So-called ‘megachurches’ have grown in popularity in America in recent years – and their success is down to the fact that they leave worshippers on a high, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Washington say the institutions “act like a drug”, using stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience.

Lead author James Wellman, associate professor of American religion, said in a press release: “When you go into megachurches - you see smiling people, people who are dancing in the aisles, and, in one San Diego megachurch, an interracial mix I've never seen anywhere in my time doing research on American churches.

“We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That's why we say it's like a drug.”

He added: "Membership in megachurches is one of the leading ways American Christians worship these days, so, therefore, these churches should be understood.

"Our study shows that - contrary to public opinion that tends to pass off the megachurch movement as consumerist religion - megachurches are doing a pretty effective job for their members. In fact, megachurch members speak eloquently of their spiritual growth."

Megachurches, or churches with 2,000 or more congregants, have grown in number, size, and popularity in recent years, coming to virtually dominate the American religious landscape.

More than half of all American churchgoers now attend the largest 10% of churches.

Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music, and what Wellman calls a "multisensory mélange" 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.

The researchers hypothesised that such rituals are successful in imparting emotional energy in the megachurch setting.

The team wrote that they “create membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality”.

For the study the researchers looked at 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys on megachurch members' emotional experiences with their churches.