If anything can stir up a good online controversy, it’s the subject of religion. Perhaps the reason for this is that the internet allows us the opportunity to share everything we think or feel without anyone knowing who we are and with little risk that our words will be censored. Electronic media allows us to send our deepest thoughts across the globe in a matter of seconds, spreading our version of the “Good News” to anyone who will listen and, oft times, to many who won’t.
That’s why, this week, we’re taking a look at a few rules of internet etiquette and sharing some tips for those who want to utilize the web to share their Christian faith. It is our hope that these will help you become a better example of Christ in a less than Christ-centered medium and, perhaps, make a difference in the way the online community views those who see things from our perspective.
- Don’t troll. It’s great that you want to share the Gospel, but how you share that Gospel can make a big difference in people’s attitudes towards this important message. If a site or conversation doesn’t naturally lend itself to religious discussion, don’t force your way in. More than once, I’ve seen someone toss out John 3:16 in the middle of a gaming dialogue or go into a full-blown explanation of the Salvation message on a site that has nothing to do with religion. While these “hit-and-run” tactics do occasionally produce fruit, most of the time, they simply produce a sense of annoyance amongst their victims. If you want to share effectively, be selective. Seek out those who want to exchange views and don’t bother those who don’t with pithy phrases or random verses.
- Don’t mistake anonymity for license. This follows quite naturally from our first rule. Too many times, I’ve seen Christians say or do things online that they would never do in real life. While there is much to be said for the courage that can be gained when someone isn’t looking you in the eye, there are pitfalls as well. One of these is the tendency to speak more freely and with less tact than we would if addressing a personal friend. The result? Christians online have gained a reputation for being thoughtless and inconsiderate: two things that Jesus wasn’t. Before weighing in on a conversation, consider your words. If you wouldn’t speak this way to your family, friends, or co-workers, you shouldn’t be speaking this way at all! Not sure whether you should say something? Take a moment to ask yourself how you would feel if someone said something similar to you? If you’d feel put off, they probably will too.
- Be people-driven, not agenda-driven. It can be tempting to presume that internet dialogues are a “one-shot” chance at sharing Christ with someone. While this can be true, it’s equally true that genuine relationships can be formed online. (Just ask my fiancé.) Like any other relationship, these take time to develop and a quick jump from meeting someone to an intimate dialogue concerning the error of a person’s religious views can put an end to a relationship before it’s even begun. Before you exchange views, exchange names. Find out a bit about people and they’ll usually be interested in finding out about you.
- Keep the focus of the conversation. Sometimes, you won’t have the opportunity to develop a relationship. In these cases, at least try to keep your dialogue on-topic. If you’re on a site that encourages the exchange of religious views and the topic being addressed is creationism vs. evolution, don’t go randomly diving into a discussion of divine sovereignty or the incarnation. Make sure that your comments fit with the overall theme of the dialogue. True, by following this rule, you might never end up at the Gospel, but by respecting the direction a discussion is taking, you do demonstrate respect for the individuals involved in the dialogue – something that Jesus definitely promoted!
- Give the benefit of the doubt. The internet is a worldwide community. The people you find online come from a range of ethnic, social, and political backgrounds. They represent a diversity of culture and not every culture represents itself in the same way. Because of this, it can be easy to presume that someone is being “rude” when, according to the social standards they’re used to, they’re just being forthright. Don’t assume that you understand someone else’s motives or background and never respond to a comment based solely upon what you would have been thinking or feeling if you had said the same thing!
- Don’t be rude… even if others are. Sometimes it isn’t culture that influences the way a person presents themselves. On occasion, we encounter folks who are just downright nasty about things. But that doesn’t give us the right to behave the same way. As Christians, we are to represent the light of Christ and that means that we demonstrate respect for others regardless of how different their views may be or how badly presented!
- When the details aren’t provided, don’t fill them in. More than once, I’ve seen someone ask a question and receive a response so far removed from that question that it’s hard to understand how the person who replied could have possibly thought they were being helpful! Unfortunately, many times, this isn’t due to trolling, but to one person “filling in” the details when the other party hasn’t provided them. If you are unclear about what is being asked, take the time to clarify before trying to answer. A little humility can go a long way.
- Don’t tell others what they believe. While some religious viewpoints have standards by which they can be measured (like Mormonism or Islam), others (like atheism) don’t. And not every individual within every faith will believe the same things, regardless of whether their Scriptures say they should. Instead of letting others know what they should believe, take the time to ask questions and find out what they do believe. You’ll be in a better position to dialogue once you have.
- Avoid showmanship. With a worldwide community watching, it can be tempting to try to say something brilliant, pithy, or new. Unfortunately, giving into this temptation usually brings more glory to ourselves than to God. You’ll get much farther if you “keep it real” than if you hop up on a pedestal and start spewing one-liners. You’re here to talk with real people, so be a real person, yourself.
- Know when to leave. Sometimes a dialogue just gets out of hand. When this happens, it’s time to walk away. Others may accuse you of cowardice or an inability to defend your point of view. That’s just fine. Remember that even Jesus remained silent when He stood before Pilate. God will use the words you’ve already spoken to His own glory, though you may never see the results.
These rules, of course, are only a starting place. You can probably think of a few more (if you do, please share them in the comment box below). Keep them in mind the next time you visit a website or drop into a chat room and you may be surprised by the results. Remember, our ultimate goal as Believers is not to get ourselves noticed, but to bring glory to God. And that only happens when we demonstrate respect for others!