Written by Jasmin Patterson, USA
During college, I helped lead our campus ministry. One time, I got into an argument with one of my co-leaders. Somehow I ended up losing my cool and yelling at her. All the while, other team members and students were in the room watching. (Yeah, bad move. I know. I apologized and we worked it out. We’re still friends to this day.)
I wonder what the other students must have thought. They probably felt incredibly awkward, having to watch two people argue in public. What must they have been thinking? And what kind of example were we setting for them?
I think about the same thing when I watch how Christians conduct themselves online sometimes.
In our culture saturated by social media, we’re losing the ability to disagree with civility. We’re losing the ability to respectfully tolerate each other’s differing opinions. Much of our society seems to think that we can’t disagree with someone without using our words and attitude to attack them. As followers of Jesus, though, we can’t fall into that trap.
Social media is an incredible tool and platform for connection that I am grateful for. You probably are too. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter help me stay connected with friends, bands I like, and content that builds me up in my faith. With our use of these platforms, however, comes a responsibility to make sure the way we participate in them honors people and represents Jesus well.
On social media, a public argument between ministry leaders might be watched by more than just a few bystanders. We might be setting an example for the entire world to see, and what conclusions would they draw about us or our Savior? The stakes are pretty high.
How can we keep our Christian character and witness as we engage online, especially when we disagree? Here are some rules of engagement that might help:
1. Value the person you’re speaking to.
Every person we speak to and about is a person who is created by God in His likeness, who is loved by God, and who is valued so much by God that He sent His Son to die for them, to restore their relationship with Him.
“For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
When we speak with others online, do we value them the same way God does? How would God feel if He saw the way we interact with another of His beloved children? (And He does see.)
Sometimes, being behind a keyboard gives us boldness to say things we wouldn’t say to someone in person. Before we post, we can ask ourselves whether we would speak to the person this way if we were face-to-face with him or her. Would we call them names? Would we belittle their point of view? Would our tone be snarky and condescending?
Remember this: the way we treat other people is an expression of our love for God, and God can reveal His love to people through the way we treat them. Interacting well with others online can be an act of worship to God, as well as a powerful witness to other people.
2. Listen first, then speak.
I’ve noticed this, and maybe you have too. Whenever people have different life experiences or perspectives from others, they often start the conversation by defending their own viewpoint. They may even discredit the opinions and experiences of the other person before they’ve even heard them out.
We see this again and again when people talk about race issues, politics, theology, etc. The list goes on and on.
Scripture calls Christ-followers to a radically different approach.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)
Listen first, then speak. Hear people out. Assume the best about them. Listen to learn and understand, not just to respond. Listen without interrupting them.
In our culture, we tend to decide that the person we’re talking to has nothing valuable to contribute even before we’ve heard their case. To be so eager to make our point that we don’t care about theirs. To subconsciously think that what we have to say is more important than what they have to say. But let’s not live by the standards of our culture—let’s live by the standards of the Bible.
When I comment online, I like to address people by their name when I write back to them. I also like to start by affirming something they said that I agree with or challenged me to think, even if I express disagreement later in the comment. Being personal and starting with affirmation demonstrates kindness, humility, and that we actually read and valued their comment.
We can avoid so much anger in our culture, in our conversations, and on social media if we just learn to be “quick to listen, slow to speak.” I believe God can use us to bring healing and peace to challenging, divisive conversations if we learn to humble ourselves, respect our neighbors, listen first and speak second.
3. Build up, don’t tear down
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)
Before we post that comment, tweet, or status, we can ask ourselves: Is what I’m about to say helpful for building others up according to their needs? Am I saying it in a way that will benefit those who read it? Do these qualities characterize my words even when I’m expressing disagreement?
I’ve received some snarky comments on blog posts I’ve written and something I’ve learned is to speak grace instead of fueling the fire of anger and antagonism. When someone comments with sarcasm or anger, either ignore it if the conversation would be unhelpful, or respond in the opposite spirit with kindness. If we stop putting wood on a fire, it won’t continue to burn.
Along with that, know when to bow out gracefully. Sometimes our conversations on social platforms reach their limits to be healthy and helpful in that context. In that case, we should probably move those conversations to more personal channels, like a private message or face-to-face dialogue, or respectfully walk away from them altogether.
It’s possible to engage on social media, have meaningful conversations, and keep our Christian character and witness intact while we do it. How does this sound: let’s set an example for others by the way we engage online. I’m in. How about you?