Most of us like to think we’re individuals, no-one else is quite like us, and we don’t follow the crowd.
But is that the reality? How easily are christians influenced by what others think? And would it be good if we were all individuals?
There’s safety in numbers
It’s natural for humans, and most animals, to herd together, especially when there’s danger or difficulty. It’s a survival thing. There’s safety in numbers.
For most people these days, it’s not physical survival. But most of us still tend to stick with the crowd when it comes to socialising, expressing opinions or forming beliefs.
When we are in groups, which include churches, it is likely that social influence will tend to produce conformity. We may accept without question information provided by others. Or for psychological reasons, we may not wish to speak against what seems to be the majority opinion of the group.
These processes, called “social influence” or “herd behaviour” or “group think”, have been studied by psychologists, who say that some degree of conformity is helpful for a group to make decisions and act cohesively.
But group think can also end up stifling innovation and alternative ideas, and lead to stagnation and poor decision-making.
Group think and churches
Christianity is a religion based on revelation, especially in Jesus, so it is natural that churches and christian groups will share a lot of viewpoints and attitudes. And natural that we will feel that our beliefs and our traditions are God-inspired.
But churches are also prone to group think and herd behaviour. Have you ever experienced or observed any of these behaviours?
- Have you ever sat in a Bible study and felt unable to express your opinion because you knew the majority had already passed judgment?
- Have you ever been in a church where it was considered ungodly to question or criticise the senior pastor?
- Have you ever heard christians dismissing viewpoints simply because they are different? Maybe labelling them as “liberal” or “fundamentalist” or “socialist” or “heretical” without really explaining what is wrong with them?
- Have you ever seen decisions or choices made because of people’s strong emotions and before the matter has been investigated and discussed?
- Have you ever been in a church or group where the christian view (on politics or ethics or doctrine) was just tacitly assumed, without any thought that someone present may think differently?
- Have you ever seen good ideas just ignored without being properly considered?
All of these behaviours are signs that good discussion and decision processes may have given way to group think.
Churches and new ideas
If herd behaviour is prevalent, the church loses out.
- Many people feel discouraged, left out or not listened to.
- Many gifts are under recognised and under-used.
- Things keep going in the same old way, and new ideas and understandings rarely see the light of day.
- The church can easily lose touch with the community around them and its values and culture, and so finds it difficult to mission to that community.
Ideas whose time has come?
The last 50 years have seen enormous change in social values and in christian beliefs. For example:
- Questioning of literalist ways of interpreting the Bible, in favour of the way Jesus and his apostles used their scriptures.
- Disbelief that God would order genocide in the Old Testament or send people to an everlasting hell.
- Recognition that Jesus’ main message was the kingdom of God, and how we might think about that today.
- Greater acceptance of the worth of academic study of Biblical history and archaeology.
- Recognition of the evil of racism and the marginalisation of indigenous peoples.
- Accepting the equality of women in society and in the church.
- Greater acceptance of gender diversity.
- Seeing the importance of both faith and good works (justice and mercy) in the church’s mission.
- Increased environmental awareness and concerns.
- Greater concern for the poor and marginalised, including refugees.
- A breaking down of denominationalism.
We can disagree about how many of these changes have been God-inspired, but I think three things are clear:
- The church hasn’t always handled these issues well,
- Most of the changes have been opposed or resisted by many christians and many church leaders, and
- At least some of them have been used by the Holy Spirit to move the church forward.
It requires discernment to make decisions about doctrinal and life issues. It’s not easy grappling with current issues and trying to see how the kingdom of God changes the way we look at them. And it can be scary reviewing traditions and teachings that no longer seem tenable. Especially when others in the church are calling us to hold the line on traditional views.
But grapple we must if we are to speak and minister to our world. The Holy Spirit has never stood still, but is always seeking to renew and reform our thinking and our ministry. As the old hymn said:
“The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.”
Challenging the status quo
Sometimes the new light and truth will seem to contradict the old.
- It began with Jesus challenging the received “truths” of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.
- The Spirit led Peter to take a different view of Gentiles than what he had been taught (Acts 10).
- The Catholic Church branded Martin Luther a heretic because he was opposed to some established practices and teachings.
- William Carey began the modern missionary movement, contrary to the common belief that God would convert the heathens if he wished, without missionaries.
- Slavery in England and the US, and apartheid in South Africa, were all justifed from the Bible, and those who worked to end these evils often had to work against their fellow believers.
So if we are going to do God’s work in God’s way in the 21st century, we may have to speak against established and entrenched understandings.
Issues needing attention
There are so many issues needing attention today, I can only mention a few:
- The growing irrelevance of many churches to the cultures around them.
- The professionalising of the ministry so that pastors burn out while lay people are demotivated and passive.
- A more positive response to societal moves on gender inclusivity. If churches don’t believe they can endorse same sex relationships, they must develop a much more loving and accepting approach.
- The capture of sections of the church by right-wing politics that supports conservative views on gender and abortion but otherwise is quite anti-christian, and labels as “Marxist” people who are actually trying to follow Jesus’ teachings on caring for the poor and mistreated.
- The departure of many thoughtful young adults from the church, and in many cases from faith.
- The challenge of modern science (evolution, climate change), medicine (gender transition, stem cell research), archaeology and Biblical scholarship (throwing doubt on significant sections of the Old Testament, and how we interpret it).
- Postmodern disdain for doctrines like hell and exclusivity, and the practice of evangelism.
Some of these issues, I believe, require completely new understandings from the teachings of traditional christianity. Others require better approaches and explanations. But all require innovative and Spirit-guided thinking.
The church needs individuals
Most pastors and clergy are reluctant to make change. They know it will be difficult, and if they rock the boat they may lose their jobs. And besides, their training has generally been along a familiar track, and they haven’t been trained in innovation and managing change.
Many church members also prefer the status quo. It is relatively easy being a christian in most western churches, and many don’t have time, skills, or maybe interest, to innovate. They are happy to be consumers.
But there are clergy and laypeople who have spiritual depth, have the skills of an entrepreneur or a strategic planner, have the ability to think outside the square, have had experience in doing things differently, and in many cases are itching to see change. Too often they are silenced or chased away.
If churches would nurture these gifts and these “prophets”, and were willing to consider traditional doctrines and practices afresh, then change is possible.
There are known ways to avoid herd behaviour and group think, in churches and in our own lives.
Are you an individual?
Don’t let them fool you or silence your gift. Pray for God’s way to use your gift and see change happen. Avoid group think. Be sensitive to others. Be judicious in what you say when.
And if you’re not …
Try to avoid herd behaviour. Respect those who lead you and teach you, but also respect those who are contrarians. Take time to read and consider alternative opinions, don’t just reject them out of hand. Pray for the Holy Spirit to lead you into truth.
Read my summary of herd behaviour and group think in Are christians afraid of the new?
Initial graphic by Pixabay plus various clip art sheep, put together by unkleE.
The blog title (“I’m an individual, you can’t fool me!”) comes from a 1985 rap song by Jacko (Mark Jackson) an Australian footballer who was definitely an individual. So much so that, despite his footballing talent, he struggled to play in a team sport because he did his own thing. But his individuality led to him making several rap singles, making commercials for batteries and breakfast cereal, and even having a short-lived boxing career.