Beware of Groupthink

Pastors are supposed to be (under-)shepherds of God’s flock, not custodians of man’s traditions and doctrines.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were dumb-founded when “they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that Peter and John were unschooled, ordinary men (without religious training)”. And standing beside them was the man, lame from birth, who had just been healed by Peter and John.

Often, the most powerful sermons are preached by simple men and women. Unlike most theologians, their experience of God surpasses their knowledge of Him.

In Acts 10, God challenged Peter’s theology by instructing him to eat good that are, according to God’s own law, ceremonially unclean. Through this, God was preparing Peter to be a witness of a revolutionary move of God. The turning of a chapter in God’s prophetic history: the salvation of the Gentiles.

Next, God directed Peter to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. By the time, Peter arrived, the entire household of Cornelius was there to greet him. Peter seized the opportunity and began to preach the gospel to them, half dazed and half fearful. Fearful to be found in the home of a Gentile. Halfway through his sermon, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all those present. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, they all prophesied, to Peter’surprise. But convinced that salvation has now come to the Gentiles, Peter returns to Jerusalem to give a report to the rest of the apostles of what had just transpired. The Jerusalem Council, as the group of apostles had come to be called, could have reacted or responded in one of two ways. They could have rejected Peter’s report based on the lack of historical precedence. It had never happened before. So it can’t happen, ever. Or, they could have discerned that this was indeed the work of God. Thankfully, they chose the latter response, and gave the Gentile believers the right hand of fellowship.

Imagine what would happen if the Jerusalem Council dismissed Peter’s experience as radical or heretical. The church we know today would not exist.

It is important (and humbling) to note that God did not pre-empt the religious leaders of what He was about to do. Instead, He chose to reveal it to a bunch of “nobodies”. Why? Because God knew that the religious leaders were too entrenched in their traditions and teachings, and would not be open to new revelations, even if they were came from heaven itself. This is the sad reality of the church, then and now.

One of the most common dynamics that you will see in church leaderships is something called “Groupthink”.

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

There are a number of symptoms of groupthink, according to Janis. You know that groupthink exists in a group when members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views, and/or when the majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous. Groupthink is anti-revelation. It quenches the Holy Spirit. It impedes (real) growth in the church. Let us root out groupthink in our churches.

Janis, Irving L.  (1972).  Victims of Groupthink.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

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