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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