The Church of St Groupthink

In 2008 Mike Gugglielmucci dropped a bombshell in Pentecostal and Evangelical circles by admitting that he had faked cancer for at least 2 years.  His song “You’re my Healer” was on the latest Hillsong CD release, and he his story of bravely facing up to his illness and believing for victory had inspired many.  Now his story and his reputation was in tatters and the image of Pentecostal Christianity had also taken a hit.

I’m not concerned here with Mike’s motivations – he may have been suffering from Munchausen’s syndrome – but rather would like to consider how a whole Pentecostal movement, leadership and laity, got taken in by the lie for several years.

In retrospect his story just didnt add up.  He supposedly had 33 broken bones, including his back being broken in 8 places, yet he was still able to perform his songs and preach overseas.  He said he was in an advanced state of cancer with only nine months to live, yet as others have commented he looked as healthy as a lumberjack.  He certainly was not wasting away.

Brian Houston commented after the news broke :

 “I just didn’t have any reason to doubt his story. There were one or two things that were hard to work out such as how anyone could function with multiple broken bones (I was in agony with one broken elbow, but I just thought I must have been a wimp). I saw Michael as an unbelievably gutsy and courageous man who was refusing to just lie down and accept his diagnosis.”

These comments on a Christian fan blog show that for the most part, Christians accepted his story without question. 

How did this occur, how could so many people have been fooled for so long?  As Christians we are used to looking for the answer in some deviation from orthodox Biblical doctrine, or in some Sin or Moral failing.  Another way of approaching this question is to use a secular concept – Groupthink.

The term Groupthink was coined after the disasterous “Bay of Pigs” invasion in which the US trained and funded a group of Cuban counter-revolutionaries to attack the Castro regime.  In retrospect it was never going to work – they were hopelessly outnumbered and it was apparent that Castro had the support of most of the population.  However two successive US administrations, composed of very experienced and intelligent people, continued with the plan which was disasterous for the participants and for the reputation of the US.

Although the term Groupthink is now used loosly as part of popular culture, it was a serious model devised by Irving Janis from Yale University.  Janis studied both the Bay of Pigs and the Pearl Harbor attack and showed how groupthink contributed to the poor decisions and ignoring of facts and warnings in both cases.  Since then groupthink has been seriously put forward as a reason for the failure of intelligence services to predict 9/11 and for the failure of the financial authorities to foresee the GFC.

 Are churches, particularly hierarchically-structured churches susceptible to groupthink?  Janis described three antecedent conditions for groupthink:

  1. High group cohesiveness
  2. Structural faults:
    • insulation of the group
    • lack of impartial leadership
    • lack of norms requiring methodological procedures
    • homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology
  3. Situational context:
    • highly stressful external threats
    • recent failures
    • excessive difficulties on the decision-making task
    • moral dilemmas

Not all three have to be present for Groupthink to occur.  Many churches encourage high group-cohesiveness through large gatherings, music and light-shows in which deindividuation can occur.  They do not encourage an impartial leadership – often promoting those with “possibility thinking”,  those likely to hold dissenting or contrarian views to the prevailing group narrative do not usually ascend to leadership positions – or if they do they do not last very long.  While there may be varying social backgrounds in a church, there is often a singular ideology, and many churches feel under threat from secular media or forces.

Interestingly, Janis described Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.  I have observed people taking up this “Mind Guard” role many times in Christian circles, often by demonising or questioning the morals of the dissenter.

Janis suggested seven ways to prevent Groupthink:

  1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
  2. Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
  3. The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
  4. All effective alternatives should be examined.
  5. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
  6. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
  7. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

In the case of the Kennedy administration, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco they put in place many of these techniques in order to encourage a variety of views and better decision making in the future.  Could these seven techniques be used in the contemporary Church context?  Can the contemporary church learn from the mistakes of its past?  Is there a role for the Devil’s advocate in church?

27 thoughts on “The Church of St Groupthink

  1. Of course, this is very interesting and has merit in a secular culture, but it is also speculative when measured against Biblical standards for leadership.

    As a democratic process it has prospects, but also panders to another form of group think, as evidenced by the recent ‘Occupy’ democratists who completely failed to erect a single decisive action, determine a cause (other than there must be one), or implement any strategy because of their particular processes, which rather closely resemble those listed in the post.

