets, kings, apostles, and even Jesus himself were hunted and persecuted, and extremely divisive in their message. Why? Because true anointing is always convicting and uncompromising in truth.

The hallmark of a megachurch pastor is the compromising of truth. They will rarely or never touch on controversial topics whether social, spiritual or political because they simply have too much to lose. Anything but a overly positive message makes people uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in their sin, uncomfortable in their apathy, and uncomfortable in their ignorance of what God would have them do in this life. Men such as these are what the Bible terms as hirelings, men who will not lay down their lives for the sheep when the wolves come. The True shepherd, Jesus Christ, will uncompromisingly sound the alarm and lay His life down for the sheep. The hireling will not sound the alarm and preach against the sin of the world whether it be political, social, economic, or a moral enemy at the gate. They know nothing but the tickling of ears. The Bible has much to say about men like this and it says nothing good. They probably avoid passages like this one from the prophet Micah:

The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say, Is not the LORD among us? None evil can come upon us. Micah 3:11

As the service ends everybody turns to face one another and make their way out of the sanctuary. A final bit of fellowship happens, the kids are reunited with mom and dad and the trek back through the foyer begins. Standing at the door is the pastor himself, shaking hands and thanking people for coming. As the family approaches, recognition sets in on the face of the pastor and he asks about their grandmother who recently underwent heart surgery and how she is doing. Dad wonders how he knew that when his wife with surprise in her voice says “Wow you must of read my prayer request from the other week, she is doing better.” With a tender pat on the arm he thanks God and then asks Dad if he would like to join the men’s study group that meets on Saturday, apparently many of the church elders are leaders in this group and they are looking for other men who are strong in faith to maybe become an elder as well. With all the programs and upcoming events, the role of searching for trusted church elders has become a huge need.

Feeding the Ego: In the megachurch environment elders, deacons, program directors, committees, and leaderships roles are abundant. The church won’t pay you for your service but it has titles up the wazoo to hand out. Nothing like a position of responsibility in a big organization to entrap members for life. This has actually become a church building tactic in and of itself, and churches increasingly are using training seminars in conjunction with human resource tracking software to build and manage all of the donations, volunteers and programs with the sole goal of growing the church.

As the family walks out of the door, all of these components work together on a subliminal level. The excitement of the kids talking about how much fun they had, the people they know and associate with, the music, the attention of the pastor, and the knowledge that God is being glorified in a positive light all pool together. Even though they know that the Gospel message isn’t 100% positive on an intellectual level considering Jesus WAS put to death by an oppressive regime of both spiritual and political tyrants. They are able to overlook all that trusting that if it was an important part of scripture surely such a dynamic church and pastor would cover it and make that evil that Christ experienced relative to the evils we see swiftly overcoming our own nation.

The overall positive family experience overshadows the lack of spiritual depth and this family makes this church its home church, as do thousands of others all across the nation. They have become addicted to a collective feeling of artificial spirituality mistaken for God’s Spirit. In reality it is nothing more than a hugely successful marketing matrix employed by paid professionals.

As this model dominates the horizon of American culture – Christians entranced by the lights, programs, music and positive vibes they get from their charismatic leader – there is no one who is standing up to the cultural evils like unjust wars abroad, abortion, violence, economic looting by corporations and bankers, and perversity in media. As a result these asleep and often naive parents will “positively” lose their children to the unopposed devil’s devices at work in society, and they will also lose their country in less than a generation.

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Matthew 23:33

None of this is to say people can’t come to know the Lord Jesus Christ in these churches, but when very few Christians will be receiving crowns and white robes in heaven, the vast majority will just wear white diapers representing the depth of spiritual development they sadly didn’t obtain while on the Earth.

Jason Charles runs WakeTheChurch.org, a ministry that calls churches to maintain a moral and ethical compass that rejects the world and the way of the apostate church.