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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

God's Kids Don't Groupthink

I heard about a term in one of my senior classes in college--Groupthink. Groupthink is a sort of abstract concept that has its roots in secular sociology and psychology, but I thought it might be good to talk about it here.

"Groupthink" happens when everyone in a group has pretty much the same background, outlook on life, etc. In such situations, they all tend to think alike and are afraid to say anything that might make them unpopular with, or different from, the group. In this situation, creativity and productivity drop. Disasters happen because no one was brave enough to warn the others about potential problems.

Leadership studies suggest that if you get a variety of people, all with different backgrounds and perspectives, who are not afraid to offer a different opinion, even if it disrupts the peace in the group, you can overcome Groupthink and have a more creative and productive workplace.

Something made me think about all of that again, the other day. Do churches have problems with Groupthink? Yes, I think sometimes they do. Unfortunately, sometimes they do the wrong thing to overcome it.

Recently, I've heard of a campaign to overthrow anything rated as old or worn-out. In churches, that may mean hushing up or purging old and accepted traditions, and replacing them with new ones.

One problem, though. Doesn't that just mean replacing one peer group with another, and thus one kind of Groupthink with another?

The Bible's Answer for Groupthink

Okay, so non-religious people have studied groups and have noticed that diversity causes a more productive and original-thinking group. If we have everything in common, we are afraid to venture out or challenge the consensus, for fear of becoming a pariah. Add someone to the group who's totally different from us, and is willing to say so, and he or she can share new information--can teach us.

So maybe out with the old and in with the new is not such a good idea. The old has withstood many challenges--that's why it's old. Why don't we just mix the two? In essence, I mean letting older people use their experience to challenge the consensus of the young, and letting younger people suggest new perspectives that challenge the consensus of the old.

This is a revolutionary idea, apparently. American culture dictates that classrooms and friendships be segregated by age group, and now even Sunday school classrooms have followed suit. Still, is this what the Bible tells us to do?

The Apostle Paul wrote about instruction and organization in the early church. He didn't let the spiritually immature teach the spiritually immature. He also specifically told people who were older (chronologically) to lead, because their more advanced lives offered more examples that others could learn from.

Older women were to teach younger women how to behave in a way that was both moral and acceptable to the surrounding culture (Titus 2: 3-5); older, married men with families were supposed to be the spiritual leaders for the whole church (1 Timothy 3: 1-5). New converts could not lead, because they lacked the knowledge of the scriptures that told them to respect their elders, and they became conceited with their new power (1 Timothy 5: 1,2; 3:6). So far, however, that only covers older people teaching younger ones. Does it work both ways?

There were cases when younger people were put in charge of older ones--case in point, Timothy, who became a pastor over a congregation that included some elders who despised him because he was younger (1 Timothy 4:12). Older people, then, can learn from younger people, provided that these younger people have enough spiritual background that they are qualified to teach. See 1 Timothy 3: 1-5 again if you need specifics on a church leader's qualifications.

Jesus Himself also said, "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10: 15). In other words, even those with mature faith can learn about genuine faith from children.

When You don't Take the Bible's Example Seriously

Problems result when kids (those lacking spiritual maturity) only minister to kids. King Rehoboam is an excellent case in point.

His father was the wisest man who ever lived, although even King Solomon didn't take his father's (David's) example, and ended up following after other gods.

His son, Rehoboam, also didn't learn from his elders. When his kingdom complained to him about his merciless labor requirements, he went to his experienced elders, his father's advisers, and asked for advice.
They told him to be compassionate and give his subjects a kind answer, so they would love him (1 Kings 12: 6,7). Instead, he went to his peers who had grown up with him and shared his background (uh-oh, Groupthink!) and took their advice (ignore his subjects' concerns and speak harshly to them), which resulted in civil war (1 Kings 12: 8-19).

Solving It

The lesson we can learn, as Savvy Sheep, is that we should never dismiss someone or something (such as a church elder or a church tradition) just because we don't like what it has to say about us. Rehoboam wanted to look tough, like all the surrounding kings. He also wanted the approval of his friends. Perhaps he rejected the elder's advice because he didn't like what it revealed about his own character (petty and mean, not kind at all), or perhaps he just thought it was too conventional. Whatever his reasoning, he got disaster.

So, how can the church overcome Groupthink? We can start with the good foundation of faith and holiness that our elders have laid for us, and to that we can add the knowledge and perspective of our own experience. Disaster comes when we completely throw out the old and do our own thing. How could Rehoboam, with his unique and up-to-date knowledge of politics, have used the situation to unite his people and built up a favorable reputation for his kingdom? How can we use the old teachings and the experiences of our elders to address the problems this generation is facing?

Come on, folks. Let's all put our heads together and come up with creative ideas for our churches that capitalizes on diversity. It works better that way.


Anonymous said...

To me, Groupthink is just another name for peer pressure. You would think that in a world of adults that such things would be behind us, but they aren't.

We just need to remember that the Gospel is not by consensus, and what we allow, we will answer for.

It is hard to be one of those "three Hebrew children" that has to stand up in a church setting and say, "I'm sorry, but I disagree and here is what the Bible really says about this subject." More "power" to those who do take a stand.

Kamal Singarapu said...

Rachel -

Good post. Here are few phrases that I really liked:

“Letting older people use their experience to challenge the consensus of the young, and letting younger people suggest new perspectives that challenge the consensus of the old.”

“Even those with mature faith can learn about genuine faith from children.”

“We should never dismiss someone or something (such as a church elder or a church tradition) just because we don't like what it has to say about us.”

In my opinion, 'Group Thinking' is not morally bad until it encourages one to disobey the word of God. But on the other had you are right, it will not allow the birth of creativity and newness. People change in their tastes and likeness for things but this should not be the case when it comes to the Word of God. It is very important for the young to learn wisdom from the old and the old to be gracious towards the young and not dismiss them. There is urgency always to check ourselves in this changing environment of tastes and likeness if we are drifting away from the unchanging word of God. If we are then, we need to step out of the crowd.