How Church Leaders Can Avoid the Dangers of Groupthink

How Church Leaders Can Avoid the Dangers of Groupthink9 min read

Group consensus sometimes leads people into dark places. It’s what’s known in psychology as “groupthink.” If you’re a church leader, you need to take deliberate steps to prevent it. If you’re not a church leader, share this with at least one leader in your church.

The Dangers of Groupthink

The power of groupthink can drive otherwise intelligent, well-meaning people to engage in extraordinary evils. In more recent history we’ve seen it fully unveiled in Nazi Germany, the Ku Klux Klan, the genocides of Rwanda, and Al Qaeda.

In churches, groupthink can lead to poorly executed events and failed building projects. These are relatively benign outcomes compared to groupthink at its worst. Charismatic leaders who believe they’ve been endowed with a special message from God can lead people to an untimely death, or engage them in deadly crusades against those they perceive to be their enemies.

We’re at the greatest risk of falling into group think when we think it can’t happen to us.

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink begins when people sacrifice reason and critical thinking for the sake of harmony within a group of people. Often, the group will defer their judgment to a persuasive, or charismatic leader. The result of everyone thinking the same means nobody thinks very much. Here is where the group begins to make bad decisions. Taking this to the extreme, a group can adopt the view that only those who are a part of the group know “the truth.” The rest of the world is against the truth, and needs to accept the group’s version of the truth or be lost–or be eliminated as a threat.

Groupthink can be seeded by an idea that challenges conventional thinking or bucks the status quo. Whether the idea is good or bad, the appeal of something new or unique can attract  people from all walks of life, especially if the new idea comes with a promise of achieving a desired goal or a better life.

We shouldn’t discourage the search for knowledge and better ways of living. But  right and wrong, ideas handled poorly can lead us to a disastrous outcome, and be used to unnecessarily hurt people.

My Groupthink Encounter

My wife Tami and I had opened our home to some friends from church for a bible study group. We all wanted to understand better Jesus’ prophecies foretelling the end of suffering, and sorrow, and death, and this planet’s new beginning.

One of our friends had already demonstrated that she had what we thought was a gift of prophetic understanding. She had a unique ability to make mysteries of the Bible easily understood. I’ll call her “Liz,” but that’s not her real name.

We elected Liz to lead in our study of prophecies found in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Our first few meetings of the group covered what was for many of us familiar territory. We looked at prophecies we’d studied before, and Liz led us to a better and deeper understanding of their significance and meaning.

But then Liz turned our attention to an obscure “prophecy” in Leviticus. She called it the “Twenty-five Twenty.”

We had a white board set up in our living room, and we all gathered around as Liz added and interpreted numbers found in the biblical text. Her blue dry-erase marker sketched time lines and marked what she believed to be prophetic milestones.

It was all very fascinating.

But here was the clincher–this prophecy was what Liz called a “testing truth.”

As Liz portrayed it, a “testing truth” is sort of like a secret handshake for God’s people in the final days of this old earth’s history. If you know it, you’ve got your ticket into the New Earth, if you don’t you’re out. The difference between a testing truth and a secret handshake, though, is that you have to believe the testing truth is true before you can be in God’s group of special people. If you don’t accept the testing truth, you’re lost. And, if you speak against the testing truth, you’re speaking blasphemy, you’re an enemy of God’s special people and of God.

Liz’s presentation of this testing truth was a turning point in our bible study group. First, the group’s fascination with this obscure prophecy was accompanied by a bit of excitement. At the next meeting of our group, attendance doubled, and we had over 30 people packed in our living room. The word had spread that we were getting into some fascinating, if not eternally important stuff. People were curious about this “Twenty-five Twenty” prophecy and its implications.

The senior pastor of our church showed up. I’ll call him Pastor Jorge.

Pastor Jorge appeared somewhat alarmed, especially as he heard Liz explain the prophecy, what it meant, and how on hearing it many faithful Christians were rejecting it at their own peril. I could see him clenching his jaw as he held himself back from interrupting Liz’s presentation. When he finally spoke to raise his concerns, Liz questioned whether he was willing to accept all the Bible’s teachings, or only those that he was comfortable with, or seemed “safe.” Pastor Jorge accused her of not allowing for a fair debate. Others in the group jumped to Liz’s defense.

When others spoke up to dispute Liz’s teaching, she challenged their faith and loyalty to the Bible as well.

