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Worship euphoria?

Matt Costella notes here a recent study that finds megachurch worship to create similar physiological responses to that of drug use:

The University of Washington just released a fascinating study which concludes that megachurches provide the same biological “high” and euphoria as that produced by sporting events and concerts. The only difference? Those who get “high” from the emotional experience of being in a worship service at a megachurch attribute their experience to something spiritual or divine.

This certainly raises important questions that need to be considered regarding whether all emotional/physical response is equal, or whether there is a fundamental difference between what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections” and mere chemical responses to stimuli.

I raise this important issue in Worship in Song:

In modern thought, emotion is generally considered neutral. The only criterion of worth for emotion is the object toward which it is expressed. This relatively novel thinking, however, must be corrected to distinguish betweendifferent qualities of emotion. Not all emotion is created equal, especially for expression to God. A man should notlove his wife in the same way that he loves his dog. Additionally, there is a great difference between emotion that is merely physical feeling and emotion that involves the whole of man.1

Consequently, our worship, and the elements we use in worship, must be those that carefully nurture the religious affections rather than simply creating a physical “euphoria”:

Because the very nature of worship is spiritual response to truth, the music used should develop deep affections for God, not simply emotional passions. Those affections will result from the way the text is written as well as the composition of the music itself. If the text has no solid, concrete basis for the music and if the musical style communicates emotional, sentimental feelings, it is not appropriate for congregational worship.2

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Worship in Song, 52 []
  2. Worship in Song, 197 []

6 Responses to Worship euphoria?

  1. The same research ties in with Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He was reluctant to include a religious intelligence although he did in his latest research because he believed this frenzied state to have the same effects as opiates. Specifically discussed in his latest publication.

  2. Well spotted. The link you provided does not work but a cashed version of the article can be found here: <a href="” target=”_blank”>…” target=”_blank”>

    I had heard similar things in the past and actually wondered about it the other way round: can it be that rock concerts etc. are a replacement for a Sunday church experience? Is this the secular version of going to church? Certainly, there are elements of 'preaching' and a communal experience (joint singing) there, as well as a sense of belonging. It would be interesting to understand these aspects and see whether maybe this is something people are looking for and instead of seeking it in church, they find it at concerts.

    On the other hand, the charismania type services are hard to distinguish from popular music concerts and so what the article criticizes is quite warranted. I had come across the subject of manipulation before, in a book by Alex Robertson (Playing With Fire), which is out of print now. He goes as far as comparing the use of music in some churches with witchcraft as described in the Bible. In any case, his argument is interesting since music can definitely be used to create a mood and emotional atmosphere. I have seen that such a mood is often taken as an indication of the 'presence of the Spirit' by undiscerning Christians. We have a lot to learn – and you are making a great contribution here that is desperately needed.

  3. I wanted to add that German author Adolf Graul contributed to this discussion in his book, Rock-, Pop- und Technomusik. Like you (and the Greeks), he distinguishes two types of music, i.e. the more melodic and classical kind and the rhythm dominated popular music. His material may have some flaws but he's definitely on the right way, combining the findings of musicology and music psychology with the Scriptures.

    It would be interesting to delve into that more, based on research such as you mention above, to pin this down even more. Certainly, the music alone (which Graul shows impacts on heartbeat and the limbic system, conditioning the hearer and creating brain patterns over time) is not the whole story. Preaching style, imagery and the impact of being in a large crowd, which leads to kind of a common feeling among church or concert attendees, need to be taken into account as well. Music can be a powerful tool and should therefore be used wisely in worship. Paul's warning about being sober comes to mind here.

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