Manipulating Christians through Group Dynamics
by PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter
(See also Part Two)
Ever since the birth of the church Christians have had to contend with doctrinal errors, man-centered movements, and various heresies. The early church had to deal with Gnosticism (secret knowledge through mystical experience) at one end and Judaism (legalism) at the other. Nevertheless the Bible declares that the gates of hell will not prevail against the true church (Matt. 16:18). But while we have this blessed assurance, the at the other. Nevertheless the Bible declares that the gates of hell will not prevail against the true church (Matt. 16:18). But while we have this blessed assurance, the Bible also warns of deception that can sidetrack a believer and build a counterfeit form of Christianity (Matt. 24).
How are individuals drawn into a counterfeit Christianity? It often begins with the ways people normally interact with one another to persuade others to a point of view or to draw them into a group. It may be through invitations, compliments, encouragement, bonding, relationship, and other means of human interaction. However, once people are drawn into a particular group, the dynamics of the group come into play. Over the years we have seen the rise of group movements that use various manipulative means to entice, persuade, intimidate, and captivate. Therefore Christians need to be aware of those interpersonal activities that can serve as snares enticing them into false doctrine.
Answer the following questions to see if you might be vulnerable to the appeal of these groups: Do you want a deeper sense of God’s presence? Do you desire to know Him better? Do you want a closer walk with God? Do you want to get rid of any impediments to pleasing and serving Him? Do you want power to minister God’s grace to others? Do you need God’s healing touch in your life?
Christians who answer “yes” to the above questions are in a good place for true spiritual growth. However, they are also in a place of vulnerability to the counterfeits, which have both fleshly and demonic promises and methods of men who claim to be able to help Christians reach those goals. Their promises are appealing and they may sound biblical, but they use fleshly methods and means to promote their schemes.
The first part of salvation happens in a moment of time when one is translated out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light—born again by God’s Spirit. However, the second part of salvation is a slow process of putting off the old (the former ways of the flesh), putting on the new life in Christ, and learning to walk according to that new life (according to the way of the Spirit). This process of Christians being transformed into the image of Christ takes a lifetime, and it involves a moment by moment decision to deny self (the old self with its ways of the flesh) and to walk in the Spirit. Consider Jesus’ words:
Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37).
The flesh does not like to be denied. It wants fast results. This is clear throughout the Scripture when referring to the religious activities of the nations surrounding Israel. Israel turned to the idolatrous gods of the surrounding nations when the true, living God did not give them what they wanted when they wanted it. Remember how Saul turned to the witch of Endor rather than to the living God. When pragmatism and experience are in the forefront, watch out for spiritual deception.
When people are in a hurry, they are vulnerable to fleshly temptation to follow those spiritual entrepreneurs who claim to have found a better way, a faster way, and a more practical way to find a spiritually fulfilling life. The promises are all there, both explicit and implicit. Glowing testimonies of excitement, healing, and spiritual depth abound. The enticements are as appealing as the first one in the Garden, when the serpent promised Eve that, if she ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she would become like God, knowing both good and evil.
Just as in the Garden, the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life are all in place today for vulnerable Christians to respond to such promises: the lust of the eyes to see Jesus before the time through emotional experiences and visualization; the lust of the flesh for fast spiritual progress, for spiritual power, for profound experiences with God; and the pride of life, of being admired, super spiritual, and spiritually powerful. And, like the siren songs of Lorelei, the enchanters lure Christians to shipwreck themselves on the subtleties of Satan. Like the early Gnostic Christians, these sorcerers of the soul claim to have superior spiritual knowledge to dispense to all who will follow them. However, they are Pied Pipers and protagonists for false and fleshly ways.
While many Christians may be wary of some of the spiritual extremes, they may be drawn into them through the simple use of the techniques we will describe. On the surface many of these techniques appear innocuous and even benevolent. However, they may be just the beginning steps to draw the believer into entrapment and unbiblical experiences, some of which may be from the occult.
Soon after the secular group movement began, churches began to develop similar small group ministries. According to research, “one-tenth of the U.S. adult population is involved in a Sunday school class and/or home group.” In fact, one writer who promotes such groups declares: “The most significant church growth event in the U.S. Church today and for decades to come is the explosion of small groups— meeting both in Sunday school classes and during the week outside the church.”1
From the day of Pentecost onward, Christians have met together in both large and small groups for the purpose of instruction in the Word, fellowship, mutual care, and prayer. God created humans to be connected to one another individually and in groups. He created families and established nations. Each church is a group with shared beliefs, practices, and goals. Many churches also have small groups within the larger context so that members can know and minister to each other more effectively. When groups are Bible-based and Christ-centered, members can thrive in sanctification and service as they mutually minister to one another and as they join together in service to the Lord. However, there has been a surge of sharing groups that have arisen and become established in the Christian community that utilize individual and group activities to promote unbiblical teachings. Because these groups may use the Bible and appear very biblical, Christians need to be wise.