As Liz’s teaching of the “Twenty-five Twenty” progressed, and her assertion of its importance as a “testing truth,” a transformation took place in the make up and attitude of our study group. The majority of those attending stood with Liz and her teaching, and lauded her with gratitude for bringing this important “prophecy” to their attention and making it clear. They became critical of those who didn’t value Liz’s teaching as they did, and cast doubt on the motives of people who openly challenged the teachings.

I’m an introvert who usually takes some time to analyze what’s being said. In group settings, I often observe and assess the interactions between people before deciding where to join in.

I didn’t say anything during the exchange between Pastor Jorge and Liz. But I saw some flaws in his attempt to discredit Liz’s teaching. Liz, on the other hand, was passionate about her belief in the “Twenty-five Twenty” and skillfully rebutted every challenge that came her direction. I was uncomfortable, though, with her tendency, and that of others in the group, to cast doubt and criticism on those who didn’t agree with her.

Then, we came to another tipping point.

Liz invited a friend of hers, also a pastor, to lead the Bible study group for a session. I’ll call him Pastor Mike.

Pastor Mike led a study from the book of Revelation, making the case that the beasts and plagues found in that book should not provoke fear, and would not, if we recognized and heard the message and themes of God’s everlasting love woven throughout the book.

Liz reacted, accusing her friend, Pastor Mike, of portraying God in a false light. She claimed to sense spiritual darkness filling the room as Pastor Mike portrayed God as a sentimental deity whose love cancelled out any threat of judgment for sinners. When Pastor Mike disagreed with Liz’s assessment, others joined with Liz in expressing concern with Pastor Mike’s presentation.

Pastor Mike didn’t come back after that. I learned that Liz had met with him privately and told him he wasn’t welcome to return because he was a false teacher.

A light came on for me, as I saw Liz and others in the group rallying around her, taking an openly critical attitude towards those who didn’t see things as they did. At a minimum, they would imply that those who disagreed were putting their faith in the teachings of men, rather than in the truths of the Bible. Others would have their motives questioned, and be accused of working for Satan.

This was not a group of uneducated, people siding with Liz. Liz herself was a successful entrepreneur who sponsored a mission in Africa. There were several nurses. A physician. Other professionals.

In the beginning, I found Liz’s teaching persuasive on this obscure prophecy she called the “Twenty-five Twenty.” I told other interested people about it and argued for its validity.

But the attitude Liz and her allies had adopted began to appear in stark contrast to the attitude of Jesus. This kept me awake at night until, in my personal prayer and study, I became convinced that whether or not Liz’s teaching was true, what was wrong was the critical attitude that had taken root in the group that disparaged those who didn’t agree with Liz.

My wife Tami agreed, and we spoke with Liz about our concerns and our convictions about this attitude.

Liz didn’t share our concerns. So, I kindly and firmly told her I wouldn’t permit her to teach in our home any longer.

When we informed our other friends who’d been participating in the Bible studies that Liz wouldn’t be teaching any longer and why, most didn’t return. Someone else from the group opened their home for Liz to continue her teaching. For those that did return to my home, I led the studies, but under some self-imposed rules to avoid the groupthink trap.

Preventing Groupthink

Here are useful rules for a group leader to avoid groupthink:

  1. Present other points of view on the subject being discussed. Examine with the group the evidence in favor of and against those points of view.
  2. Encourage participants to share their point of view, especially when their view differs from that of the majority.
  3. Allow and encourage disagreements to be discussed openly, with proponents for each view presenting evidence for their position. As the leader, facilitate an examination of the evidence.
  4. Unless the group must make a decision, allow disagreements to be unsettled.
  5. if the group must make a decision, avoid moving forward until all participants can agree on a way forward. Usually a decision can be made that addresses the concerns of those who disagree with the majority.
  6. Prohibit group members from suggesting that other group members views are invalid because of low intelligence, lack off education, or wrong motives.
  7. Present and discuss these rules in your first group meeting, and review them with the group from time to time.  Also present and discuss them with new people who join the group.

Have you had an encounter with groupthink? What was the outcome? What tips do you have for church leaders to prevent groupthink? Leave a comment.

Photo Credit: marfis75 via Compfight cc
Jon Beaty

I'm a counselor, writer and believer in the power of God to help you thrive in your marriage and family. I live with my family, a small herd of Boer goats, and thousands of honeybees near Portland, Oregon.

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