    The completely controlled environment, robotic, trance-like, call-and-repeat gatherings were as close to hypnotic suggestion and collectivism as I have seen, but what did they achieve other than an ordered disarray of ideas and perspectives devoid of any true leadership, vision or purpose? If that sounds slightly contradictory in terms it actually sums up the inert idealism displayed very well.

    Our example, as Christians, must always be Christ, who didn’t give us a democratic process to follow. He gave us a set of commands which are non-negotiable. He set up a servant leadership with specific instructions, empowerment and a modus operandi which has remained intact for centuries.

    He quashed the arguments against his instructions very firmly, regarding both those who vehemently opposed his new order and those who were part of his personally selected inner circle, later sent out to reiterate all he had commanded them to do and say to those who are chosen by him to be involved to this day.

    These, along with other well defined and articulated standards and criteria for discipleship seem to me to be in complete opposition the democratic processes illustrated in the post as a progression for churches to adopt and adapt to.

    So the question is: how would Jesus be assessed in his leadership style when measured against the principles outlined in the post as appropriate and acceptable?

    Following on from this, what should we, as disciples of Christ do with the suggested processes in view of Biblical instructions?

  2. I think the article’s a bit off track. Is it suggesting that by following the Groupthinks recommendations, other Michael Gs won’t occur?

    Also how practical is it?

    More committees I hear you say?

    Fact is incidents like that happen in Pente and non-Pente churches. Most Christians and leaders believe people in leadership have a heart for God and aren’t deceiving them (and they’re normally very good at it). Whether it’s your CCC or Baptist pastor or Anglican priest. (Actually a lot of Anglican churches don’t even get a choice with their leaders). Yes some get through and live a lie and abuse the trust of their fellow leaders and congregants. When in a leadership team, you’re not thinking ‘Gee, I wonder if Pastor __________ is a paedopile’ unless you’ve got some really hard evidence.

    That’s not to say people in the church shouldn’t have their own views and think critically.

    I’ve also been in churches where members have openly resisted leaders, resulting in nothing ever changing or getting done.

  3. Peter ‘critically evaluated’ Jesus’ decisions on a couple of occasions and was soundly rebuked.

    A servant can’t rise higher than his master, nor a disciple his teacher. What is being proposed is that, in a teaching situation, each pupil evaluates the instruction according to his own preconceived ideas, right or wrong, and airs his view publicly as the instruction is given, which is a recipe for confusion, really, in most cases.

    That’s not to say that a pupil should not contribute or check over the teaching. Research is important to learning, and confirmation is an asset. However, there are those who so vehemently disagree with what is being taught, no matter who the trainer, that no one can be certain of what is right or wrong.

    Why would not an experienced, well-grounded teacher express opinions when assigning tasks to a group? That doesn’t make practical sense. Surely advice includes opinion. Jesus uttered his opinion whenever he gave training, teaching or instruction. He took his closest disciples aside and further enlightened them on the meanings of some of his harder sayings.

    The whole concept is code for ‘I don’t trust anyone in leadership, therefore they should only teach from the book and not from their experience of how the manual has worked for them’.

  4. In a teaching environment competency as well as knowledge is important. We don’t learn just from what we hear, but also from what we do.

    In fact, James warns us that those who are hearers only and not doers deceive themselves.

    Jesus says that those who hear without doing build their house on the sand so that the storms, when they come, will blow the whole thing down.

    So why would you want a teacher or trainer who only had bookish knowledge of their subject and had not put that information into practice, or could not articulate his experience with relevant illustrations and examples?

    Also, Jesus taught on the job. He taught and he trained. It was all hands-on. He showed his disciples the how to as well as the why. This is the essence of leadership and training.

  5. Jesus was a bit of a dissident, though wasnt He? He didnt exactly fall into line with the prevailing authorities. You don’t get crucified for being a Yes-man.

    Christ is a bit a of special case – being God incarnate, I dont think one can always draw conclusions directly about how things should be done from Jesus’ example as He had an entirely different nature to the rest of men. If your teacher is the Creator of the Universe, Savior of Mankind, an Omnipotent and Infinitely loving cosmicly equal member of the Godhead its probably best not to second-guess Him. That dosent mean you shouldnt do it for teachers who are lesser mortals.

    Having said that, the Biblical tradition has many stories of people successfully arguing with God. Jacob restled with the Angel and obtained his blessing. A Caananite woman argued with Jesus for healing for her daughter by saying “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”, after he was pretty unequivocal that He would not do it.

