Christian belief is strongly dependent on the past. We believe in a teacher and saviour who lived on earth two millennia ago. Our scriptures were written two millennia ago, and more. Churches have developed strong traditions that have sustained them through centuries.
Yet the church has also been in constant change, reformation and renewal over those centuries. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the early church, which wrote the scriptures and endured persecution, the early church fathers and the desert fathers, the church councils, the mystics, the Celtic christians, the Reformation and the counter-reformation, the Anabaptists, the charismatic renewal, and so many more.
So often renewal movements are opposed by the establishment, and often by the average christian. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So should we be afraid of the new? Why is it so often opposed? What can we do to make sure we are open to the new without losing the truth? On this page I look at one reason why some christians respond postively to conspiracies and negatively to new doctrinal ideas.
When people gather in groups
People tend to take cues from others about how to act. When people gather in groups, conformity can overwhelm judgment and they tend to start to think and behave in similar ways.
- The many tend to follow the few leaders or influencers, who can become dictatorial and protective of their position.
- Many people also follow what those around them are doing with little thought of their own. The group reinforces each other in the shared opinions.
- Decisions can be based on emotion rather than careful rational thought. People may go against their own better judgment and defer to the group – studies show this can happen even when the group is obviously wrong.
- Few diverse opinions are expressed and thinking tends to become more “black and white”.
It’s known as social influence, herd behaviour or group think, and it can happen in academia, business, government ….. and churches. As a result, innovative and critical thinking can be stifled and old traditions, good or bad, reinforced.
Why does this happen?
When threatened, animals instinctively group together – there’s greater safety in numbers. Some animals can forage for food while others keep a lookout for predators. A group may be able to fight off a single predator.
Humans have evolved in the same way, but now that behaviour is less related to survival, and most evident in the way we think and behave.
Groups tend to produce conformity. There are many psychological reasons for this:
- A desire for harmony – not wanting to rock the boat – so we don’t appraise alternatives. If people lack personal knowledge of an issue, they are more likely to defer to others.
- There is pressure to conform to gain social acceptance. People may fear reprisal or rejection if they go against the group. This can particularly affect those who depend on the group for their identity or social relationships.
- Following a powerful or charismatic leader whose opinions or status are strong influences in the group. A manipulative leader can use various compliance strategies to influence the group.
- Likewise strong characters in the group can exert great influence, especially if they have access to specialist information.
- The bandwagon effect where a viewpoint seems to be winning out and we want to be on the winning side.
- Groups can rouse our emotions so that emotions, rather than logic, rule our decision-making. Stress can increase this effect.
- Being part of a group can make us feel more powerful and special and thus more confident of our opinions. This is especially so where there is a strong group identity and disdain for people outside the group.
As a result, people can easily be more influenced by those around them than by external facts and arguments.
Stockmarkets and herd behaviour
Financial markets are often cited as classic examples of herd behaviour.
If a number of investors choose to buy or sell, other investors can assume they have good reason, and follow their lead without doing their own analysis. This can lead to panic selling or unjustified buying that caues the stock market to behave in unstable and unjustified ways.
Experts say herd behaviour was a factor in the 1929 Wall St crash (the pictures shows crowds in the street after the crash) and the dotcom bubble in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s not all bad
These processes aren’t necessarily bad. Shared beliefs (“collective consciousness”) tend to unify. Feeling connected to others is helpful. Group decision-making can be rapid if everyone agrees. Each of us only has limited knowledge, so we all need to learn from others.
It turns out that being informed by social information (i.e. information derived from the group) tends to lead to better decisions up to a certain point, because there are multiple inputs which provide checks and balances. But if the social information is too tightly controlled, decision-making will tend to be less reliable because it isn’t sufficiently informed by external facts.
But group thinking can be negative
Allowing the group to inform our thinking can enhance our choices, but allowing it to control our thinking has bad consequences.
- Emotions can be heightened and thus over-ride more careful and logical thinking.
- Cognitive biases and set ways of thinking (heuristics) can stifle ideas.
- Herd behaviour can make people feel anonymous, and so it reduces individual responsibility and identity.
- This can change people’s feelings about what is acceptable behaviour, and so lead people to behave in ways that they never would do on their own. In the extreme, it can lead to mob violence.
Importantly, group think can lead to negative outcomes, by:
- inhibiting innovation or questioning of the status quo;
- failing to hear some worthwhile viewpoints;
- not properly examining available information;
- overconfidence in decisions; and
- missing alternative solutions.
