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Monday, March 23, 2009

Don't Conform to the Pattern of the World

The most-visited article on Savvy Sheep so far has been God's Kids Don't Groupthink. At the time I wrote it, I wouldn't have ever guessed how popular that topic would be with church leaders today. So, how can knowledge about Groupthink help the church, and can such knowledge hinder it?

What is Groupthink?

First I'll brush you up on what Groupthink is. It was a term coined by William H. Whyte in 1952 in a Fortune article, but popularized by Irvin Janis in later sociological research. Similar to childhood peer pressure, it's a type of group mentality that occurs among groups of people that share the same values and background. A group that is guilty of Groupthink puts strong emphasis on group cohesion and acceptance rather than creative problem-solving or "thinking outside the box." This may occur out of the desire to be thought of as "one of the group" or "easygoing," or out of intellectual laziness (i.e. "Their idea saves me the trouble of coming up with one myself"). Outside ideas are discarded, and dissenters are often singled out and criticized for failure to go along with the group. The silence of dissenters further supports the false idea that the group is unanimous in its decision. In short, Groupthink can lead a group of highly-educated, intelligent people into illogical decision-making and dangerous choices.

The Underlying Messages of Groupthink Research

I think Groupthink is a valid label for a real issue, but I have a problem with the underlying postmodern humanistic ideology involved in this theory.

To overcome Groupthink, researchers say we need a "devil's advocate" in the group, and all of his dissenting suggestions need to be considered when formulating a plan or decision. This isn't a bad idea, but we are assuming that with a large enough variety of opinions on an issue, we can arrive at the truth. That, to me, is too much of an assumption.

As a Christian, I believe that all human beings are fallible. I also have to agree with part of the Postmodern teaching (with many reservations) that opinions are often based on internal reference points (personal experience and perspective), but not external reference points (facts, authorities, ethics, and universal truth), and are therefore not true for everyone. So at what point does a multitude of opinions become truth for the masses? How can I depend on even a hundred different people in a group to arrive at the correct decision? Isn't it possible that all of them could be wrong?

So, the cure for Groupthink, if we are to follow the suggestions we have heard, is to make people into gods and "create a truth" for every situation. Well, I'm not buying that.

I will pause here to point out that the Bible is not specific on many issues, although some Christians have made them into central points of spiritual contention. The Bible doesn't always tell us what to do in a specific situation, but it does offer guiding principles for our lives. We can make group decisions that work to synthesize multiple opinions, but we should do this within the framework of morality that the Bible provides us. We are not "little gods" and our opinions should never supersede Biblical standards of behavior. An altered, Christ-centered application of Groupthink research in the church would seek out real universal truth, as embodied by the nature of Christ and the teaching in the Bible, and shape group decisions within this Biblical truth.

The Bible does say, "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed" (Proverbs 15: 22 NIV); however, it also says, "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails" (Proverbs 19:21 NIV), and "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain" (Psalm 127: 1 NIV). We must be careful that God is always a central part of the plans we make in a group.

I guess what I mean to say is that as long as we are aware of the underlying philosophies behind this theory, and are careful not to allow them to infiltrate our thinking, we can use these sociological group studies to benefit the church.

Critics of the Church

In the past, the visible church (as characterized by buildings and catechisms) has acted under the influence of Groupthink, and decided that such things as slavery, antisemitism, and even the crusades were justifiable for whatever reason. Opinions ruled and became doctrinal truth. This is Groupthink without the moral guidance of Scripture. As a reasonable and logical consequence, the visible church has drawn criticism from Groupthink researchers and media commentators, who have supposed that religion is Groupthink.

If we allow the consensus opinion in the church to supersede the guidance of Scripture, perhaps we deserve what we get.

If churches want to overcome Groupthink, I suggest that the first thing they should focus on is how to make sure everyone is knowledgeable about what the Scripture actually says--both about the topic and about the general moral issues connected to the topic. Next, a variety of opinions and perspectives, from multiple generations, should be heard, but anything that contradicts a principle of God's Word should be quickly thrown out. After that, the leaders, followed by the congregation, should examine themselves and submit their opinions to the rule of scripture.

That is how it should be, but the visible church is ruled by fallible man. It fails at times to obey God, and draws ridicule to Christianity when it does. It's the job of the real Church (those individuals who believe in Christ and allow Him to direct their steps) to overcome the shortcomings of the visible church with righteous behavior.

The Solution

You see, true Christianity carried out to its fullest measure is not Groupthink at all. It rejects conformity of the mind and thinking, which is dominated by majority rule or peer pressure. God made us as unique individuals with unique perspectives, and never intended for us to give up our individuality for the acceptance of a group.The Bible says,
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—-his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12: 2 NIV)
So let's break this down. (1) If we disobey God, we are conforming to the rebellious mindset of the unbelieving world. (2)Worse still, conformity with the world prevents us from knowing God's plan for our lives. (3)If God is not part of the plan, Scripture promises us that the plan will fail. (4) So to sum it up, without God's instruction (the "renewing of the mind"), we can only succumb to Groupthink.

Therefore, the Bible is the best solution I have for the problem of Groupthink, and the church is in the best position to carry out this solution.