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While rates of church attendance in the United States have been decreasing over time, the number and popularity of “megachurches” has increased significantly. It is estimated that the largest 7% of congregations contain about half of all American churchgoers. These predominantly Protestant churches draw anywhere from 2,000 to 30,000 attendees every week and they typically rely on an energetic and highly publicized charismatic leader to fill the seats. So what draws so many Americans to these stadium-sized congregations? New research by Katie Corcoran and James K. Wellman Jr. suggests that it might have something to do with the particular form of charisma found among many megachurch leaders.  

Most social science research on charismatic leadership focuses on political leaders or leaders of new religious movements and cults — groups that exist on the fringes of more mainstream, institutionalized religions. In these religious movements, the founder or leader is often seen as divine or supernatural and their authority is derived from that perception. Instead, Corcoran and Wellman examine how charisma emerges in the more institutionalized spaces of Protestant megachurches where leaders are not seen as divine. Drawing on interview and survey data from a large sample of megachurches, the researchers find that pastors of megachurches establish a “charismatic bond” with their attendees by being both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

Even though megachurch pastors were described by many of their congregants as having “extraordinary qualities” and being “gifted,” “special,” or “unique,” congregants were also equally drawn to the more “ordinary” and “human” side of their leaders. For example, congregants were more likely to describe their pastor as trustworthy or authentic if they felt the pastor was relatable and honest about their own flaws. The authors explain, “… they must be extraordinary without becoming perceived as a deity, while at the same time, be ordinary but not so ordinary as to engage in deviant behaviors that undermine their perceived extraordinary abilities.” This research reveals that charismatic leadership can come in many forms, and sometimes it’s someone’s ordinary qualities that make them seem extraordinary.

For research on the instability of charismatic leadership, check out this TROT!