I was recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts “Freakonomics” with Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt . Its one of my favorite podcasts for the reasons that its funny, interesting, informative about economics and focuses on fascinating aspects of psychology (I’ve also read “Freakonomics” and “Super Freakonomics”). If you know me, you know that I love psychology. And on the episode I was listening to there was a story that stood out to me.
They interviewed psychologist Robert Cialdini who did a fascinating study on the influential power of one’s environment. Put in simpler terms, the influence that a group has on an individual. He discussed a study where PSA signs were set out in people’s yards with their permission throughout different neighborhoods. The message on the signs were geared towards people’s energy usage behavior. They had differing messages pointing out the cost to consumers, the effect on global warming, and the negative effect to future generations all from over consumption of energy. But there was one last sign, which dropped the warnings about cost, damage to the atmosphere or future generations; it simply described the usage behavior of one’s surrounding neighbors.
Cialdini and his team only put one type of sign in each neighborhood. Doing this allowed them observe the effect of the type of sign on energy usage behavior without any contamination from the other sign messages. At the end of the study, they tallied up which neighborhood used the most energy, the least or or stayed the same depending on which sign they had out in their yards. So, which one of the signs do you think affected usage behavior the most? I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t one of the first three. That’s right, the sign that had the greatest impact on people’s energy usage behavior was the one that simply informed individuals what others were doing, i.e. their neighbors.
In fact, the other three signs didn’t alter the usage behavior of people at all. What changed people’s behavior wasn’t a personal cost, a threat, or a value, but the behavior of others.
Cialdini concluded from this study that one of the most influential forces on people’s behavior is the behavior of other people. Cialdini stated that individuals feel an overwhelming need to fit in. In other words, we all want to belong. We want to be part of the group and not stand out like a sore thumb. What others do, we unconsciously follow.
Another famous example is from one of the first seasons of the hit show Candid Camera. The setting was an unknowing victim in an elevator facing the door. An actor would enter the elevator and face the wrong direction, towards the wall. The footage shows this causing all sorts of confusion and dismay for the unknowing rider. Again, another passenger/actor enters the elevator and faces the wrong direction. Then the unknowing prey starts equivocating. He slightly turns back and forth not sure what to do. By the time a third actor gets on board facing the wrong direction, the unknowing passenger then turns, and faces the wrong direction. They repeated this little experiment over and over again. Some turned the wrong direction sooner, others later, but the vast majority turned. Why? Like I said above, the behavior of other people, particularly groups, is hugely influential on the behavior of an individual.
So how does the idea of individuals being influenced by the actions of others have to do with the Church, the dropout rate of Millenials and what the Church can do to reverse the trend?
What if Millenials aren’t leaving the Church because of the quality of the preaching, the style of worship or decor of the Church building, but because they don’t see people in their Church practicing their faith?
I know for me personally, I can listen to the most convicting sermon on something I should doing, but if no one in the Church is doing it, I won’t do it. For example, I attended a Church that emphasized ministry, personal devotion, accountability, community, serious Bible study and sharing the gospel. And all of these things I did. Why? Obedience to the Lord, of course! And… my obedience was significantly aided by the culture and actions of other people in the Church.
How did they do this? They made obedience contagious. In fact, you were the odd man out if you weren’t involved and participating. This was without a doubt, one of my fondest seasons of life. I felt close to the Lord. I was deeply satisfied with my spiritual walk. I was connected with my faith community in deep and meaningful ways. And I felt like my ministry pleased God and contributed to His Kingdom. I shared the gospel with those on my college campus. I was involved in Bible studies and accountability groups.
But then I moved to attend college in another part of the state. I quickly joined a Church, and fully anticipated that what I had experienced before with my Church I would experience again. Sadly that was not the case. The Church I started attending lacked in the areas where my previous Church excelled. There wasn’t an excitement about Bible study, a culture of obedience or a sense dismay over someone’s lack of participation. Yet, I decided that this would not deter me. I resolved to keep my good habits strong. As time wore on though, my Bible study, engagement in ministry, participation in accountability groups and sharing the gospel all dropped out of my life considerably. I don’t blame that Church, but I also can’t ignore the impact of those at the Church. As much as I resisted, the culture of the Church, good, bad or indifferent, influenced the practice of my faith.
So what does this mean? I think we are uncomfortable with the idea that others have a significant influence on our behavior, especially on the practice of our faith. But is the discomfort rooted in Scripture or American rugged individualism? Frankly, our problem with that idea has more to do with American culture than Scripture given the overwhelming emphasis the Bible gives to the Church, the Body. When we join a Church, we join an organism. Our health or lack thereof is altered by those around us. There is an exchange between the individual and the organism. Our spiritual life is directly tied to the spiritual life of the Church. So, if you agree with me up to this point, How should these ideas alter the way we do Church?
I think pastors and Church leaders need to change their priorities. Pastoral ministry should not be solely focused on preaching, program development, budget meetings, attending conferences, and so on. I do not say this to deride pastors for doing these things, they are obviously important. However, solely depending on these aspects of ministry are not enough to impact one’s Church. Pastors need to be experts in how to influence people and shape group dynamics. That means creating a culture, a movement. A Church where people are influenced to obedience and righteous because of what everyone else is doing.
And how can a pastor do this? Well, let’s start with Jesus. Jesus, for the majority of His ministry, invested Himself into twelve people. These twelve disciples went on to change the world. They did life together. Jesus built relationships with them. The Disciples began to think the way Jesus thought, and to take on His passions and priorities.
This makes sense doesn’t it? Most movements and causes begin when a core group of people who commit to a mission. From there they influence others to join their cause; their influence spreading out like a ripple in a pond. This is how the gospel initially spread across the world. Why can’t a similar process take place in our churches?
Furthermore, this principle is not only for pastors. Laypeople can also understand and make use of this principle. The public practice of one’s faith is not for the sole benefit of God or oneself. God uses our obedience to in turn influence the obedience and righteousness of another and another.
If you want to see your Church change, if you are tired of Church or frustrated at the dropout rate; then understand that the solution may not be getting better preaching, more stylish worship, a coffee stand in the lobby, a more contemporary building, or better programs. People will be more likely to practice an active faith if they see other people in their Church practicing an active faith. That puts the responsibility on leadership and laypeople.
We need to stop the bad habit of ignoring or minimizing the influential power of environment.
Often Christians view “fitting in” or “following the group” as a negative thing. We need to be counter-cultural, right? Resist the Devil, the world and the flesh, right? But is there a positive side to following the group? What if the group norm influenced individuals towards redemptive ends?
I don’t have many specific, concrete ideas on how to do this, but more of general parameters of the problem and solution. I see this more as a conversation starter than a complete package. So, let me ask you some questions.
Do you agree or disagree with my thesis that individuals are influenced by the behavior of the group, and that this idea can be helpful for the Church?
In what ways has the behavior of others influenced your faith?
How have you influenced another person’s faith?
How can the Church, leadership and laypeople alike, focus on the changing the behavior the group, creating a culture, working with group dynamics for the benefit of everyone’s faith life?
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