To Psychologist Gayook Wong, the January 2021 riot at the US Capitol was an example of “mob mentality”. She said the event illustrated how heightened emotions and anonymity could lead to loss of individuality and a willingness to behave in ways that are normally unacceptable: “being part of a group creates the perception that violent or unacceptable behavior is not a personal responsibility”.
Christians and group think
In many ways, Jesus was “anti-establishment”. He vehemently criticised the religious leaders of his day, and he was executed by the ruling power in his country. And down through the ages there have been many christians who have continued this stance.
Yet today, predominantly, the church in the western world is more allied with conservatism than reform. As Francis Shaeffer used to say, our values have too often become “personal peace and affluence”. And so christians have often tended to be wary or opposed to change, in ways that suggest herd behaviour.
Important note: some christian groups have become a cult, with seriously abusive practices which are often based on group think. I am not talking about that here. I am referring to ordinary churches.
In this section I will look at christian responses to social change. The world is changing, and western christians too often don’t like it.
Many christians have become very wary of science, whether it is evolutionary biology, climate science or the medical science of vaccines. Despite the strong evidence for evolution, climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines, these christians have been led to believe conspiracy theories and anti-scientific views that have little basis. Their leaders promote baseless alternative views and the faithful follow their tribe.
Social movements like women’s rights, gender equality, same-sex marriage and anti-racism seem to be upsetting traditional values, and so many christians have been led to see these movements as “socialism” or “cultural Marxism”. Even care for the poor and disadvantaged can be seen as socialist, and anyone who attempts to follow Jesus’ teaching in these areas dismissed as “woke”.
There are legitimate differences of opinion on many of these social issues, and christians can have good reasons to oppose some aspects of changing societal values. But demonising opponents rather than trying to understand them is not christian but tribal, and avoiding looking at both sides of the question is typical of group think.
These social issues impact our politics. Some christians generally vote for candidates that support traditional moral values on matters of abortion, sex and gender while not being as concerned about values that are arguably more central to Jesus’ teachings, such as inequality, poverty, unforgiveness and greed (see note 1).
Politicians can take advantage of this. By demonising their opponents, conservative politicians and their supporters can lead voters to ignore facts and see things in a black and white way, so that they will believe almost anything they are told by the leaders of their tribe (see box: Stop the steal).
Stop the steal
Former US President Donald Trump’s followers, were prepared to believe him when he told them the election was stolen. No substantial evidence was ever offered, even in over 60 court cases. Several people admitted in court they made these allegations without evidence, either knowing they weren’t true. Recent evidence has shown that Trump was planning this move long before the election.
Yet despite the lack of evidence and the incredibility of the claims, many christians, including some influential “prophets”, refused to accept the obvious and instead followed classic herd behaviour in continuing to claim the election was stolen – believing what the influential tribal leader said and ignoring external facts.
It’s not a one-way street
Of course radicals as well as conservatives can exhibit herd thinking. People can rush to the new too quickly just as much as we can refuse to change. But on this page I am examining how christians can oppose the new, so I am focusing on examples that illustrate this.
Reformation and renewal
In this section I will look at how many christians and churches resist re-thinking doctrinal and ethical issues.
The contemporary church has a great debt to reformers down through history, for example:
- Peter and Paul led the early Jewish church in welcoming gentiles (non-Jews) into the church without requiring them to follow Jewish rituals and purity laws (Acts 10-11, 15).
- Through his rejection of wealth and privilege, his committed life and his establishment of the Fransiscan order, St Francis of Assisi left an example that still inspires christians to this day.
- Most people are aware of the impact of Martin Luther and the Reformation on European christianity. But equally important was the example of the Anabaptists, with their emphasis on the teachings of Jesus, their missionary zeal and their emphasis on peace and service.
- Social reformers such as William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King became the consience for a church that had grown complacent with injustice.
The interesting and terrible thing is that all of these reformers were to some degree (and often to a great degree) opposed by church authorities at the time and had to persevere to finally win their cause.
So it isn’t a surprise to find that many christians find it difficult to come to terms with evolution, a more nuanced view of the Bible, gender equality, same sex marriage, pluralism and change in the church. But my own experience has been quite different.
