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Christianity and the Spiral of Silence

silencePastor Mark dropped what seemed like an entire ream of paper in my lap. “We’re excited that you’re interested in joining the church,” he said, “I just need you to read through and agree with our statement of faith.”

I had led worship at a charismatic church (Foursquare) for 5 years before moving to central Indiana, and had fallen in love with a Baptist church plant in my new town. It didn’t take too long for Mark to agree that my family fit and even suggested fast-tracking my transition into an associate pastor position.

But the wind was taken out of my sails pretty quickly as I looked through their statement of faith. The church’s cessationist stance was an important part of the document, and my convictions wouldn’t allow me to agree that the charismatic gifts had ceased. I was conflicted, but didn’t think that was an acceptable reason to break fellowship.

After a long night of discussion, we decided that this issue was not a sufficient reason to pass on my membership. “But,” Pastor Mark warned me, “I don’t want you to ever teach on 1 Corinthians, and if anyone ever asks your opinion about the Holy Spirit, I would like you to direct them to me.”

My job ended up moving my family within the year, but I could tell that, had I stayed, it wasn’t going to work out. It’s just hard to feel connected to your community when you feel you can’t be completely open.

A culture of silence?

That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, my beliefs have evolved in a number of areas, and I find that I’m still not completely transparent with those around me. I may not be explicitly told what I’m allowed to share anymore, but there are areas I fear openness would lead to feeling ostracized.

While I was a church-planting pastor 10 years ago, I had many discussion with ministers from various backgrounds who confided in me that, if their congregations knew how they felt about certain social issues, theological ideas, or dogmatic principles, they’d be fired.

And the more I talk to the people in our churches, the more I fear this anxiety isn’t limited to clergy. So many people are afraid that, if anyone found out how they really felt, they’d be rejected or would suffer attempts to be fixed.

Christian pluralistic ignorance

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist, introduced the concept of the Spiral of Silence in 1974. This theory suggested that fear of isolation will cause people to remain silent when they feel their views are in the minority.

More troubling is her suggestion that, even if the majority agree, they will individually support a contrary position if they feel they’re in the minority. This phenomenon of holding the majority viewpoint while incorrectly believing you’re in the minority is called pluralistic ignorance. And I suspect it’s rampant in the church.

Our areas of doubt and dissonance may not be the same, but I think the fact that they exist for so many of us puts us in the majority—and yet we struggle in silence.

The rebuke of public opinion

I was sitting with some colleagues recently when blogger Rachel Held Evans’ name came up. The conversation became pointed, dismissive, and, among a couple of them, even mean. I sat there listening quietly and feeling frustration and burning shame.

Unbeknownst to them, their censure of Rachel was received by me as judgement for areas where I agree with her. In that brief conversation, I was being instructed about the acceptable majority opinion. And whether it was intentional or not, I inferred from that conversation what I was safe to share.

The huge problem with the Spiral of Silence is that the more an individual feels their opinion held by the majority more likely they are to voice it. This means that, whether right or wrong, one viewpoint will drown out (often quite unintentionally) the opposing view.

There’s a disastrous problem in the church when the “common opinion” is allowed to silence a contrary opinion. A stupid belief is a stupid belief even if the majority hold it, so it’s not just the minority who need to be willing to entertain opposing ideas.

There shouldn’t be fear of censure or shaming for those who struggle with contradictory ideas or opinions.

Maybe they’re wrong, but there’s no way for them to work through these important issues if they feel forced into silence. Maybe they’re right, and there’s no way for our perspectives to change if we’re not willing to give them a voice. But maybe we’ll never agree and it’s important to learn that fellowship can be built on something more profound than acquiescence to a wooden orthodoxy.

Do you ever feel like you keep your ideas or opinions to yourself because you feel you’re in the minority? Leave me a comment. Let’s talk about it.

P.S. Thanks Frannie for turning me onto Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann.

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23 Responses to “Christianity and the Spiral of Silence”

  1. Staying silent is a critical skill in any dysfunctional relationship, and one I learned early in my life. It gets to be so ingrained that it becomes a habit that is very hard to break…especially when going counter to the “majority opinion” results in beatings or emotional torture. It is a habit I am slowly breaking. There are times when I still say nothing, whether it’s out of fear or not; however, what’s more interesting (to me) are the times when I know I’m in the minority and still speak up. It tends to happen in situations where it has been repeatedly demonstrated that speaking up will never be punished as long as it is done with respect for all others involved in the conversation, no matter their viewpoints.

    • Whoa — I remember a Sean Atherton from junior high (2001-03ish). I used some of his ideas for a game I was making. :P I wonder if you’re the same guy!

