Not Stupid? Well, Perhaps, Maybe They Are…

kinnon —  October 11, 2007 — 10 Comments

I recognize that it’s a rather cryptic title. And some folk won’t bother to read it because, frankly, it makes little sense. There is a real art to headline writing. This post doesn’t reflect that.

Church-Thinkingoverrated1The title is a reference to a post from Todd Heistand that I linked to last week, Congregations Aren’t Stupid. This post keeps popping up in my Feed Reader for reasons I won’t bore you with. (I’ll bore you with other stuff, instead.) And after writing a post that suggested I agreed with the statement, the RSS repetition got me thinking. (Lord knows something had to.)

I truly would love to believe, as Todd quotes Eugene Peterson writing, “the congregation is not stupid and lumpish, waiting for pastoral enlightenment“. But on pondering that statement and Todd’s post, my experience suggests otherwise.

My buddy, Brother Maynard talks about leaders, the people in the pews and the Stockholm Syndrome,

…yesterday I was driving along and thinking about past (bad) church experiences, and what causes us to stay in those situations, even thinking that they are normal or acceptable. We feel affection for or affinity with the leader, we’re “in it together,” and we’re “on the same team” and all that. Then suddenly — sparked by a news story on the radio I think — I found myself thinking about Stockholm Syndrome.

Not to be too harsh or to put too fine a spin on it… but isn’t that essentially what we’re talking about here? Perfectly normal people suspending their better judgment on many issues based on identification with the perpetrators (or ringleaders, or whatever) of some, let’s say “unhealthy” system.

Stupidcouple1I’d probably say perfectly normal and intelligent people suspend their judgment and reasoning abilities and buy into just about any kind of nonsense. This Juanita Bynum clip (via Jared @ The Thinklings) would be an extreme case in point.

But there are congregations throughout the world that are, for want of a better word, stupid. For, as Forrest Gump is wont to say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Rather than exhibiting the power of collective intelligence*, they reflect the swamp of collective stupidity. Their senior pastors operate like potentates with management skills worthy of inclusion in Bob Sutton’s book or possibly one of Robert Hare’s – whilst these so-called leaders are busy self-identifying as Level 5 leaders. Yet the pew people stay loyal followers.

If you dare to suggest their pastors are a little less than the biblical model for leadership, you find yourself being threatened with Old Testament plagues as you’ve dared to “touch the Lord’s anointed.” (If you dug through the comment archives on this blog, you’d find that very thing there.)

I have sat with people who have told me horror stories (and yes, I could tell some of my own) about the disastrous impact of certain church leaders on their lives and/or those of their families. And yet most of those storytellers still attend the same churches. “All our friends are there.” “We just ignore the bad stuff.” “Yah, I know he/she/it is not a very nice person, but people are still getting saved, right!?” “Actually, I really didn’t need my left arm. I am right-handed after all. And the limp? Didn’t Jacob walk with a limp.”

Brother Maynard’s concept of this being like the Stockholm Syndrome is helpful – at least for those of us outside the swamp.


ADDENDUM: I think it’s important to note that I think the vast majority of people in church leadership are not psychopaths or sociopaths – in fact, most are good people trying to do what they believe God has called them to do. However, there are enough “perpetrators (or ringleaders, or whatever)” to cause great concern. And I am truly shocked by the number of pew people who know full well what is going on…but do nothing other than show up faithfully and give liberally of their time and money.

UPDATE: Rainer Halonen and Greg Laughery join the conversation in the comments – but both have written good posts on their own blogs.

Rainer, who works as a “missional missionary” in the Ukraine points to

visiting pastors, mission teams, etc…  coming to this country, who, even after seeing the problems, recognizing that all is not right, continue to support the system without confronting the issues.

Greg has continued in his Exodus series with Part 5, where he says,

We are experiencing the deep psychosis of cultural despotism that is thoroughly soaked into our Christian flesh and blood, leaving us with empty imaginations. Our bones are disintegrating before our eyes, our bowels are exploding, and there is no strength left in our guts. Too much fast food spirituality. Are we stupid or what?

