The wisdom of crowds and the Kingdom of God

The Wisdom of Crowds. It’s a great title for the display racks on the mega-bookstores, a brassy counterintuitive challenge that touches the perfect raw nerve of the crowds milling past.

James Surowiecki took his title from a book first published in 1841 that touches that same nerve and still finds its way to the racks of those same stores: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay.

In 2004, more than a century and a half later, Surowiecki’s book also became a best seller.

But the book also worked for a much less arcane reason. We’d been watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Contestants were given 15 questions. If a contestant answered them all correctly, he or she would win $1 million.

To make the show more interesting the contestants were given three helps: Phone a Friend, 50/50, and Ask the Audience.

From this came a statistic that brought Surowiecki’s thesis into our experience: the audience was right more often than the friend – who was the greatest expert the contestant knew of on a given topic. In fact, while the “expert” was right 65 percent of the time, the audience was right 91 percent of the time. It made a lie of a long-standing truism by H. L. Mencken: “No one in this world, so far as I know,…has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

It turns out, winners do bet on the “intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

Surowiecki goes on to illustrate that the Millionaire phenomena is not an aberration. In all kinds of situations, from the old country fair challenge of guessing the dressed weight of a prize bull, to the modern stock market, the crowd is more accurate than the experts.

Surowiecki also asks a deeper question: “Why is the crowd right more often than the experts?” The answer is quite simple – it draws on more resources. The larger and more representative the sample, the more equally distributed will be the error. This means that the crowd needs experts but the experts also need the crowd. The only bottom line: more is better than less.

Interesting, but what does it mean for us?

Building hierarchies

The history of Christianity is deeply influenced by the Mencken presumption. Without “experts” leading us forward calamity will surely follow. The solution is to build hierarchies.

The Bible shows us that the crowd can be spectacularly wrong. It was, after all, the crowd that demanded Aaron make them an idol to worship (Exodus 32). It was the crowd that demanded Samuel give them a king (1 Samuel 8).

While the crowd was often wrong, that’s not the whole biblical story. It was the kings, the priests, the leaders who even more consistently chose the course of calamity. And of course, it was the crowd that wanted to make Jesus king while the experts wanted him dead (Matthew 27:11–26).

Surowiecki’s counterintuitive thesis resonates very well with the principles of the Kingdom of God. Jesus began by teaching his followers that leadership in the kingdom was not driven from the top down. Peter tells us that together we make up a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). Paul spoke of the church as a body with each member playing a vital role (1 Corinthians 12:14–30). The head was not an expert or even a team of experts but Christ himself.

This raises a particularly important question for Canadian MBs. In the past decades, we have succumbed to the Mencken presumption. We have shifted to an “expert” model of leadership.

We have gradually but steadily moved decision making farther and farther away from the frustrations of the crowd. We no longer go through detailed financial reports. We don’t hear endless debates on the fine points of process. We don’t even elect our leaders any more. We merely ratify the vetted products of a nominating committee.

For us, it was driven by another truism; “leaders must lead” and must not be frustrated by endless consultation and the questioning that comes from it. Our task should be to find “experts” in discerning God’s will and place them in charge and then stand back and follow. It sounds so efficient and even godly.

But was it?

Today, the shift to an expert-led conference is almost complete and the crowd, sparse as it is, gathers periodically to celebrate and affirm.

But have we done right? If Surowiecki is right – and more importantly, if kingdom decision making is not the domain of experts but of the whole Body of Christ – then we need to carefully examine what has happened to us.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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