Republished from Baptist Bulletin April/May 2017 with permission. © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.
by Daryl A. Neipp
In 2013, researchers conducted an online survey and discovered that 78 percent of users have experienced a rise in arguments and hostility within social media platforms.
Specific findings include these:
- 3 in 4 have witnessed an argument on social media;
- 4 in 5 report rising incivility online;
- 2 in 5 have blocked, unsubscribed, or unfriended someone as a result;
- 1 in 5 have reduced in-person contact with someone over a cyber argument;
- 88 percent believe that people are less polite on social media than in person;
- 81 percent say emotional conversations held on social media are most often unresolved.
The irony of such findings cannot be missed. After all, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were created for the purpose of sharing, connecting, and expressing. In fact, the web itself was designed to be a social creation. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, says that he “designed it for a social effect—to help people work together—and not as a technical toy.” Furthermore, Joseph Myers observes in his book Organic Community that “almost all internet language describes relational activity. Blog, RSS, email, Wikipedia, Google, and eBay are all relational verbs, so to speak.”
However, the question of whether technology and social media have improved the quality of human connection is still up for debate. The problem at hand is that while the internet connects people to each other, it does not ensure community. In the Christianity Today article “How to Think about Social Networking in Churches,” Douglas Groothuis remarks how social media can extend a person’s reach but also restricts the human presence because it subtracts the reality of being present. In other words, there is an appearance of intimacy and community yet without substance and embodiment. Sherry Turkle, in her appropriately titled book Alone Together, refers to this as an “illusion of companionship,” because as Groothuis argues in The Soul in Cyberspace, “cyberspace can only mimic or mirror” genuine communities; “it cannot create them.” Consequently, virtual or pseudo interaction is impacting and even changing the nature of relationships. Something about social media undermines the normative, social, unwritten rules of etiquette that are expected in face-to-face conversations, essentially giving a bullhorn to every user. As a result, people have been given an outlet to say things they would never express in person.
For those who claim to be Christ followers, the stakes have never been higher. A study by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons discovered the following words or phrases that people use to describe Christianity. (They detailed their findings in their book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters.)
- Antihomosexual: 91 percent
- Judgmental: 87 percent
- Hypocritical: 85 percent
- Too involved in politics: 75 percent
- Out of touch with reality: 72 percent
- Old-fashioned: 78 percent
- Insensitive to others: 70 percent
Of course, perceptions are not always fair and are seldom under a person’s control. The impact is, however, still significant. Tim Stevens and Tony Morgan explain in Simply Strategic Stuff, “Perception is reality. It may not be your reality, and it may not even be true. The fact is, it’s reality for someone. The perception of how things appear, how they happened, or what was heard is everything. Perception matters.”
Beyond perception though, the reality is that Christians can become a part of the problem. James Emery White reflects in The Rise of the Nones that “much of that image has been earned. We’ve acted in ways, talked in ways, lived in ways that have stolen from God’s reputation.” The question is, do our social media posts reinforce those negative stereotypes, or do they help to break them down? Is Christ being represented well? Is it more likely that the content of our social media posts will lead people to associate Christians with the perceptions of the
Kinnaman-Lyons study or conversely with the attributes listed in Philippians 4 and Galatians 5? In other words, could our communication be characterized as true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise, full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
A Christian Response
How can believers become a good representation of Christ within social media platforms? Here are three Biblical actions that will represent Christ well.
Love others in the same way Christ loved you.
Ephesians 5:1 and 2 say, “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us.” How are we to love? As Christ loved. And how did God love us? The answer is found in Romans 5:8. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In other words, God’s love was not based upon our behavior. Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler state that to love as Christ loved, we must separate the person from what he or she does. Just as Christ loved us “while we were still sinners,” so we must base our love for others altogether apart from their behavior. This means recognizing and relating to every person as a human being created in the image of God and respecting him or her as a person for whom Christ died. As we interact with people on Facebook and Twitter, we must ask ourselves if we are viewing them in the same way that God views them. Regardless of what a person may have posted, to represent Christ well, we must recognize each person’s God-given intrinsic value and immeasurable worth. Doing so should influence our response.
Live peaceably with all.
Romans 12 identifies several marks of true Christians, not the least of which is the desire to create peace within relationships: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (v. 18). Observe that the responsibility to initiate peace is placed upon the believer, not the other party. How is this possible within a culture that celebrates vitriol? Colossians 4:6 reminds us to “let your speech always be with grace.” Why? “That you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Likewise, Ephesians 4:29 admonishes believers to be selective with their words, using only ones that will build others up. Why? “That [they] may impart grace to the hearers.” In other words, a believer’s speech, whether spoken or written, should be marked by grace. However, according to James 1:19, the ability to listen is also an essential component of healthy communication. Another way to express this thought in terms of relationships is that we need to become interested in what others are attempting to communicate. In Difficult Conversations, the authors recommend that we become detectives of sorts, seeking to uncover, discover, and understand the other person:
People have perfectly good reasons for the positions they take and arguing about the problem is seldom productive. People argue because they want to convince the other person to come over to their point of view. However, each person on each side of the argument thinks it is the other person who needs to change.
Each person’s position makes sense in their mind and arguing only keeps them from exploring the other perspective. Instead, it is essential that each party seek to understand why the other person holds the position they do. In many cases, when two parties seek to understand the other’s position, the defenses drop and true communication becomes possible. When understanding occurs, then people can move forward even if they still disagree on the outcomes.
Essentially, gracious speech and active listening pave the way to peaceful relationships.
Speak the truth in love.
Ephesians 4:15 identifies this action as a critical component of Christlike living. However, we often practice on one extreme or the other, which leads to unhealthy positions. For example, if someone speaks the truth without love, that person will come across as harsh and judgmental. On the other hand, practicing love that is void of truth leads a person to become permissive in his or her approach. True love requires truth perfectly coupled with grace. This is truly a difficult balance to strike. Jesus, however, provided several clear examples to follow. In both John 4 (the Samaritan woman) and John 8 (the woman caught in adultery), we can observe that Jesus did not ignore sin. He did, however, communicate love, mercy, and grace rather than condemnation.
In the fall of 2000, I was just beginning a yearlong pastoral internship when I made an error in judgment. The senior pastor took me for a walk, confronting me and making sure I understood the implications of my mistake. The interesting thing about that conversation—and what I remember most is not the confrontation, but the grace that was offered to me. The pastor made it clear that he was having that conversation with me only because he cared about me and my future. He wrapped his comments in such love that even though I was being confronted, I could hear him and consequently was willing to accept his words of counsel. That, my friends, is the goal. Truth should be so wrapped up in love and grace that it can be heard.
The recent elections have demonstrated just how divided America is. And while social media possesses the potential to connect us in ways that were impossible before, it can also put us into the position where we are furthering the divide with an “us vs. them” attitude. We should never view people as the enemy; after all, each one has been created in the image of God. We must be willing to love others as God loves us; we must seek to live at peace with all people; and we must live in the tension of speaking the truth in love. Second Corinthians 3:3 provides the reminder, “You are an epistle [letter] of Christ.” Represent Him well!
Daryl A. Neipp (PhD, Piedmont International University) is associate pastor of New Community Baptist Church, Avon, Ohio, and an associate professor at Liberty University.