An Open Letter to Christians on the Internet

10 min. to read.

Dear Christians who spend time online,

Isn’t the internet amazing! So much information just a click away. New ways to learn and communicate. New opportunities to interact. It’s great, right?

Well… I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems like we are not so good at being Christian online. I don’t mean that we’re not good at saying Christian-y things. We do that a lot. We post links to our favorite worship songs. We share inspirational out-of-context Bible memes. We punctuate our posts with a flock of Christian hashtags. #PraiseJesus #GodIsGood #Jesus&CoffeeGetMeThrough!

What I mean is that we’re not that great at being like Jesus online.

Think before you click.

I want to ask you a favor.

It’s something I’ve been asking of myself lately, and I think it might be helpful to you too.

Would you stop a moment and consider how you speak to people online?

Specifically, would you consider how you speak to people that you disagree with? Maybe even people you don’t like? Perhaps even…  people you think might be your enemies?

The internet has created the possibility of conversation with people we’ve never met before, people with which we will likely never have a face-to-face relationship. That also means we’re communicating without the help of eye-contact, facial expressions and tone of voice, short-circuiting the natural systems God gave us to trigger compassion.

Quote - Open Letter

The comment box has become a cloak of anonymity, distancing us from the human beings at the other end of the inter-tubes. Without face-to-face presence, we’re  comfortable typing any old thing we feel like.

Someone on the internet says something. We read their words and react. How could they be so wrong? How could they be so misled? Are they even thinking? We pound out our comment and click submit.

At that moment, we feel some small burst of validation. We’ve stuck up for ourselves, or we’ve defended the truth. We’ve cast our vote for what is (of course) the right, moral, Godly view of things. We don’t think much beyond that click, but that click is doing real damage.

Damage, you ask? Yes. When you and I post in response to others, we have the potential of doing damage in three significant ways.

  • You’re hurting the person at the other end of your comment.

Your comment, your post, your tweet, your review — it was sent to someone. A real person. Maybe it was an author you disagree with. Maybe a Facebook friend who said something that offended you. Perhaps some blogger or pastor online said something that you think is unbiblical.

In every case, there is a real person at the other end. That person has a life, a family and the exact same need for love, understanding, and acceptance that you have. I’ve seen crushing reviews on Amazon, where the reviewer goes beyond the content of the book to personally demonize the author. I’ve watched pastors be eviscerated online for having questions or for offering an interpretation of scripture that’s different. I’ve seen groups of friends implode because of the self-righteous “Speaking the truth in love” one of the group feels compelled to do. There was certainly speaking. It’s questionable if there was any love.

You and I are followers of Jesus. That means we are called to do what we do in love. Jesus’ method, according to Matthew 12:20 was this: “He will not shout. He will not argue. He will not crush a bruised reed.” What would the Christian internet look like if we took the same path? We may think that we’re right, but if we hurt people in the process of explaining our rightness, we may find that we weren’t right at all.

  • You’re hurting the bystanders who watch.

The internet is not private. Every Facebook post, every tweet, every Amazon review are words posted in a public space. Every time you post, people are watching. Those watchers are learning from the words you leave.

They are learning about you, about what you believe, and about the kind of Christianity that you profess to follow. The way you treat people, the kind of words you choose, the level of sensitivity you have toward the bruises and wounds of others–especially when you are in conversation with or about people you disagree with–reveals what your Christianity means to you.

So many times I’ve seen a couple of friends go at it on their Facebook wall, debating a controversial topic. The two friends have a relational context that gives them space for a hard-edged conversation. Then the worst happens. Friends-of-friends jump in. Each person who comments expands the range of who can easily see the conversation. Suddenly, people who have no relational context are jumping into the conversation and the whole thing escalates into a catastrophe of accusations.

The result? No one learns anything. Everyone’s prejudices are reinforced. Once again, Christians end up looking like peopel who can’t listen, who can’t take criticism, who care more about feeling right than about the hearts of the people around them.

Every time you post online there are people who are watching. You may not be speaking to them, but your words are effecting them. Is that something you’re taking into account?

  • You’re hurting the Gospel.

OK… you can’t really hurt the gospel, but you can undermine its credibility. Here’s what I mean.

Quote - Truth Keeper

When I was a kid growing up in a conservative church, I was taught about witnessing. We were supposed to have conversations with strangers about God, like the old classic, “If you died tonight do you know where you’d end up?”

I don’t do that sort of witnessing anymore. I never found it effective. But you and I witness all the time. Every single time we post something online we are witnessing. Our attitude, our tone, and especially the way we engage people who disagree with us, are witnessing to our belief in Jesus.