Many of the dynamic means of interacting with individuals and groups for purposes of persuasion are known and practiced by all of us. These means take no special training and could be as innocent as inviting a friend to a group or activity — or as insidious as using devious means to induct someone into a group or cult and to induce them into a particular belief system.
Appeal to the Emotions
One of the most powerful group dynamics is the appeal to the emotions. If a person can be enticed to participate in an experience in which the emotions are involved, he can easily move from one belief system to another. For example, someone is invited to attend a meeting in which emotional experiences are promoted and practiced. He has great doubts, but goes because a friend has invited him. During the meeting he hears emotional appeals and sees others participating in various activities. In the midst of all the hype he ends up becoming emotionally and experientially involved. As soon as he crosses the line from hesitation to participation he becomes ensnared in the emotions and experiences. No more doubts, no more hesitation. He usually becomes both a participant and a promoter. If the initial meeting is followed by more meetings, the new belief will become even more established, especially if emotions and emotionalism are predominant.
If one were to step back, follow the Scriptural admonition to be “sober,” remove the facilitator/group-driven appeal to the emotions, and ask, “When did Jesus or the Apostles use these kinds of techniques to kindle and inflame such emotional involvement?” then he or she would be able to walk away. But, once there, it is difficult not to be affected by what’s going on, especially if one participates in even the smallest way.
When people engage in experiences, there is bound to be some change in their belief system to accommodate for the experience. In other words, personal actions shape theology. Dr. Leon Festinger explained why people who have a particular belief will adjust or even radically change that belief according to their own actions. Simply stated, his theory of cognitive dissonance says that, because people cannot live in a state of conflict (dissonance) between a belief (a cognitive idea) and a behavior or an emotional experience, something has to give. And, what usually gives is the belief.2 The brain needs to maintain consistency for behavior and it will generally do so by conforming its belief to its behavior or emotional experience.
The Appeal to Belong
Personal invitations with personal testimonies of spiritual growth, healing, and a greater sense of God’s presence and power are primary means of drawing Christians into particular groups. These are ordinary means of encouraging participation in any group activity, including church and other organizations. Therefore, this common method can be used for good as well as for evil. The desire to belong is often encouraged through spectacular testimonies.
The things to watch for are the contents of the testimonies. Is there an appeal to become special—more than what other Christians have and are? Is there an appeal to the desire to belong to an elite group? Is the group open to everyone or to a select few that are seeking something beyond the “ordinary spiritual experience”? Pay attention to how much the person talks about the group and about his own experience as a result of belonging to the group.
Almost every group influences its members, beginning with the family and moving on to informal groups of friends and to more structured groups. In discussing how groups function and socially influence the participants, authors who study “social influence theory” say:
Nearly every group to which we belong, from our family to society as a whole, has an implicit or explicit set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that are considered “correct.” Any member of the group who strays from those norms risks isolation and social disapproval. Thus, groups regulate their members through the use of social reward and punishment. More important, groups provide us with a frame of reference, a ready-made interpretation of events and social issues. They provide the glasses through which we look at the world. Any group that exercises either of these two kinds of influence—regulation or interpretation—is one of our reference groups. We “refer” to such groups in order to evaluate and decide on our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior; if we seek to be like them, we are said to “identify” with them.3
Christians are called together to learn sound biblical doctrine and to encourage one another in the faith. Jesus Himself places them in the Body of Christ when they are born of His Spirit. Jesus establishes leaders as gifts to the church and as teachers and shepherds to lead the church into sound doctrine and practice.
However, many groups that call themselves “Christian” are not delivering sound doctrine and encouraging believers to walk according to the Spirit—glorifying the Lord through faith and practice. Many groups have added worldly techniques that use emotions and appeal to the flesh. Therefore Christians need to be wary of groups that are not grounded in the Word of God and that entice and attempt to indoctrinate by using psychological group dynamics that appeal to the flesh.
Some techniques are simply ways people normally use to influence one another, such as performing all kinds of loving acts in order to draw the members into the group. Here they are appealing to a person’s desire to be loved and to belong. But, along with these expressions of love there will be group pressure and group conformity. First there’s the love and caring; next comes the pressure to be and do what the group intends.