      At any rate, what you say makes sense. I’ve never had to face beatings or emotional torture for disagreeing with the majority opinion, but since I tend to be silent just from feeling like I’m in the minority, I imagine that would make it a very hard habit to break. I’m glad you’ve found some situations that are more friendly to differences of opinion. :)

  2. I became caught in the Spiral of Silence shortly after joining an independent Baptist church in my new state of Alabama several years ago. I told myself more often than not that I simply didn’t want to rock the boat; no point in starting fights. Like you, I didn’t want to be ostracized. But that attitude is bad for us and bad for the church. It means neither we as individuals nor the church as a body are loving well. When the church is intolerant of thoughtful dissent, the church is not practicing love; it’s practicing hypocrisy. But when we pretend that we believe other than we do before the church community, we are not engaging in the body of Christ. My silence in my situation said that I did not trust or respect my brothers and sisters in Christ enough to share myself with them. I didn’t give them the opportunity to engage with me on issues I deeply cared about. And I became a bitter, angry liar. Fear doesn’t belong in the community of God. I spoke to a group at my new church recently on these thoughts at length – http://bamahippie.blogspot.com/2013/08/responding-to-god-and-loving-well.html – about halfway down the page if you’re interested.

  3. I was raised in a Disciples of Christ church and am in my third year at a Disciples of Christ University, studying music and ministry. I’ve wanted to be a worship pastor for years, but last year I started having some questions and doubts about certain aspects of my theology. I started hearing some other thoughts and ideas at my liberal arts school that I was unfamiliar with, and was excited that other people had thought some of the same things I had on my own. I felt freedom to explore and figure out what I really believe about things like the Bible, the Spirit, atonement, God’s character, Heaven and Hell, etc. The funny thing is, the church in which I grew up only ever taught one way of believing. So I never really understood certain doctrines to be “bad”, I just only ever heard one, so it was the only thing I had to believe. Therefore, I didn’t think it would be a very big deal to approach people from church and school with some of my thoughts. After all, if the new ideas were so cathartic for me, couldn’t they be for them too? At first, the people I told had two main reactions: they either told me to keep quiet, because my role as a worship leader could be compromised, or they disowned me (or at least lost a lost trust in me). I learned quickly to keep quiet, except for those people I was closest to and would love me anyways. So I have a few friends that have learned to respect me over the course of this year, and a couple within that few who even agree with me on some stuff, but whenever I am at my school’s chapel service or my home church, I feel distant, disengaged. The people there speak in absolutes, they narrow things down, but I need to open up wide and be willing to engage in the truth that doesn’t belong solely to the DoC. I don’t know about other churches, but I would feel dishonest working on staff at my own, and I can’t handle dishonesty. Therefore, I now struggle with my future as a worship pastor. How can I lead people spiritually when I believe differently than them on some very core elements of the faith?

    This article was a blessing, a breath of fresh air. But I worry that besides those closest to me, the Christian climate of my very religiously conservative area is truly intolerant to my beliefs, so I am glad to have some people and places that will listen to me. However, being at church doesn’t feel like church to me anymore, and I’m not okay with that. I’m trying to figure out how I can be honest about my beliefs and not be turned away or limited in leading worship, which is my absolute passion in life.

  4. I cannot say how good it was to read this when I woke up. I have been living in silence for over 17 years. From being a Continuist to having a husband who was a closet Egalitarian while I attempted to conform to the Complementarianism within churches we attended. Even in Biblestudy today, I sat much of the time silent while they discussed sin instead of what Romans 7′s context.

    It is writers like you through the heavenly space of Twitter that God is using to give me back a voice.

    Thank you.

    • What an encouraging comment. Thank you.

      It can be exhausting to elevate Christian community to the level that we’re told to while feeling like we have to play a role just to fit in.

  5. Another gal (from my church) and I were talking about this very thing last night. It seems that when a discussion comes up that we feel differently on than what some people do in our church, we feel like we are being shut down quickly. So to not cause a “stink” we feel like we need to be silent. BUT…God’s Word is still God’s Word and it will prevail. Sometimes I feel like it is better to be silent than to face someone’s consternation with my agreeing differently than they do. I was brought up OLD SCHOOL and today people seem to be getting very lax in what/how they believe to be right. But that’s another topic for another day. Maybe someday I will feel it is okay to voice my opinion along with those who feel differently than I do.

  6. I really appreciate and can relate to this post. It’s hard to know how to balance expressing ideas or questioning possibly harmful assumptions and not creating unnecessary strife with others or trouble for myself.

  7. I am so very fortunate to belong to a church in which every opinion is respected. The one belief that we certainly hold in common is that the overriding message of Christ is complete and unconditional love, as received from God and as we are to feel for everyone else. Acting out that love is what matters, what one believes is not as important. We share one another’s understandings of scripture and of different faiths at times. it is SUCH a healthy, spiritually nourishing community!

  8. I know there is a Spiral of Silence, but I also think some people find themselves agreeing with the majority because they have a less validated point of view. I think this is problematic in Christianity because some issues of justice and biblical interpretation that are popular make little sense and views that are cohesive and make sense (for example; trajectory hermeneutics) are a less trodden path. A spiral, yes, but perhaps a spiral of ignorance and perpetuated denial of critical thought.

