We’ve had stunning illustrations in recent months about how an enabling culture is created and perpetuated around toxic but charismatic leaders. High-profile examples have ranged from churches like Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel to Christian organizations headed by Dave Ramsey and the late Ravi Zacharias.
In the case of every single one of these churches and ministries, we see that though these seemingly “too big to fail” organizations were honored through the years for their strong evangelical bona fides, their day-to-day organizational cultures discipled staff through the most destructive kinds of peer pressure.
A culture of peer pressure can be leveraged by manipulative leaders to keep toxic secrets in the dark: “Christians are right to heed scriptural warnings about gossip, secrets, and lies. Yet the American church has also seen a pattern of leaders referencing such teachings to silence and discredit victims and whistleblowers,” CT wrote on the falling-out at Ramsey’s company and others.
The reckoning of these fallen leaders offers those of us in ministry trenches an opportunity to interrogate our own local church culture. That examination can and should include the ways in which we have substituted peer pressure for authentic discipleship. The same social and spiritual tendencies that created unhealthy culture in these fallen ministries often exist in smaller doses in our own local churches.
Healthy community is one way in which God designed faith to be transmitted from one generation to the next (Deut. 6:4–9) and from more mature believers to those young in the faith (Titus 2). A culture of discipleship emphasizes holiness while celebrating the rich diversity of gifts, talents, and experiences God has given to the local body. A culture focused on conformity can communicate that this kind of diversity is suspect or, at worst, sinful.
Many of us have defaulted to thinking of discipleship in terms of transmitting doctrine and Bible knowledge through formal means like Bible studies or sermons, or informal means like podcasts or Christian music. Those are essential and sorely needed components of faith formation, but they don’t happen in isolation. It’s been said that faith is caught as much as it is taught. The values of our particular subculture shape us, perhaps even more powerfully than do our catechisms.
Well-meaning church marketing slogans for our congregations proclaiming that “everyone is welcome” or promising that the congregation is a warm family will seem hypocritical in light of cliquish social dynamics that may be at play among our people.
Those who seem to be outliers in a church may be the ones who might best be able to articulate the unspoken discipleship culture to share their experiences with you: the single person who is patronized or ignored by the married couples, the person who chooses to vote in opposition to the majority of other congregants, the sick or elderly person who is treated as a project instead of a valued member, or the working mom who has been treated like an outsider in a community of stay-at-home moms.
We can see the way social pressure is applied in Scripture when the mother of James and John asks Jesus for her sons to be given insider privilege in Matthew 20:20–28. In response to the indignance of the other disciples, Jesus responds that the world prizes status and recognition, but not in the same way as in the kingdom of God.
Shortly after the Resurrection, when Peter and other followers of Jesus are arrested in Acts 5, Peter tells the authorities that they must obey God rather than men (v. 29)––offering the kind of moral courage that is the fruit of Spirit-filled discipleship.
The pressure toward spiritual conformity was as high in the early church as it is today. Acts 15 details the battle over integrating Gentile believers into a majority Jewish body. While this battle was over interpretation of the law and meaning of the Resurrection, a measure of it had to do with social implications. The apostle Paul calls out the effects of spiritual tribalism in the Corinthian church split over his teaching and Apollo by twice reminding them that divisive cliquishness is not a godly response to the Good News, but a “worldly” one (1 Cor. 3:1–8). James, too, confronts the temptation toward a worldly social pecking order in the early church (James 2:1–13). In other words, there was a whole lot of peer pressure going on.
We are formed spiritually in both family and other social groups, and we learn how the world works as we imitate those with more experience and/or power than we have. This kind of learning doesn’t end when we hit adulthood, though if we’re emotionally and spiritually healthy, our relationship with peer pressure fades as we age and mature in our faith.
Peer influence can be a healthy thing. Those in addiction recovery communities and support groups of all kinds testify to the strength a group provides to encourage positive personal change. Paul encouraged his friends in Corinth to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Jesus’s call to follow him turned the peer pressure of this world upside down and inside out.
There is no quick fix to changing a culture that has been shaped by peer pressure. But there are a few ongoing commitments we as leaders can make to influence growth for every member in our congregation, ourselves included:
Vigilance. Remain alert and sensitive to the ways in which peer pressure has become a stand-in for meaningful, cruciform discipleship. Think of your leadership team as a group of spiritual anthropologists, invited to study your church’s culture. What trends do you notice among your people? What kinds of things influence their behavior? How do they respond to those outside their “in groups” in your church? In the community?
This kind of observation should be ongoing and accompanied by prayer as you seek to remediate areas of malformation in your midst. If your congregation is characterized by a few cliques, for example, working with a few alpha members of those groups to open up closed circles through service, learning, and fellowship with others not in comfy friend groups may begin to spur change in your culture.
Modeling. Leaders are not immune to the temptation of the closed circle. As we combat the ongoing temptation to form a comfortable, self-protective clique around ourselves, we will contribute to a meaningful change in clannish church culture. We can honor differences as we find ways to platform the stories and experiences of those at the margins of our congregation.
In addition, we can’t assume others will understand that matters of personal preference (such as voting or schooling choices) are not church dogma. Each time we take a moment to clarify our opinions are just that—opinions—we also remind ourselves that we are responsible to steward our influence, using it for the things that carry eternal value.
Formation. The late Eugene Peterson described discipleship as a long obedience in the same direction. Peer pressure might create the illusion that a kind of fast-track discipleship is happening, especially if our congregation is characterized by uniformity in lifestyle and convictions. Conformity in religious behavior is not maturity. Discipleship’s long obedience is cultivated in the context of koinonia—Jesus-centered community with other believers. A clique cannot carry us to the finish line.
C. S. Lewis’s 1944 lecture “The Inner Ring” contrasts the gravitational pull exerted on our souls by the desire to belong with the way in which Jesus can free us to follow him. He writes,
The world seems full of “insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of six books, including her latest, Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality at Midlife.