In 2006, Jack Dorsey and his peers put their heads together to create what we now know as Twitter. Dorsey, years later, shared why the name made perfect sense for their product:
[W]e came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential [read: insignificant] information,’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.1
When I saw the company’s CEO refer to Twitter’s original intentions with this kind of nonchalance, I was floored. I certainly don’t think Dorsey expected Twitter to become what it is today, not only in terms of size and popularity. I think even the purpose of Twitter has done an about-face. Everyone is on Twitter with a mission to be affirmed for what they’re saying or selling. Everyone has significant information for the masses to hear. Even the “Follow” and “Retweet” actions are often viewed/used as a vote of support or endorsement, which only furthers users into the mindset that what they have to say is of extreme importance.
Facebook follows a similar line. The etymology stems from its simple purpose: connecting people. It was designed primarily as a connecting tool, helping university students see who is in their class, who shares mutual friends, and so forth. Though they have become the most widely visited social networking site in the world, I would argue that our purpose for Facebook has shifted. Oftentimes the goal of Facebook is no longer to connect, but to exhibit the disconnect between people, groups, sects, and parties. Long gone are the days when family pictures and literal “status updates” were the majority of Facebook feeds. “Status Updates” are now “Opinion Updates,” where we clue in our friends how we feel about a current event. Most of the pictures shared on the site are shared precisely because of their divisive message in nature. Oftentimes satirical or sarcastic, oftentimes offensive, oftentimes not the kind of pictures Facebook was designed to share.
What is the end result of these two streams of thinking? “Listen to me. I am against this.” This causes a fault-sized divide day in and day out. Pick your topic: Syrian refugees, #BlackLivesMatter, Planned Parenthood, child vaccinations.
In today’s culture, social media is a Coliseum of sorts.Like the famous Rome amphitheater, social media sites have become architecturally designed to create gladiator-like battles between opponents, all while the masses cheer on from the stands. Not only do we want to wage war with our enemies and slaughter them in the public square, but we want the crowd to roar in approval all the while.
Comments have turned into pre-meditated, bloodthirsty diatribes, where we nearly max out the 8000-character limit, or we start a chain of 140-character tweets to get our full message across. Hashtags have been implemented as a way of raising what flag you represent and waving it for everyone to see. These are even further provoked when the “Trends” section features controversial talking points, inviting the crowds to pick up their weapons and wage war. What was once deemed “chirps from birds” have become sharp talons we use to sink into our opponent, sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes outright.
But not everyone is out for digital blood. Some, in fact, have gone to the opposite end of the spectrum. They disengage and want no part of it by avoiding the Coliseum altogether. They “take the high road” and leave social media, when in reality they may be taking the high horse. Or (perhaps worse), they want to sit in the stands, watch everyone else fight, and spend their entire time being critical of those fighting in the arena. These people love to tell others that it’s so beneath them to be involved in the current online Coliseum. They’re the good guys. They’re staying out of it. When in reality, they’re just being “holier than thou.”
The constant flood of metrics around every status update, every tweet, every post beckons us to “be entertained.” Even a popular meme floats around social media that expresses this idea. It’s a picture of Michael Jackson, famously eating popcorn in his Thriller music video, with a remark that says, “I’m just here for the comments.” This is flight at its finest: A kicked-back, popcorn-eating attitude while watching the melee.
Neither extreme works. A fight-heavy approach leaves folks battered with deep wounds. A flight-heavy approach leaves folks disengaged and careless. Neither can be the answer, and neither are what God has called us to in Scripture. So, how do we respond? What is the right approach to engagement with opposition on social media?
We must use wisdom, which means it isn’t cut and dry. There is a give and take and the pendulum swings constantly. We must navigate these obstacles when addressing how we engage with others in social media. We must evaluate ourselves. Below are some introspective diagnostic questions we can ask ourselves in our own social media habits. I do not have the silver bullet for this dilemma. Many times I have wrongfully abandoned these self-checks, but I hope to launch the dialogue and save some of you from making the kinds of mistakes online that I have made. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it is an on-ramp to better, clearer thinking about how we handle being in the Coliseum of social media.
