The term community refers to friends and family we know, love, and trust. Community is the most powerful force in determining belief. Community shapes the way we interpret our experiences. Community shapes the way we interpret facts, evidence, and data.
When I lived in Australia, I played and watched rugby. I was convinced it was the roughest, most brutal sport in the world. After all, rugby players wear no helmets. You can’t get much tougher than that! And I believed that American football was the least tough sport in the world. After all, players in the NFL have to wear pads and helmets. You can’t get much softer than that! This was my entirely rational belief based on clear evidence and logical proof.
But when I lived in Chicago, my American friends convinced me that American football was way more brutal precisely because football players wear helmets. Have you ever watched a helmet-to-helmet hit? After a while, I believed my American friends.
Why did I change my beliefs? Because I had changed my community from one set of friends to another. I had swapped one set of “plausibility structures” for another. And my new set of plausibility structures made me interpret the same evidence—NFL players wear helmets—in a new and different way.
Brexit and the Power of Community
In June 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum to vote on Brexit—whether to withdraw from the European Union. The vote ended up sharply dividing the UK. Roughly 52 percent voted in favor of Brexit, and 48 percent voted against it.
Analysts believe that those who voted in favor of Brexit mainly had friends who were also in favor of Brexit. And those who voted against Brexit mainly had friends who were also against Brexit. In other words, people voted according to how their group of friends voted.
In the months leading up to the vote, countless debates about Brexit took place in all forms of media. Everyone was exposed to both sides of the debate—they knew the reasons for and against Brexit. But it is estimated that not one person changed their mind on how they were going to vote. Whatever way they were going to vote prior to hearing both sides of the debate is exactly how they voted after hearing the debates. Their group of friends mainly determined how they interpreted the evidence. Their minds were already made up.
Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, community determines how we believe. We think like those around us think. We behave like those around us behave. And we believe what those around us believe.
Sometimes the effects of community are subtle. For instance, when we were expecting our second child, my wife, Stephanie, and I spent a lot of time trying to work out what name to give this child. We didn’t want to give the child a name that was too common, but we didn’t want to give the child a name that was too funky either. We wanted something in that sweet spot in the middle—a name that declares to the world just how trendy and fashionable we are as parents. We decided on the name Cooper. Little did we know that Cooper was one of the top-ten baby names in our state that year. We had picked a common name. We were sheep—just following the pack—even though we didn’t realize it.
Our community—whether we are conscious of it or not—determines what we think, how we behave, and what we believe.
The UFO story is unbelievable because I am the one and only bozo who believes it. But imagine that I told you the UFO story in a room full of people, and imagine that after I told it, half the people in the room screamed, “Me too! That also happened to me last night.” My UFO story would be much more believable because half the people you know and trust also believe it. If all the people in the room were to say, “Me too! That also happened to me last night,” my story would be highly believable—and you would feel like a bozo for not believing.
Paul recognized the power of community and belief. In 1 Corinthians 15:5–8, Paul says that after Christ rose from the dead, “he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living . . . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.” Paul may seem to be overly thorough here. Not only did he himself see Jesus risen from the dead, but the other apostles also saw Jesus risen from the dead, and so did five hundred other people you can talk to right now. Paul says this because his testimony is way more believable if five hundred other people—people you know, love, and trust—also believe it.
I want to be clear: I’m talking about the believability of a story and not how true it is. Jesus is risen from the dead, whether you choose to believe it or not. But a story, no matter how true, is hard to believe if no one else in your community believes it.
Chan, Sam, and Ed Stetzer. 2020. How to Talk about Jesus (without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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