The Information Cascade
I just read the phrase, “Information Cascade” and I find myself intrigued. An “information cascade” happens when one person answers a question wrongly but with a lot of confidence, the second person to answer it isn’t sure enough to disagree so goes along with the first person, and then the third person, who may indeed have the correct answer, decides to agree with the first two because he/she assumes that both can’t be wrong. Things just expand from there, with this wrong answer taking on more and more credibility until some courageous person finally says, “The emperor has no clothes.”
The particular context in which I saw the phrase “information cascade” came from some research findings that apparently refute the long-held idea that dietary fats were the direct cause of heart disease. For almost 20 years now, nutritionists and physicians were absolutely sure that low-fat diets would slow down the progression of heart disease. Now it looks like they were all wrong. Whew! Pass the butter and the well-marbled steak, please. It’s time to indulge again.
What particularly fascinates me is the willingness of the crowd to follow the first one to speak with authority, even when they sense that something may not be right. It’s age-old peer pressure operating again, but with such subtlety that it goes unnoticed much of the time.
I look at the world around me and wonder how many absolutely wrong ideas we are following because it is easier to just listen to the one speaking with authority rather than find out for ourselves and also to trust our own thoughts.
There’s definitely a challenge here—uninformed thoughts lead to uninformed opinions. Just because we think something doesn’t make it right. But just because someone else thinks something doesn’t make that right either.
Those who attend the Krum UMC know something of my own spiritual journey. I’ve longed to know God and to serve God since my early 20’s. At that point, I knew there was something far greater that I and that “something” certainly represented creative power and redeeming love. In my early years as a Christian, I spent much time trying to find absolute certainty. I wanted to know exactly what to believe, how to believe it, and how to convince others to believe the same things since I was so sure I was right.
I’m still pretty sure I’m right. God is love; God is full of creative energies; God is interested in the redemption of all of creation through Jesus, the Sent One, so we might live most fully and die most courageously and be prepared to spend eternity in glory.
I’ve also discovered that in many ways, I’d just as soon follow the crowd, whether they are right or not. This is the lazy way for me to discover who God is and what God wants from me.
Right now, the “information cascade” in church growth movements has been saying, “the bigger, the better.” The more bells and whistles, the more “contemporary” we can make our worship, the more successful we will be. It’s so easy to buy into this. Go big, go fancy, make worship entertaining, let the people be spectators and walk out feeling good and maybe they will leave a lot of money in the offering plate so the church can buy more bells and whistles.
But then I start looking more closely at Jesus, this Sent One, the One who came to show us most fully the creative and loving God. Certainly, he attracted big crowds, but the majority of his time was with those who were not just there to be entertained, but were there to learn and to enter into the discipleship relationship.
Disciple is an old-fashioned word. There doesn’t seem to be a contemporary equivalent. I’ve tried using “mentor” but it just doesn’t work. There’s too much distance there. Discipleship is more demanding, more intimate, more transforming, more connected. It’s a higher calling. And it is what Jesus asked his own disciples to do—to make disciples of others. Disciples may be followers, but they do not follow the crowd, going along with others because someone spoke with confidence and it just easiest to agree. Disciples use their brains and thinking powers with integrity and independence.
Right now, we’re doing a series on Sunday mornings about the marks of a Christian. So far, we’ve talked about obedience. This Sunday, October 14, will be about thankfulness. On the 21st, we’re going to talk about justice. These are all hard words, and evidence of a big and powerful calling. There is also laughter and joy and good memories and so much else that folds into the life of a disciple. It’s a life lived to deep fullness and rich beyond imagination. The “information cascade” on church life right now may say, “come and be entertained.” But the real truth is: come and be transformed. It’s a lot more lasting and a lot more fun in the long run.