    I think by following some of these recommendations, people like Michael G may have been found out earlier, with less damage done. Its very important for elders, pastors and the general congregation to think critically when there is any hint of something being amiss – such as possibility of pedophilia. Its important that these critical thoughts be expressed, even if wrong, so that all possibilities are considered.

  6. “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.”

    “So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

    “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.”

    We’re supposed to die daily and take up his cause his way.

    He gave us his Spirit, One exactly like him.

    We are to imitate him.

  7. Well I wouldn’t support going to a Pentecostal church with a whip and tipping over the tables of DVDs and ‘resources’ saying “Do not make my Father’s house a house of merchandise!”

    I call on you to emphatically say that you do not support this practice.

    We shouldn’t imitate Him in all things should we?

  8. That’s dopey, wazza2. Even Anglican churches have resource centres attached to their churches. I think you’re confusing the Temple at Jerusalem with the local church, where you’d expect to find teaching aids and resources. You’ve missed the spirit of what Jesus was doing in the Temple completely.

    But you do that often; miss the point I mean.

    You completely missed the point when you said Christ’s deity made it impossible for us to imitate him, when, in fact, Jesus left the glory of the Father to become a man, and to show us how to live the life in the flesh as a Spirit filled and led person.

    Paul said, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of Christ, who gave himself for me.” What do you understand of this?

    Don’t you realise that imitating God by following Christ is in the power of the believer, and walking in love as Christ walked is within our capability when we receive the Spirit of Christ. We are admonished to walk in the Spirit and not give in to the desires of the flesh.

    In truth, if we do not have the Spirit of Christ we are none of his. We do not belong to him. We have nothing to do with him. To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

    Paul tells us we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit within, we are the earthen vessels carrying the glory of God.

    Those who are the sons of God are led by the Spirit, who bears witness with our spirit that we are sons, crying ‘Abba, Father’, which we can only receive by revelation from the Spirit.

    He leads us into the ministry of Christ within the Body of Christ, through the fruit of the Spirit shaping our character and the gifts and manifestations of the Spirit empowering us for the works and operations of Christ as we go into a fallen world with the gospel of Christ.

    I think you’d get more out of the Bible if you spent some time reading it at face value rather than trying to analyse it as you go along and rationalising the Spirit into an ancient textual ghost fable with no relevance or application for today.

    The entire purpose of Christ’s ministry on earth was to make the way clear for us to enter into his Body and perform the mandate he gave the Church under his delegated leadership.

    He was sent to usher in the Kingdom of God, and pay the price of our sin so that we could enter in through faith in him.

    We absolutely are expected to imitate Christ.

    That is why he said to his disciples, “Follow Me!”

  9. Wazza, I liked the irony in your question re: should we have a devil’s advocate in church.

    Well, you couldn’t call it that.

    I suspect that in some churches, a ‘devil’s advocate’ might have been valued, providing they were also fully trusted by the leadership. I don’t know this, but I’m guessing, that in the early days of C3, Simon McIntyre might have filled this role for Phil Pringle. Of course he wouldn’t have been questioning the value of what they were doing in any way, and his support was unquestionable.

    People in the congregation usually enjoy listening to preachers who do a bit of devil’s advocacy. Since the preacher’s are already vetted by leadership, they can enjoy the questioning while feeling safe in trusted hands, and come out feeling that they’ve heard a broader sermon that on some other occasions. And maybe they have.

    But I believe any organisation can benefit from a devil’s advocate, as long as that person also has the organisation’s interests at heart. Trust must be the issue.

    Of course, a self-appointed devil’s advocate in a church might not have the organisation’s interests at heart, but might be worried about congregation members perhaps, or a differing interpretation of scripture. Sometimes the advocate will be wrong. Right or wrong, that kind of advocate is less likely to be welcomed.

    If a church ignores legitimate concerns for long enough, those things they ignore will help define who they are, as much as those things they pay attention to.

  10. RP, yes I think the idea would be for someone to be appointed as Devil’s Advocate in board-level or committee meetings where a decision is being made. So that person would be trusted and not self-appointed. The role would be rotated so no-one would get stuck in that role.

    Outside of decision-making groups, in the broader congregation the idea still has merit but has many practical difficulties.