UPDATE 2: My friend Sonja @ Calacirian responds to both Brother Maynard and me in her very good (as usual) post, On Breathing, Painting and Sweden. Where we normally see eye to eye on topics, Sonja disagrees with me here.

Sorry, Bill, I need to part ways with you on this. I don’t believe in collective stupidity. I do, however, believe in a state of collective fear. Or should I say … pack behavior. We are, after all, dogs. Or, in the words of Handel, sheep. No one wants to be excluded from the pack (herd). May I refer you to my (not so wonderful) post on the topic? The people in a church know exactly what happens to those who step out of line. The leadership make sure of it.

Please read her entire post.

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

10 responses to Not Stupid? Well, Perhaps, Maybe They Are…

  1. I have asked myself the same question. Stockholm Syndrome is a good guess. I used to blame abusive leadership for the dysfunction in the church. But I came to realize that they are only empowered by the abdication of their followers. I don’t understand it except that there is a spiritual phenomenon at play as well that keeps people in bondage. Because it’s just not rational…

  2. It’s not rational at all, is it.

    I wrote a post a long time ago in blog years, anyway, (that’s linked in the sidebar to the right) called The Responsibilities of the Led that covered some of this. Although I doubt I’d write it the same way today – I do believe that pew people play a significant role in allowing…or even condoning abusive leadership.

    Thanks for the comment, Sarah. 

  3. “And I am truly shocked by the number of pew people who know full well what is going on…but do nothing other than show up faithfully and give liberally of their time and money.”

    I feel the same way… I am living in Ukraine, and this is a problem in many of the churches here. The people continue to give, and obey, because they are taught that it is a sin to question the church leadership, or “the anointed”. They continue because of fear.

  4. Bill,
    Thanks for these pertinent thoughts. We need to shaken out of naivete. Stupid all too often resonates with both the conscious and unconscious. Exodus Church part 5 over my way makes some similar points and aligns closely with your post here.

  5. Bill,
    Hope it’s okay with you. Linked to your post here over at Living Spirituality.

  6. Thanks for the link, Greg and I’ve added a link to your very good post in your comment.

    Rainer, you are doing good work in the Ukraine, bro – and seeing both the good and bad in the Kingdom adventure you and your family are on. Thanks for the comment – I look forward to reading more of your story.

    And what a great comment on the support people, visiting pastors et al who provide approval to broken systems and misguided leaders you make @ your blog.

  7. Bill,
    Thank You.

    Just mentioning the need to confront some of these issues to some other missionaries here has caused a lot of headaches and sleepless nights in the past week.

    It really shouldn’t be this way…

  8. As they say over at, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

  9. So, in an unusual turn of events, I’m going to disagree.

    I’ve written more thoroughly about it over on my place, but I don’t think it’s stupidity at work, I think it’s pack behavior. I think it’s people’s overarching desire to belong and the rather intricate dance of group dynamics at work.

    Stupidity is too simple an explanation for a very complex issue.

    Although … I will say that people do like to behave like sheep ;-), but I think the root of it is more complex than we’d like to believe.

  10. I conduct a lot of surveys with church people. Often I ask the twin questions, “Why did you join? What keeps you here?”
    The reasons people join are obvious. Preacher, worship and children’s programs. Atmosphere is mixed in there, but that’s too vague for most people.
    The reason they stay is more complicated. For some, their choice is the last one at the end of a long search. For others, and this the most prevalent reason, they like the people, enjoy the fellowship, and are getting something out of it.
    So, why do they put up with crap? Because they do so in every other arena of their lives. In other words, people have pretty low expectations for their church experience. They are hopeful, but don’t really expect from the church what they expect from God.
    Lastly, they don’t fight the battles of stupidity because they realize that they are fighting institutional inertia. They are alone against a bureaucratic, political institution. They may not say it quite like that, but they feel it.
    So, what all of you describe is perfectly reasonable to me. Acceptable? no, but I see it on a daily basis.
    Final word, the other was the last one, this is final. The problem is theological, relational and organizational. It isn’t simply the people rising up to throw the rascals out. This is why, for me, the issue is the character of leadership. I don’t blame the average member. The fault rests on the shoulders of the pastor and the officers.


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