When we talk explicitly about our faith, our words are being measured by the behavior we have already shown online. If the people we engage online experience our words as arrogant, insensitive, or uncaring they will discount anything else we have to say about our faith.

A brief Suggestion.

Jesus (the one who is supposed to govern and guide our lives) gave us the Great Commandment:

He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. – Matt 22:37-39

For we who follow Jesus, love for neighbor is the standard for how we relate to other people. The internet has widely expanded our neighborhood. Our neighbors are not just people that we like, or who like the same things we do, or even who believe the same as we do. Our neighbor is every person we come across. (In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made the point that the people who really are neighbors are those who overlook the boundaries of race, religion and hatred to serve others anyway.)

If you’re ready to consider how your words online are impacting people, I have four simple and humble suggestions for how we might be more neighborly online:

1. Ask yourself, “Do I Need to be In This Conversation?”

When you read something and, it sets you off, you want to respond. Your emotional reaction drives you to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!! But wait…  consider for a moment if your comments are going to add anything useful to the conversation. Can you add something that is kind, noble, good? Do you have words to say that will reflect 1st Cor. 13? If the conversation isn’t directed at you, and you don’t have something constructive to add, maybe take a pass.

One of my favorite tech writers made this comment online recently:

“You win an Internet Grownup badge when you think ‘I don’t know the intricacies of this issue & am not required to comment.'” – @Ihnatko

— Marc Alan Schelske (@schelske) June 16, 2015

2. Consider if private communication is more loving.

Maybe someone authentically needs a little reminder or correction. Perhaps a friend is heading off the deep end, or someone said something that was really insensitive. OK. If you think you have the relational context to offer loving challenge, then go for it. (Although, I have to admit, I’m of the mind that most instances of “speaking the truth in love” are not loving at all. Some thoughts on that here.)

But before you do, consider whether a private space is better. When we correct or challenge people in public, there is a good chance that our correction is more about our own need to appear right. If our intention is to be loving, then the means of our conversation needs to reflect that intention.

Is what you’re about to type something you’d say seated face-to-face with the person, surrounded by others listening in? Because that’s exactly what Facebook and Twitter are. In public confrontation, people tend to get defensive first, and maybe listen later. If you want to be heard, and you intend to be loving, maybe a private venue is better. Try a private Facebook message, a DM on Twitter, or better yet, a phone call.

3. Stop sounding so damned certain.

When you’re online people can’t see your face, they can’t hear your tone of voice, they can’t tell what kind of emotional energy you’ve got going. They just read your hard, cold words. So soften them. You don’t have to sound so definitive all the time. You’re not going to win an award for most sentences of truth typed into a comment box.

I’m convinced that a significant percentage of internet outrage comes from misunderstanding someone’s intended tone. Try saying things like, “In my view…” or “I wonder if…” or “I’m not sure I entirely agree. Have you considered…” Throw in a few “IMHO”s in your post. (That’s internet speak for “In my humble opinion..” Oh, and really mean it.) You are not God’s appointed keeper of truth or the executive vice-president of Correcting People Who Are Wrong.

4. Keep our goal in mind.

For followers of Jesus, our goal isn’t to be right at all costs. It’s to be loving at all costs, following Jesus’ example of other-centered self-sacrificing service. This doesn’t rule out hard conversations. Sometimes difficult things need to be said. But in every case, we have to consider if what we have to say is coming from a desire to express love to someone else, or to placate our own need to feel right, strong, or righteous.

More and more communication and relationship is happening online. It is only inevitable that this will increase. Whether we like it or not, communicating online is a new and significant medium for relationships. Our online communication isn’t a Wild West with no rules or consequences. It’s just a new way of being in relationship with the world around us.

That means that the same ethics of love that govern our real-world relationships ought to govern our behavior online. So, followers of Jesus, can we follow Jesus… even in the internet comment box?

4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Christians on the Internet

  1. This is beautiful and thoughtful Marc….Oh if only it could be REQUIRED reading, a signed contract if one wants to participate in Social Media and online commenting. 😉 On a SIDE note….I absolutely LOVE the picture and caption at the top…”What’s with the angry posts?” Cracked me right up! I know…deep thoughts as usual by Kim.

  2. Thanks for this Marc. I experience a lot of this when I came out with my latest book. I love your points on relational context.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Did you get hurtful reviews? I tell you… that’s something I *do not* look forward to. I’m learning how to keep moving forward, saying the things I believe are true and honoring of Jesus, and trying hard not to be demotivated by the attacks of my fellow Christians. It’s hard. I’ve never had an atheist or person of another religion be as mean and dehumanizing to me as other Christians. It’s a giant bummer.

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