One interesting thing that I think we can learn from our response to this pandemic is the power of groupthink. There are several examples of this in the Bible. Remember the triumphal entry. There the people gathered and shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” among other things (see Matthew 21:1-11). The Bible author notes that there were others who joined the crowds asking, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10). People, apparently, flocked to the noise of the crowd with no real knowledge. What drew them was not Jesus, but the masses. People like to be a part of the crowd. From what happens next in Jesus’s life, we can know that the throng was not being entirely honest about the confession it was making with its mouth and actions. After all, Jesus cries over them at that very moment (Luke 19:41-44).
And that leads to consideration of another crowd: the people asking Pilate for Jesus’s death. Pilate gave the people a choice: release Jesus, the man who healed the sick and cured the lame, or release Barabbas, the man who stole and rioted. The chief priests and elders persuaded the masses to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus (Matthew 27:20). And the crowd chanted, “Let him be crucified,” regarding Jesus (Matthew 27:23). They even went so far as to say the responsibility for his death could be put on their own and their children’s heads despite Pilate declaring, “I find no fault in him” (Matthew 27:25, John 18:38). The multitude then asserted, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Such a statement is remarkable when one considers that these were Jews who, in general, rejected gentile rule. They shunned tax collectors because they were considered traitors for working with the Roman government. Professing Caesar as their king was completely out-of-character and reveals the danger of groupthink.
Acts 19 gives us another example of a crowd, and this one turns into a bloodthirsty mob. We know how it began: some silversmiths started to riot because a rise in Christianity had resulted in less demand for the silver idols they forged of Artemis. We read, “the city was filled with confusion, and they rushed together” (Acts 19:29). There was turmoil, and what did the people do? They rushed together and simply followed along. It was the easy response. How could so many be wrong? There was confidence in numbers. No one abandoned course when the rabble turned violent, dragging two Christian men before them, probably with evil intent. The people allowed it because a crowd can’t reason; it simply acts. We are told, “most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32). The mob rejected Alexander’s urging to disperse because he was a Jew and then spent two hours chanting about Artemis (Acts 19:34). So, this was no here-a-minute and gone-the-next group of people. Despite the confusion and unawareness, the tumult continued for two hours, chanting and making professions of faith/nationalistic pride. In the end, the crowd did not disperse until the town official threatened to charge them with rioting (Acts 19:35-41). It was not reason that dispersed the crowd; it was self-preservation.
You might be thinking, “What about those times that the crowds followed Jesus? Wasn’t that a good thing?” The vast majority of the time, it wasn’t. For example, in John 6, the masses followed him briefly, but they eventually turned away when Jesus’s teaching was too difficult (John 6:1-66). Sometimes a crowd is mentioned in scripture to contrast with how few people actually believe, such as Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-47) or the woman who touched Christ’s garment (Mark 5:24-34). Many followed, but few showed signs of faith. Such is almost always indicative of those who separated themselves from the crowd. The word “church” even means “called out.”
So, what ought to be the response of the Christian to the crowd? It is pity. We pity, and therefore we show mercy, especially by proclaiming the gospel. Jesus demonstrated this when he fed the multitude (Matthew 15:32) and when he healed the sick (Matthew 14:14). He taught the crowds (Matthew 5-7) when they would listen, and he prayed for their salvation (Luke 23:34).
I think we often overlook the use of crowds for groupthink in the Bible, but there is an important lesson in them. As Christians, we must always ask, “Am I following Jesus or am I following the crowd?”