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:
- High group cohesiveness
- Structural faults:
- insulation of the group
- lack of impartial leadership
- lack of norms requiring methodological procedures
- homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology
- 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:
- Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
- Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
- The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
- All effective alternatives should be examined.
- Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
- The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
- 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?