High on the Mountain

From the Washington Post: a new study by sociologists at the University of Washington theorizes that worship services at megachurches (churches of 2,000 or more attendance) “can trigger feelings of transcendence and changes in brain chemistry — a spiritual ‘high’ that keeps congregants coming back for more.”

The article explains:

Large gatherings of shared experience like concerts and sporting events also trigger feelings of euphoria, said Katie Corcoran, a Ph.D. candidate who co-authored the paper. But, she said, “churches seem to be somewhat unique in that these feelings are not just experienced as euphoria but as something transcendent or divine.”

The Washington study refutes the idea that megachurches engender weaker commitment by attenders. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: the “high” of the weekly worship experience results in increased attendance and commitment.

Still, I’m concerned that some churches equate emotional energy with the work of the Spirit. They focus too much on creating emotional highs and not enough on teaching the reality that the spiritual life is not all mountaintop experiences, and that true transformation takes place through the daily grind and over the long haul. As Skye Jethani wrote over at Our of Ur:

Through the influence of our consumer culture we’ve come to believe that transformation is attained through external experiences. We’ve come to regard our church buildings, with their multimedia theatrical equipment, as mountaintops where God’s glory may be encountered. Many of us ascend this mountain every Sunday morning wanting to have an experience with God, and many of us leave with a degree of genuine transformation. We feel “pumped up,” “fed,” or “on fire for the Lord”….

This pursuit of transformation by consuming external experiences creates worship junkies who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that will not fade….In response, churches are driven to create ever-grander experiences and more elaborate productions to satisfy expectations. But if lasting transformation is our goal, mountaintops–even God-ordained ones–will never suffice.

I confess that I at one time bought into the mountaintop mindset, if not necessarily in my leadership, than at least in my own life. I thought that if I wasn’t experiencing a spiritual “high,” something was wrong with me. On each mountaintop, I recommitted my life to Christ and committed myself to making the feeling last longer. It took many years to realize the truth of true transformation — that a lot of times the biggest growth happens on the long walk up the hill or in the darkness of the mountain’s shadow.

Corporate worship is an essential component of Christian community and there is certainly an emotional component to the spiritual life, but let’s not confuse corporate emotion with individual transformation.

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