What is it about being part of a stadium filled with cheering fans that arouses such intense emotions? Why do we behave one way in a group and another on our own? Why do people join cults, or devote their lives to moral or political causes?
In his book: ‘The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements’ (1951), Eric Hoffer considers some of these questions. Hoffer argues that spiritual hunger causes people to cut off their old selves so that they can become part of something bigger and more thrilling. Mass movements, he argues, are especially attractive to those who are insecure or unhappy with themselves. In fact, by joining something bigger, he claims they are getting rid of this unwanted self. Instead of feeling frustrated, isolated and impotent, they gain a sense of pride, purpose, confidence and hope. The group acts as a yardstick which approves and justifies those within it, whilst judging and excluding those outside. It offers security, identity, approval and status.
As you may already have guessed, Hoffer is not a great fan of organised religion. He sees it as yet another form of escapism from our insecurities. But what if there was a movement whose chief qualification for membership was brokenness? And not a brokenness to be hidden in the quest for acceptance, but uncovered and acknowledged by all. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” says Jesus.
In a typical mass movement, you leave your brokenness behind and take comfort from knowing ‘you’re part of the solution.’ But in Christianity the qualification for entry is admission of sin and dependence on Christ alone. It turns out that the largest of all mass movements is unlike all the others!
But it raises some good questions for us as a church:
How often do we live up to Hoffer’s assessment?
Do we find our group identity as those who are better than ‘the world’?
Do we think of ourselves (rather than Jesus) as the solution?
Do we operate as a group which excludes and judges outsiders?
Do we allow space for difference and individuality? Or are we all about conformity?
Do we value different gifts: not just those that are up front?