    Interestingly I found out from wikipedia that the term “Devil’s Advocate” comes from the Catholic Church. They had it as an official position when deciding on canonisations. They even used Christopher Hitchens in that role when deciding on the beatification of Mother Teresa.

  11. I have a problem with Houston’s reasoning – he says he did not have any reason to doubt Michael’s story but in the next line he contradicts himself by saying that ”There were one or two things that were hard to work out”. Isn’t that doubting his story? I would have thought that Houston being a pastor of close to 30 years he would have ministered to many sick and dying people and he could tell a sick person from a liar, after all doesn’t he purportedly move in the Spirit and have the Gift of Knowledge and Wisdom?

    I attended Hillsong prior to the scandal and when I saw Michael G on the podium preaching, I knew something was seriously wrong about the man. For one, he was bringing glory to himself instead of Jesus – that was a major red flag for me.

    I am disappointed at the way Houston and Hillsong handled the fiasco. There was no apology on Houston’s part for allowing Michael free reign in the Hillsong pulpit and preaching “faith” that Michael himself did not possess.

  12. Interesting article about Groupthink with lots of good points.

    But I think the problems is much simpler.

    Most of us, whether Christians, Pentecostals or not, don’t usually think that people are lying. It’s really that simple. There are fake doctors, supposedly perfect gentleman that later are found out to be murderers, cops who are selling drugs, people like Madoff – remember him? Totally respected and trusted with the investments of the wealthy and charites etc.

    It’s an interesting topic for me, because in the last few years I’ve had the terrible misfortune of discovering truly terrible cases (like this one of Mike’s) around me.

    What’s interesting is that often the people who you would think would know or have suspicions didn’t while others (Confronting Truth) did. It’s frustrating when you are the one who thinks something just doesn’t add up, but you know that by voicing things that you will be seen as negative.

    btw, people I thought would be the last ones to be involved in stuff, were found out. It’s sad. But in the end, I don’t see these people as evil.

    Was King David evil? How could the shepherd boy hero who loved God so much be so stupid and bad? Was he a good man who did an evil thing? Or was he an evil man who was pretending to be good right from his youth?

    Most people now who love the Bible identify with David, But if you were the parents of the poor guy left to die on the front lines on David’s command – how would you view David?

    As for Houston not seeing thought it ..well, there were things in his own family that he wasn’t aware of.

    In the end Pentecostals are not only not as smart as they should be, they aren’t anywhere near as spiritually sensitive as they think they are. i.e People can be getting “revelations” and “feeling things in their spirits” about heaps of inconsequential things, while not “picking up” about years of adultery and fraud etc.

    Brain Houston is probably just a good guy who is not a doctor, not a prophet, but someone who is doing what he can in ministry the best way he can. You might disagree with his doctrine and ways, but he seems to me like a pretty simple bloke doing the best he can.

  13. “Janis suggested seven ways to prevent Groupthink:”

    How about praying more, getting closer to God, being open to God speaking to us, but at the same time going back to valuing knowledge, wisdom, understanding.

    And just loving the truth. Confirming, verifying.

    Why not aim to be filled with the Holy Spirit, praying for wisdom and understanding, asking for God’s leading, but at the same time thanking God that we have brains, and the ability to think critically and reason. Plenty of times when we are warned to “be not deceived”. No Christian should ever be attacked for searching out the truth.

    Gee I rave. But here’s a question for all of you. If you were caught up in some kind of moral failing/sin, how easy do you think it would be to confess/stand down?

  14. Gee I rave. But here’s a question for all of you. If you were caught up in some kind of moral failing/sin, how easy do you think it would be to confess/stand down?

    – sm

    All of us have been caught up in some kind of sin, but I guess you are talking about the socially unacceptable ones, or the illegal ones.

    I get the impression that confessing to things and standing down is a huge relief for some people, depending on what it is, because they no longer have to deal with the pressure of living a double life, or juggling lies.

    Confessing to sins of the past, that have been dealt with, is common enough, with preachers doing so in the pulpit, for the encouragement of congregation members who might be going through similar struggles. Things like alcoholism, or even adultery.

    You don’t get too many confessions about how they used to rip people off though, and how they’ve repented, as that would undermine the trust of the congregation, I expect, if the congregation felt they were vulnerable to such practices.