Sixty years of change
It is sixty years since I first began following Jesus and trying to learn what this new-found faith was all about. So much has changed in western christianity, including:
- Christianity has gone from being the nominal basis of public life to being a minority view ignored or dismissed by half the population.
- Social movements like the sexual revolution, the move towards equality of women, the greater acceptance of LGBTQI people and pluralism have all impacted the church (mostly for good).
- Western christians are much less likely to believe in six day creation, the Canaanite genocide, a literal hell, an inerrant Bible, denominationalism and “strong” evangelism.
- Academic viewpoints on Jesus, the Bible, Hebrew history and archaeology are now widely accepted and generally seen as helpful, rather than being ignored or vilified by clergy and mainstream christians.
- Church services have diversified. Mostly this has meant a more casual approach to music, dress and language, more demonstrative and enthusiastic worship and much greater use of technology. But some churches have increased their use of liturgy and more ancient practices.
I have found all these changes challenging and I don’t think they are all from God. But after prayer, study and thought, I have come to the conclusion that many of these changes have been good, and embracing them has been faith-enhancing. Yet clergy seem mostly to want to preserve the status quo and avoid considering they might need to change their minds, and laypeople have often quite willing to follow.
Rob Bell and hell
The story of Rob Bell illustrates some aspects of how new ideas are resisted and their proponents demonised.
Rob Bell was the pastor of a successful and fast growing American church. He made a name for himself as a hip communicator making short videos, writing books and drawing crowds to his church. But in 2011 he published his book Love Wins, in which he questioned the truth of the conventional christian treaching on hell. He didn’t express a personal view, rather saying christians should leave room for uncertainty, and should “long for” universalism to be true.
Despite the fact that some prominent evangelical figures in the past (John Stott, Michael Green, RVG Tasker) had expressed similar doubts about hell, and some contemporaries supported him, mainstream evangelical figures condemned Bell out of hand as a heretic, a false teacher and bound for hell.
But ten years later, it seems many christians have come to similar conclusions. The Bible doesn’t teach what is claimed about hell and it is hard to imagine a God of love condemning people to infinite torture for finite sin. But group think led so many christians to condemn Bell and his questions without ever considering their own understanding could be wrong.
Herd behaviour again?
There are doubtless good Biblical, doctrinal and practical reasons to question all these changes, but I can’t help feeling that herd behaviour is a significant part of it. Several sources say that there are distinct signs of group think in churches:
A group can feel that because they are all christians, they must all be in agreement about whatever is being discussed. This can be a wish or an illusion, but there are many non-core matters on which christians will legitimately differ. The desire for apparent unanimity can have the effect of stifling alternative opinions that may have value, and making dissenters feel like outsiders.
The desire for uniformity, even in non-core matters, leads to conformity being encouraged and debate and dissent being discouraged. Information or moral scruples that should lead christians to question actions and viewpoints, can instead be ignored or explained away. We should be especially alarmed if a leader’s views cannot be challenged.
The above attitudes can lead to different forms of censorship:
- Self-censorship: people who have doubts or alternative views (e.g. liking unpopular authors or podcasts, different Biblical interpetations or different political convictions), but lack confidence or have been burned in the past, may keep silent as a form of self defence, thus robbing the group of their insights.
- Self-appointed censors: members of the group can keep silent about problematic information, stifle discussion or even react angrily to new ideas, thus inhibiting alternative views.
- Direct pressure – leaders can deal with dissenters directly, cowing them into silence, removing them from positions or forcing them to leave the church.
Group think can be strengthened, inadvertantly or deliberately, by stereotyping or even demonising outsiders.
Causes in churches
Like any other group, a church can be prone to herd behaviour, for reasons already given. But several additional factors are important in churches:
- Most people begin their christian faith in their teens or earlier, and so tend initially to believe what they are taught. These “orthodox” views tend to be reinforced by their peers. So it is natural to automatically dismiss contrary ideas.
- It is easy to see the church as a haven from the evils of the outside world. This can lead to alternative views being demonised.
- Respect for leaders can lead to unquestioning acceptance of what they teach.
- We may believe that God has revealed our particular view, and so naturally reject contrary views.
Problems caused by group think in churches
Group think can:
- make churches feel unsafe places to express doubts or ask questions,
- miss the opportunity to help people form their opinions in a thoughtful and effective way (i.e. via prayer, study and discussion), and thus gain spiritual maturity,
- deny the church the input of those with gifts and knowledge that doesn’t fit the mould,
- miss the opportunity to create a broad community that is centred around the core of christian faith but tolerant about non-core matters – a community that is more likely to be attractive to outsiders,
- become a barrier to the church speaking prophetically to each other and to outsiders.