The most effective group pressure is the kind that is not noticed. One goal of the group leader/facilitator is to affect how the group members explain to themselves what they are doing in the group. In other words, if a group member thinks he is participating in a particular activity or behaving in a certain way because it’s by his own choice and according to who he is on the inside, then he will likely conform to the group. This can be further accomplished through affirming people according to how they are to change. For instance, if the group leader/facilitator comments that the group has a servant’s heart, the individual member may begin to attribute that characteristic to himself and begin to serve more often. Then, when the person does serve, the leader might say, “I can see that you have a real heart to serve.” This affirmation of what the person now believes about himself (i.e., I’m the kind of person who has a heart to serve) will encourage further service.
Or the leader/facilitator may say, “I am so happy that the members of this group are so open and honest.” This would lead to members attributing that characteristic to themselves and acting accordingly. In addition to helping members assign group characteristics to themselves in order to motivate unity of belief and purpose, the leader may highlight the attitude, activity, or faithfulness of a particular member to encourage others to be like him. This is using comparison as a motivational device with the idea that, if others are doing it, you can too.
Since commitment and consistency are seen as positive attributes both inside and outside the group, these qualities will be both emphasized and attributed to group members as they continue in the group. Thus, the members will not only want to see themselves as being committed and consistent; they will actually see themselves that way and act accordingly. The more the person attributes to himself the characteristics, attitudes, and actions of the group, the more he will be involved in responding to suggestions and requests. The requests may be small at the beginning and not difficult to perform, but the more he responds, the more committed he will become to the point of signing agreements, pledging time and/or money, making further commitments, and serving the goals of the group.
One technique that is especially enticing and used at week-end retreats, is treating the newcomer as a very special guest, showered with thoughtfulness, little tokens of love, and personal notes. This psychological device being used is called “reciprocity,” which is “when someone gives you something, you should give something back.”4 Groups that use this technique often invite the recipient to participate as a giver at the next event and then repeated subsequent events. This same technique of giving to get is used in fund-raising. Why else would an organization send out all those free address labels and packets of greeting cards along with a plea for a donation?
Another means of group influence has to do with the authority of the individual group leader and/or the leader of the larger group movement. If a person is considered an authority, people quite often believe what that person says without question. In fact, they will often support the leader if any outsider questions his teachings or his leadership, especially if their admiration for the authority is combined with personal involvement and commitment.
Induction and Identification
While each group will have its own procedures, there will be a process of induction. Unless this is an intense week-end marathon, the process may not immediately become apparent. However, there is generally an appeal to the desire to belong, to be accepted, and to be loved. Some groups appeal to other personal desires and goals, such as to overcome certain habits, to be emotionally healed, to be transformed, or to have purpose and significance. Other groups rally around a common cause, such as solving the world’s poverty problem. When we join or anticipate joining a new group, we are open to identifying both with the group and with the group’s beliefs, ideals, aspirations, and goals. The more we identify with a group, the more open we are to participating in their activities and incorporating their beliefs.
Groups that demonstrate acceptance and love make a person feel welcome. This is common to all groups that desire to expand their membership, from churches to secular organizations. However, when groups practice “transparency” they share certain “secrets” about themselves. This draws the new participants into feeling accepted—like close friends. A measure of trust is established as different members of the group open up. Thus, potential and new members of a group are not only made to feel welcome; they are given acceptance at this point of intimate connection.
Transparency leads to feelings of intimacy, especially when the sharing majors on personal struggles with temptations and behaviors the Bible would label sin. Such exposure can be very enticing with its focus on self. It is like a big story-telling session about me, myself, and I and everyone else involved with me. Experience and sharing biased stories become a basis for emotional involvement in the group. And, in some groups personal sin becomes a badge of membership.
Sharing personal struggles, hurts, and pain with one another and being accepted even more for doing so makes connection in the group very personal and binds the group together on the basis of shared secrets. Group cohesiveness is based on the shared experience of “transparency” with accompanying emotions. Moreover, as personal secrets are exposed, members become bound to one another in the kind of bondage whereby it would be difficult for some to leave the group for fear of having these things exposed outside the group.
The belief system (whether it is broad ecumenism or narrow cultism or somewhere in between) that accompanies the emotional interpersonal connection is often fed in gradually as the facilitator and established members share these beliefs and connect them with the personal sharing. Then, the person who has become emotionally connected to the group may readily accept beliefs and practices that are contrary to what he formerly believed and do things that he would never have done before. In some groups people are led into inner healing and demon deliverance activities that have more to do with Freudian and Jungian psychology and the occult than with the truth of Scripture.
