By Dan Darling
Remember when social media was invented, and its founders promised it would bring the world together? That hasn’t exactly happened, has it?
As Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse writes in his book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal, “More technology makes the world smaller, but that doesn’t mean that when we’re pressed together, we’ll hug.”
Sadly, it’s Christians who, when pressed together, contribute to some of the most uncivil conversations.
Part of our problem could be a lack of self-awareness. We all agree that the state of our discourse is very unhealthy, but we are often the last to see incivility in our own interactions.
The study also found that those who primarily get their news from online sources score lower on the report’s “Civility index.”
This means that our online platforms, which can often be helpful in allowing a variety of voices to speak, also have some perverse incentives which allow incivility to flourish.
Knowing this, Christians shouldn’t retreat from social media, but we should be wise about our engagement and wary of how it can tempt us to behave in ways that hurt our gospel witness.
How do we do this well? It might begin by asking ourselves a series of questions about the arguments we conduct and the conversations we engage.
Here are nine that have been helpful to me:
1. Am I qualified to speak to this issue at this time?
Just because there is a pressing issue that seemingly everyone is discussing does not necessarily mean that I need to speak to it. There are issues about which I’m not that informed.
We have to be wary of getting caught up in the heat of the moment and the passions of our tribe and ask ourselves: Would it be beneficial to anyone for me speaking to this topic at this moment on this medium?
2. Am I acting on all of the relevant information?
So maybe there is a topic about which you are knowledgeable and passionate. Great. Your voice is probably needed.
But before you get involved in the online conversation, do you have the information you need about the news story or event? Are you reacting to a headline or are you truly informed?
3. Are you engaging the best arguments of your opponents?
I happen to agree with Trevin Wax that arguments themselves aren’t the issue. We don’t need less arguing online, we need better arguing online.
Before you write that blog, send that tweet, or post on Facebook, have you engaged with the very best of those with whom who disagree or are you engaging in drive-by shots at straw men?
4. Are you giving people the benefit of the doubt?
In his autobiography, former defense secretary Robert Gates says: “Don’t attribute to malice what can be better explained by incompetence.”
In other words, let’s not assume that everyone who disagrees with us is malevolent. It could be a misunderstanding or they could be mistaken—all without being evil.
Only the Holy Spirit can read hearts and we are commanded in Scripture to love in such a way that we “believe all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
This isn’t to encourage naiveté but to, until we are proven otherwise, assume the best about others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.
5. Have I considered the humanity of the other person?
Even if the person with whom you are disagreeing is absolutely wrong in every single way, they are still human, created in the image of God.
The gospel demands we respect their humanity (James 3:9). The person on the other end of Twitter is not an avatar to be crushed, but a human to be loved.
6. Have I considered my own heart?
As we engage, is our desire to edify the body of Christ, to speak for the voiceless, to use our platform to inform and engage? Or, instead, are we nourishing darker motives, like the desire to be seen as being right?
Sometimes we don’t even know our own motives, but we should ask ourselves, before passions enflame, why we are engaging.
Do we want to genuinely help people or are we trying to make a name for ourselves? Am I trying to make myself the hero of a story I want the world to hear?
7. Can my words be misinterpreted?
We should ask ourselves if we are being clear. Is there any way I could be misunderstood?
It’s possible, of course, to have pure motives and clear language and still be misunderstood by those who want to find a fault. I could tweet that the sky is blue and have some trolls parse my words to find nefarious motives.
Still, we should be wise to craft our words in such a way as to not lead to confusion.
8. Could I share the gospel, in good conscience, with this person after our online argument?
Imagine the person you just “destroyed” on Twitter walks into the doors of your church on Sunday and sees you in the third row.
Would they want to hear you share of God’s love for them in Christ and the possibility of eternal salvation through repentance and faith in the finished work of Jesus?
Or could they only see you as “that angry guy on Twitter”?
9. Would I want my tweet to be read, ten years later, in the newspaper?
Yikes. This may be the scariest one.
Imagine ten years from now your tweet surfaces as part of a story about you. How would you feel about that? Frankly, few of us would survive this test, but it should make us think.
God cares not just that we engage the world with the truth of His Word, but how we engage. 1 Peter 3:15 urges us both to “have an answer for every person” and to conduct ourselves with “gentleness and kindness.”
You might be reading this list of questions and conclude: “Well, I guess I should never ever tweet again.” But actually I’m encouraging the opposite.
Social media and the Internet are here to stay and needs the voices of faithful, gospel-loving Christians. But we should, by our tone, be showing a different, more faithful way of engaging today’s great conflicts.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.