In these ways, the Holy Spirit can be stifled which can prevent God reforming or renewing the church and teaching it new ways.
Examples of group think
Have you ever sat in a Bible study and felt unable to express your opinion because you knew the majority had already passed judgment? I have heard of cases where questioners and doubters were asked quietly to be quiet to avoid hurting the faith of others. This led in some cases to people leaving the church.
I know of a pastor who was asked by his senior pastor not to mention a non-core matter where he and another assistant pastor (and friend) disagreed, to avoid any impression of disunity. However allowing this diversity would show people that we don’t all have to think the same to be brothers and sisters, and how to deal with differences.
I have heard one senior pastor say that if he was happy, “everyone was happy”. This was received with good humour, but it did encourage people to submit their own opinions to his authority, the beginning of group think.
A US denomination was unable to meet its budget, causing problems and cutbacks. But a year earlier, some pastors and workers had discussed they were worried about the new budget, but weren’t confident to express this in the main sessions for fear of speaking against the leaders and the majority. Thus the denomination was denied their insights.
Getting it right
There is a need for unity on core matters – it would be hard for a church or christian organisation to minister effectively if it is disunited on its core business. But there is also a need for all gifts to be heard and used, for sharing leadership, for allowing liberty on non-core matters, and for encouraging people to grow through self-learning, discussion and the guidance of the Spirit.
So how to achieve the balance?
There are a number of steps we can all take (churches, leaders and individuals) to reduce herd behaviour and group think.
1. Be aware
Awareness of the warning signs and dangers will help avoid problems.
2. Commit to good decision-making processes
Commit to collaborative process and exploration of ideas, leading to collective intelligence.
3. Don’t be afraid of change
Growth only comes through change. Not everything we currently do and think can be right, so it is good to always be open to the Holy Spirit teaching us something new. Even new understandings of Biblical doctrines. Test everything and hold on to what is good (see 1 Thessalonians 5:21).
4. Encourage diverse viewpoints
• Encourage alternative ideas.
• Encourage everyone to get out of their denominational & doctrinal bubble.
• Seek outside opinions.
• Select people with diverse skills & perspectives.
• Avoid demonising other viewpoints.
• Accept that spiritual growth can be diverse.
5. Leaders stay humble
Don’t sanctify leaders’ opinions. Leaders avoid giving their opinions first, but allow others to speak first.
6. Make sure everyone has the information they need
Don’t keep information secret. When teaching on doctrinal or ethical matters, give people information on the major viewpoints.
7. Use good decision-making processes
• Ask (and be willing to answer) “Why?” and “Why not?” questions.
• “Second chance” meeting to allow time to consider any misgivings about important decisions.
• Ask someone to play Devil’s Advocate during discussions.
• Consider allowing anonymous comments.
• Encourage time for reflection.
8. Decisions are spiritual
• Always invite the Spirit to guide.
• Keep Jesus at the centre – it is his church.
Throughout its two millennia history, the church has never been static. Christian understandings of God and the Bible have continued to change and hopefully grow. The cultures we live in are continually changing.
So it is folly to think our churches can and should stay the same today. We each need to change as individuals too, in response to the call of God on our lives.
Some things you believe today God may lead you change in the future. He has certainly done that for me! As he has done throughout the church’s history.
The way your church does things today may need to change in the future – or even right now!
Controlling things may seem the safe way for leaders to go, but it will likely stifle the Spirit and stifle the gifts and enthusiasm of church members.
But if we encourage every christian, including ourselves, to use their God-given gifts to contribute to decisions and ministry, we will open up the way for Spirit-led innovation.
And potentially mobilise ordinary christians who have been kept passive too long.
Herd behaviour and group think
Group think and christians
Overcoming or avoiding group think
Note 1: Jesus didn’t speak about abortion or homosexuality, and while he spoke strongly on sexual sin, he was gentle on women accused of sexual sin while more critical of the men who had the power (see Matthew 5:27-30, John 8:2-11 & Luke 7:36-50). There are many more sayings in the gospels about wealth, inequality and love for enemies – e.g. see Luke 6:24-36, 12:13-21, Matthew 25:31-46.