While all members who adhere to the spoken and unspoken rules of the group are accepted, some are accepted more than others. This serves as further motivation to become like those members who best conform to the beliefs, activities, and goals of the group. Rewards and punishment may consist of very subtle responses and actions of the group members. And these work very well since research has demonstrated that both a sense of free choice and the use of very light force brings the greatest conformity.
From his extensive background in studying forms of mind control, Dr. Philip Zimbardo wrote:
Among the major discoveries of modern social psychology is the simple principle that under specified conditions a bare minimum of social pressure can produce great attitude change. The most profound and enduring changes in attitude are generated when two conditions are present: first, the person perceives that he or she has free choice in deciding to behave in ways that are counter-normative or against one’s values, beliefs, or motives; and second, the force applied to elicit this discrepant action is just barely sufficient in magnitude to accomplish the task.5
Zimbardo contends that “the real power of effective mind control is to be found in the basic needs of people to be loved, respected, recognized, and wanted.”6 Thus, the initial struggle for the Christian is not to become accepted into this kind of group, because the welcome mat is thick with emotional support and acceptance. The initial struggle is to be fully alert and aware of the techniques of group dynamics that will work on emotions and on the desire “to be loved, respected, recognized, and wanted.”
Social influence theory attempts to explain various phases of changing beliefs through group involvement. First comes identification with the group; next comes the transition as the individual moves from one group to another where there may be conflicts between the old groups (e.g., family or church) and the new group (e.g., school, workplace, support group).
During the transition phase, the new group has more power and valence if the former group is either far away or looked down upon. For instance, there may be a suggestion that the church did not meet one’s emotional needs or one’s family is too strict or old fashioned. Established members of the group will talk about how their own churches and/or families failed them. This will motivate the newcomer to consider the same possibilities regarding his own church and family. The transition comes when the new member looks to the group for these social desires to be fulfilled. After the transition has been successfully made so that the new group is the person’s primary group, the final step is an internalization of the group’s beliefs. The group’s beliefs are now his own.
Entrapped or Free to Leave
During the first stage of identification some people may try a group for awhile and find that it doesn’t suit them or fulfill their needs the way they thought it would. They may have nagging doubts about various aspects of the group’s beliefs and practices. Some leave for doctrinal reasons; others leave for personal reasons. Their identification with the group was either relatively short-lived (did not reach deeply into their souls) or has been replaced by something else. Some may find conflicts between this group and another group to which they belong, such as family or church, and therefore not make it through the transition phase and decide to leave.
On the other hand, many stay and become loyal members and participants for many years. They may so identify with the group that they internalize the group’s beliefs and values, find on-going personal satisfaction, and desire to stay. Many of these will advance in the group and may become leaders themselves to expand the movement. Others stay on because the group has become their primary “support system.” They continue to hang onto the group for the feeling of belonging and fulfillment.
Yet, others would like to leave, but they fear leaving because they’ve been convinced that they need the group for personal survival or fear they might be lost without it. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) indoctrinates people into the notion that if they don’t keep attending AA meetings they will fall back into their addiction.
Members of some groups, who would like to leave, stay because they’ve shared too much of themselves and fear the consequences of recrimination and of no longer being accepted by those who know their deepest secrets and vilest sins. When they revealed private information about themselves, they did not realize that leaders often share their own lives very selectively in order to appear transparent without endangering themselves or their reputations.
One can see from the common elements of group dynamics how people may be deceived and participate in group-think and group action that may be quite different from their prior thinking and acting. With emotion-based activities, possibilities for cognitive dissonance, enticement vulnerabilities, the appeal to belong, group influence techniques, group induction, group identification, and possible entrapment, Christians need to be alert to what’s going on. In Part Two of this article we will be looking at various group movements and ways to guard against deception.
1 Bill Easum, “The Exponential Church … Learning from America’s Largest and Fastest-Growing Congregations,” http://www.icmworld.org/articles_view.asp?articleid=12904&columnid=1361.
2 Leon Festinger. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.
3 Ernest R. Hilgard, Rita L. Atkinson, Richard C. Atkinson. Introduction to Psychology, Seventh Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Janovich, Inc., 1979, p. 529.
4 Robert Cialdini. Influence: Science and Practice, 2nd Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Company, 1980, described at http://www1.chapman.edu/comm/comm/faculty/thobbs/com401/clarccs.html.
5 Philip Zimbardo, “Mind Control: Political Fiction an
d Psychological Reality.” On Nineteen Eighty-Four, Peter Stansky, ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford Alumni Association, 1983, p. 207.
6 Ibid., p. 208.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, September-October 2006, Vol. 14, No. 5)