"Our study shows that -- contrary to public opinion that tends to pass off the mega church movement as consumerist religion -- megachurches are doing a pretty effective job for their members," James Wellman, associate professor at the University of Washington, said in a statement.
Wellman and study co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk, University of Washington graduate students, analyzed 2008 data provided by the Leadership Network on 12 nationally representative U.S. megachurches -- 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys.
Four themes emerged: Salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader and morality and purpose through service, the researchers said.
Megachurches, or churches with 2,000 or more congregants, are beginning to dominate the U.S. religious landscape -- more than half of all U.S. churchgoers now attend the largest 10 percent of churches, the researchers said.
The services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music and what Wellman calls a "multisensory melange" 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, Wellman said.
"We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches," Wellman said. "That's why we say it's like a drug."
Wellman presented "'God is Like a Drug:' Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Mega Churches," at the 107th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.