John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, probably had no idea that the things he did to organize his followers were the very things that would counter the rigid and tightly scripted religion he wanted to revive in the Church of England. Putting people into small groups, asking people to go deep with each other, encouraging practices that foster personal accountability, and communing together frequently were examples of the 6 keys that can counter collective narcissism.
Collective narcissism is a belief that one’s own group is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment, but said group is not sufficiently recognized and externally appreciated by others. (“Collective Narcissism: Political Consequences of Investing Self … – Wiley”)
In churches, group narcissism shows up as correctness, conformity, and compliance without room for dissent. Here are 6 keys to counter collective narcissism in your congregation, along with ideas for implementing each.
Key #1. Increase people’s ability to regulate their negative emotions. Researchers link collective narcissism to several factors among which are, low and vulnerable self-esteem, self-criticism, sensitivity to negative provocations, and a low ability to be emotionally resilient and to regulate negative emotions in the face of adversity.
It is difficult for even emotionally healthy people to name emotions, let alone regulate them. The prerequisites for curating emotional work are trust, confidentiality, and a safe space in which people can be vulnerable.
Idea: Create small groups. Supply training for leaders to ensure groups are safe containers for deep work.
Key # 2. Increase the emphasis on individual, personal significance. Groups that fill a “significance void” for people tend toward collective narcissism.
Idea: Institute an intentional and ongoing emphasis on helping people discover, develop, and use their spiritual gifts thereby filling their significance void with meaning.
Key # 3. Increase emotional resilience individually and collectively.
Idea: Make spiritual formation the focus and intention of small groups. Within those small groups, emphasize spiritual practices—focus on the psalms and themes in scripture that show resilience. Consider Habakkuk 3:17-18 for example.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
How can we help people utter “yet I will rejoice”?
Key # 4. Increase the capacity to constructively self-soothe. Neuroscience shows that deficits in the ability to self soothe are related to a weakness in the parasympathetic nervous system.
Ideas: What helps human beings self-soothe? Music? Praise? Stillness? Prayer? Walking a labyrinth? Color? Low lighting? How can we use what we know to create an atmosphere that is conducive to helping people self-soothe?
Key # 5. Increase collective experiences of self-transcendent emotions. We do this every time we worship together or engage in the practice of gratitude. Help people to experience the awe and expansiveness of getting individually and collectively outside of themselves.
Ideas: Intentionally increase the focus on gratitude in worship. Emphasize gratitude over lament (unless it is a specific day for lamenting), increase expressions of appreciation for those in the church. Increase the emphasis on healthy oneness, such as the oneness in Christ which develops through frequent celebration of Holy Communion.
Key # 6. Cultivate a servant attitude. Like the famous JFK quote, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what can you do for your country,” how can we intentionally encourage our congregations to think in terms of service to Christ?
Here are a couple of resources for further reading:
Porges, Stephen W. “The polyvagal perspective.” Biological psychology vol. 74,2 (2007): 116-43. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009
Dana, Deb. “Anchored, How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.” Sounds True, Boulder CO. 2021.