White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Are Megachurches Unfairly Maligned?

Published Friday, November 6, 2020 By John Ehrett

As a general rule, the mainstream academic guilds are not kind to American evangelicalism—regularly charging evangelicals with defending an ahistorical “Christian Nationalism,” promoting anti-intellectualism, obstructing social progress, neutering Americans’ incipient class consciousness, and so on. And so you’d be forgiven for expecting that High on God: How Megachurches Won the Heart of America—a recent sociological study from academics James Wellman, Katie Corcoran, and Kate Stockly—would be more of the same. From a secular standpoint, an anti-megachurch thesis practically writes itself: these giant, tax-exempt institutions breed far-right politics, promote prosperity theologies, incubate sexual abusers, and basically perpetrate every conceivable cultural pathology.

But unexpectedly, that is exactly what this fascinating and absorbing book does not argue. From the start, Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly are open about their own biases: they began their research into American megachurches fully intending to write such a critical account. Their observations, and their investigations into the lives of American megachurch attendees, led them in a very different direction.

At bottom, Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly see American megachurches as successfully satisfying six core human desires: 1) belonging/acceptance; 2) “wow” factor; 3) reliable leadership; 4) deliverance/liberation; 5) purpose in service; 6) recollection and participatory remembering. Belonging and acceptance take place when a visitor first sets foot in a megachurch’s sleek, modern atrium—which usually looks altogether different from a traditional church—and is greeted by friendly staff. That initial positive encounter is followed up by a professional-grade worship experience, and then by the appearance of a charismatic senior pastor. The emotional high point of the service, for the authors, is the “altar call” where the individual is publicly set free from their sins and born into a new Christian life. Finally, the individual is encouraged to live out his or her newfound faith through service to church and community, and incorporated into the church’s culture through involvement in small groups that meet during the week.

In Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly’s telling, this cycle is largely a positive thing. According to their research, megachurch parishioners report higher levels of happiness and well-being, and are more involved in community service, than their peers in mainline congregations. Moreover, the caricature of megachurches as hotbeds of Republican political organizing is flatly false: according to the authors, prominent megachurch pastors tend to avoid hot-button cultural topics altogether, even though their congregations skew conservative in terms of voting. But while the portrait Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly paint is generally a positive one, they are keenly aware of the model’s pitfalls.

Most significantly, the authors note that the deciding factor for megachurch success or failure is the presence of a compelling senior pastor. This pastor, ultimately, comes to stand in persona Christi—a kind of divine figure onto whom the congregation casts their hopes and longings. And if this pastor happens to be caught up in a scandal, the consequences are frequently devastating, with members leaving, growing embittered, or circling the wagons in denialist fashion. The net effect of these dynamics, the authors note, is that megachurches tend to have a heyday of just twenty years or so, after which changes in leadership tend to send the church toward decline.

So far, so interesting. But what might a Christian of a more traditional persuasion make of High on God?

At this point, a brief methodological note is in order. Readers of Modern Reformation are almost certainly not the expected target audience for High on God: Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly are sociological researchers writing for other sociologists, and accordingly much of the book is their attempt to justify their conclusions within the frameworks of their discipline. For many Reformed readers, though, that discipline necessarily relies upon a set of presuppositions alien to those of orthodox faith, and attempts to approach religious questions in a highly reductionistic way. That concern is shared by Anglo-Catholic theologian John Milbank, who, in his magisterial Theology and Social Theory, attacked the entire discipline of “sociology of religion” as an alien theology in its own right, a method willing to consider only those elements of religion capable of justification within a pervasively secular conceptual frame.

There is some truth to Milbank’s indictment: High on God’s positive assessment of megachurches is, in large part, an evaluation of their social effects against the particular ideas of human flourishing held by the authors. Or, put differently, the relative value of megachurches is conceived in very earthly terms. The possibility of, say, doctrinal integrity as a concern in its own right simply doesn’t factor into the analysis.

But I am quite sure that Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly—as thoughtful researchers—would acknowledge as much. And it seems to me that aggregating and evaluating the views of parishioners about their faith is an important research question in its own right, whether or not one thinks of Christian worship in terms of “collective effervescence,” “emotional energy,” and “interaction ritual chains,” as the authors do. To the extent that Christian megachurch attendees truly see themselves as part of Christ’s Body and seek to lead lives of self-sacrificial service, that’s something to be celebrated.

Yet even so, a key question still lingers after the final page of High on God is turned: is the megachurch model a truly sustainable form of Christian practice?

As previously noted, very little is said about the substance of Christian faith or about megachurch parishioners’ conceptual understanding of the faith they profess. As Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has repeatedly argued, data suggests that this understanding has grown increasingly thin. In terms of ongoing life transformation, it’s one thing for individuals to enjoy “mountaintop experiences” every Sunday or consistently organize for social welfare efforts; it’s quite another to learn to approach the world “Christianly” for the long haul. What, in the end, is the relationship between true catechesis and the megachurch form?

And on a rather more observable level, the specter of a countdown seems to haunt the story that Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly tell. No pastorate endures forever, and with so much of congregants’ spiritual vitality bound up in the single figure of the senior pastor, it’s inevitable that the departure of the original visionary leader risks sending megachurches into a genuine tailspin. After such periods of decline, where do former parishioners go? Do they remain in the faith? One leaves High on God with the impression that most megachurches are like fireworks displays: brilliant while they last, but always trending toward rapid dissolution. I, for one, would be fascinated to read a long-term longitudinal study of general Christian involvement by megachurch parishioners over time.

No doubt it would be churlish to criticize High on God for not making arguments that range far beyond its intended scope. And as it stands, Wellman, Corcoran, and Stockly have produced a well-written, fascinatingly counterintuitive book that even non-specialists will find compelling. Viewed from another angle, though, High on God may in fact be the very cautionary tale it believes itself not to be. If one conceives of church as an essentially transgenerational community—a living tradition, into which one is born and within which one hopes to raise one’s children—it seems to me that megachurches may have quite a long way to go, after all.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

  • John Ehrett