  9. I’ve never had the skill of keeping my mouth shut so I’ve had the opposite experience. I have refused to participate in the Spiral of Silence and so am no longer a pastor. Somehow I wound up, during my ordained career, serving churches on the verge of death. But my job was never understood – by me or by the congregations who called me – that of caretaker or hospice chaplain to dying churches. I was asked specifically by them to help them avoid death. To help them turn around. To help them find the Spirit for renewal and growth. In my interviews, I made it clear it would require certain sometimes hard things for them and that what they would get from me is someone who was always open and honest with them about how I felt, what I believed. They all nodded in agreement and called me. And then, when I did what I said….constant conflict. Because I wouldn’t participate in this very dynamic you’ve written about and it challenged them in ways they couldn’t stand. Even when it was as simple as disagreeing with them about the placement of the pulpit, the design of the bulletin, etc. I think this dynamic is precisely why these churches were on deaths door. One of them has already closed and I suspect another will soon follow. And I suspect this describes, to a large degree, why the church in the US is in such radical decline. No one wants to hear it. Shut up. lalalalala. Can we just sing our old familiar hymns and have you, pastor, go drag some people in somehow? With their money. No no no. We don’t want to hear that coming to church on Sunday morning isn’t enough. We don’t want to hear that we aren’t very welcoming of strangers. We don’t see it that way and don’t mess with the way we see things. Keep your mouth shut or your fired.

  10. This is so true!

    Sadly, I am not one to keep my mouth shut. I am easily excited and passionate when I learn new things, and I love to share. Plus, I love theology, and I want and hope to be authentic.

    I often find myself wishing that I had kept my mouth shut in the past. So many relationships have been damaged if not outright destroyed because the views that I have come to are “off-limits” in the churches that I have been a part of.

    The church is not the only place where problems have arisen.

    Even amongst my family (almost all of whom are conservative Evangelicals of one stripe or another) I am usually viewed as a problem that needs to be “fixed”. Most will not even consider what I have to say for fear that they will be “led astray” into apostasy.

    The majority of Christians that I know do everything they can to silence me. They reinforce each other’s beliefs that this is the loving thing to do, for the church, and for me. What I think and feel is deemed insignificant in their eyes, and their actions toward me reveal that I, as a person, am just as insignificant.

    Anyways, the pressure to remain silent is real. And the consequences for not remaining silent are real. Part of me does wish that I could take everything back, but I know, at the same time, that I would just as miserable if I had remained silent as I usually am now.

    I am sure that I am not the only one to experience these things or to feel this way. Its a shame that being inauthentic and being ostracized are the only two options.

  11. Fear is tearing us apart. I agree with the woman who said we don’t love one another or God. I disagree with the person who said we should respect each other’s opinions; rather, we should allow each other the right to bad opinions. Love the person, hear the opinion.

  12. “Do you ever feel like you keep your ideas or opinions to yourself because you feel you’re in the minority?”

    Isn’t that what church is all about? I did for years, but then discovered the cure, which was blogging. All the elders, some of the deacons, and a number of other congregants had read and commented on my blog, sometimes regularly. At my next church, an anonymous member of my SS class “snitched” to the elders about discovering my blog. I had a living room full of bible-weilding elders who systematically dismantled my writing in front of my wife and me. They held to extreme double standards and told me I needed to stop blogging. It was painful, but I stopped attending their church instead. Now, I don’t fear leadership, and am far more comfortable having others know about my views, even though that might lead to problems. I simply realize that THEY are the problem.

  13. I’ve been in the same denomination for 13 years and no longer agree with some of its major stances (mostly about gender roles), but am highly doubtful that anyone would hear me out if I spoke up. I hate our tendency as Christians to congregate with those who are exactly like-minded, and if anyone’s feelings change, to send them on their way. We desperately need more acceptance of diversity.

  14. Frequently, while teaching the high school Sunday school class, my students would ask provocative questions about worldly issues. My response often started w/a directive to “closed the door.” Now, years later, I rather enjoy stirring the shit pot.

  15. This is the point I am t right now. My church has been suffering some unity “issues”. I apologize for the quotes, but I feel few do not want to talk openly about the situation(s) the church finds itself in. I am not a member of the church, but I am free to voice my opinion during the annual meeting on other congregational meetings. That is find and dandy; however, the opinions of a by-stander do not hold much water. I am at a cross-roads and I am worried about where I can go.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] Christianity and the Spiral of Silence by Jayson D. Bradley […]

  2. Crisis of Faith | my ahas - January 27, 2014

    […] D. Bradley blogs beautifully about the harm that can come from not being transparent about our beliefs to those around us. In this blog he states, “there are areas I fear […]

  3. Silent – to be or not to be? | scrapbookwithtony - February 4, 2014

    […] the minority is called pluralistic ignorance. And I suspect it’s rampant in the church.” (Christianity and the Spiral of Silence by Jason […]

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