1. Do I know where I stand, and why I stand there?
The most fundamental problem with evangelicals is our lack of familiarity with Scripture. Christians are called to “always be prepared” (1 Pt. 3:15), but many of us lack proactiveness in this regard. J. Vernon McGee comments:
The tragedy of the hour is that there are so many folk who say they are Christians, but the skeptic is able to tie them up into fourteen different knots like a little kitty caught up in a ball of yarn — they cannot extricate themselves at all. Why? Because of the fact that they do not know the Word of God.2
That was written over thirty years ago, but still rings true today. The reason culture equates the skeptic with reason as opposed to the Christian is because oftentimes it’s the Christian who cannot formulate a seemingly reasonable argument for his position. We oftentimes look like Peter online. We draw our sword to bring harm (Jn. 18:10) or we just want to withdraw completely (Jn. 18:25). We act out of fear or emotion instead of reason and wisdom. If we cut their ear off, they won’t hear.
In order to engage opposition correctly, we must first know what kind of weapon we have in the Word, and more so, how to handle it. This means before turning to Facebook to share our opinion on a current event, we must turn to the Scriptures to discover how God’s Word may advise us. As I’ve said before, your words will always be fruitful if they are founded in Scripture and prayer. We wouldn’t trust our military to defend our country if they had absolutely no training with guns and weaponry. Why should the Christian be different? Preparation is vital to our message (1 Pet. 3:15). As John Newton notes, when God's Word is at the forefront of our attention, “We seldom make great mistakes.”
2. Do I know where he stands, and why he stands there?
A common mistake we make in engaging others online is that we don’t take enough time to reason with others from their perspective/worldview. We’re so infatuated with getting our point across that we’re susceptible to missing the undertones of what is actually being advocated for. Doing the extra work to understand other’s presuppositions will save us much trouble. This takes a lot of patience, listening, and not talking.
Proverbs tells us, “A prudent man conceals knowledge” (12:23) and “even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise” (17:28). This does not mean flight or avoiding the confrontation. It means shutting up. It means letting the opponent have the floor and respecting his voice. It means being wise and discerning.
It’s baffling why we Christians struggle with this, especially with unbelievers. For one, we know the truth, and it’s rooted in an omnipotent God. Nothing can stand superior to the truth of God and the Scriptures. We should believe, then, that the longer we let a skeptic talk, the more he will expose the flaws in his own logic, for it’s not truth! More than this, if we expect to be given a chance to share our beliefs or viewpoints, we must offer the same to our brothers and sisters online. Football teams study the opponent’s game film because they want to know how to capitalize on their weaknesses. We can only learn from our opponents when we practice careful listening with patience.
3. How am I loving people with the gospel?
That was terribly painful to type. I think back to many of my snide, off-center remarks made online. Harsh, bruising words leave a permanent online wound that no post editing or deleting can fix. Absence and silence is deafening when we don’t love unbelievers enough to share the good news we know. Any time we engage in discussion or debate online, especially when someone opposes our stance, this question should be burning in our hearts. It’s in these moments that we have a chance to demonstrate the offense and the love of the gospel all at once. The Holy Spirit will remove scales from eyes and soften hearts, so let’s be more concerned with loving our neighbor as ourselves. Sometimes, that means appropriate confrontation. Sometimes, it means private conversation. But it should always mean grace, humility, clarity, patience, more grace, and love.
The truth is, we do have significant message to share. We have the opportunity to connect authentically with real people. Fight won’t fix the dynamic of social media. Flight won’t fix it, either. Only the good news of Jesus Christ can bring true restoration, even to our communication! Until then, let us labor to be grounded in truth, patient to listen, and willing to love.
1. Sano, David (February 18, 2009). "Twitter Creator Jack Dorsey Illuminates the Site's Founding Document". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 18, 2009
2. McGee, J. Vernon. Thru The Bible Commentary. Accessed November 18, 2015 at http://preceptaustin.org/1peter_verse_by_verse__313-22.htm
Zach Barnhart (@zachbarnhart) currently serves as a church planting intern with Fellowship Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and is pursuing pastoral ministry. He is a college graduate from Middle Tennessee State University and lives in Knoxville with his wife, Hannah. He is a blogger, contributor to For The Church and Servants of Grace, and manages a devotional/podcast at Cultivated.