    But the difficulty of confessing to a sin and standing down, while completely understandable, doesn’t make it OK for the status quo to continue. Neither does confessing make it OK for the person to then go on as before, in all cases. It depends on the situation. And restoration to a position of trust isn’t a required sign of forgiveness, either, in my view. It can be a very foolish thing to do. The wolf has confessed he likes human flesh, and is very sorry–do we forgive him then put him back in charge of the flock? Not necessarily, because he has to demonstrate that he really has changed, and that he won’t be subject to temptation that he’s not yet able to withstand. That can take many years.

    Most of us, whether Christians, Pentecostals or not, don’t usually think that people are lying. It’s really that simple.

    – sm

    I agree, I think many Christians don’t believe people are lying. But experience changes us in that respect.

    I don’t go around expecting that whatever people say to me is a lie, but we are to look at actions, not just words, and sometimes the two don’t gel. Then there could be a problem. It’s always worth bearing in mind what is at stake for a person. And there is a lot of spin and marketing in church life these days. People are attracted to the dream.

  15. ”People are attracted to the dream.”

    Perhaps if Your Best Life was couched in terms of taking up one’s cross, sacrifice, dying to flesh, preferring the other person, faithful servanthood, enduring persecution, entering into his suffering and narrow paths, the dream would become more of God’s plan for the Body of Christ. Attendance might drop.

  16. Ravingpente, I hear you. Sadly, I’ve experience so many things and read so much, that I hardly trust anyone.
    Not proud of that at all.

  17. Well, the problem is that there needs to be trust. There needs to be a willingness to be under a teacher or leader, and be willing to trust what they say.

    However, it cannot be blind trust. We must also recognise that leaders have to be in the business of making leaders out of every member. If your leader isn’t constantly looking to stretch all members of your fellowship and is keeping all authority to himself, that is a clear warning sign.

    Leaders need to demonstrate the fruit of the spirit:
    Love, Joy, Peace
    Patience, Kindness, Goodness
    Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control.

    It’s about being humble and taking on the servant-heart of Jesus.

    All streams of the Church are guilty of worrying about attendance. The thing is, we should have been worrying about discipleship as that would take care of attendance. We just all wanted quicker results. 😦

    So we went for good looking, eloquent front-men who presented a message that would appeal to those who initially wanted christianity-lite. Joseph Prince, Joel Osteen and the like preent an appealing message. It isn’t necessarily Biblical Christianity but throw in enough words that mean things to Christians and you can build a big congregation.

    But what really matters is whether or not they are helping their people grow in the faith and making them more dependent on Jesus while becoming less dependent on the Pastor, or do they make the congregation more dependent on the Pastor?

    I don’t know.

    What do you think?


  18. @ Bull —

    Greetings in Christ.

    I know this is off the topic, but I would like to ask you to help me with something. I heard that you are the admin for Signposts02.

    Several months ago I made a comment and put some of my personal into in the post. Can you help me get that deleted?

    Is there a way that I can contact you via email? or, maybe I can direct you to the comment on here and then you can delete my coments on this post as well???

    Thank you so much.

  19. Hi Joe,

    what name did you use? I did a search using your current IP and couldn’t find any reference older than a week or so.

    A little help in tracking down the post and I can delete the material.


  20. Bull,

    I just wanted to give you a friendly reminder in case you may have forgot about me.

    Can you help me out? Thanks brother.

    Peace in Christ.

  21. Hi Joe … just to say that I have taken your name and facebook link from the messages.

    Can I ask you (in private maybe) what has changed? You seemed to be against the IHOP movement at that time. I’d like to know more, if possible.


  22. I don’t know if this was discernment on my part or just common sense. I’ve had some vocal training. But I remember watching him sing Healer with tubes coming out of his nose on the Hillsong DVD and thinking “If he can’t breathe properly – then why can he sing?” I think a lot more people probably suspected the behaviour was phoney – but were too scared to question it.

  23. This was a comment from “revolu7ion” on on the thread to pray for Mike:

    16 Oct 2006, 05:05 PM when i heard he was sick, i laughed… not because i am happy he is sick, but because while he was at our church he was healed of:

    Glandular Fever
    Blood Clot in his brain
    Brain Tumor
    Burst Ear Drum

    God is so going to get the glory for this one… just like the other ones. But keep praying!

    and PG4G wrote :
    While at our church (while I was there) he was also healed of a broken leg in front of my eyes.

    Why did no-one sound the alarm?

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