Learning to speak Christian in an online world

by | Mar 19, 2016

Learning to speak Christian in an online world

Lionel Windsor This article was first given as a talk for the Centre for Christian Living at Moore College, 17 March, 2016.1To view the talk online and the rest of the talks from ‘Learning to speak Christian in an online world’, visit https://www.moore.edu.au/ccl/learning-to-speak-christian-in-an-online-world

1. Speaking in an online world

When we become Christians—when we put off the old self and put on the new self—one of the key things we learn is a new way to speak. In Ephesians, Paul says,

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour… Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph 4:25, 29)

These verses are a just a small sample of a theme that keeps coming up in Ephesians: speech or ‘speaking Christian’. Paul calls it ‘speaking the truth’, which means speaking the gospel, speaking in light of the gospel and speaking in line with the gospel. It’s one reason why I’m focusing on Ephesians as we think about one particular form of speech: speech in the online world. This is a huge topic, and we can’t cover everything. I’m definitely not an internet guru or social media expert. I’m not even a true ‘digital native’. I’m a minister and New Testament lecturer. I’m also a user of social media who, to some extent, has made mistakes and learned some things. So in this article, I’m going to take the Bible—in particular, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—and use it to help us come to grips with what Christian speech is all about and how that affects our speech in the online world. I’m going to concentrate on Facebook in particular because it is big and influential and affects most of us. But you won’t hear much about Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or other platforms. That’s because this article is about learning principles, rather than specific techniques for certain platforms. Anything I say about the technology will be out of date anyway in a few months, but the biblical principles will last.2There are a bunch of things I’m not going to do in this essay—partly because they’ve been done so well by other people, for example:
Tim Challies’ The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2011) presents an excellent overall theology of communication, as well as how to avoid some of the personal spiritual pitfalls of online communication.
Peter Tong has written an excellent essay on how to do theological debates in ‘Doing Theology in a Digital Culture’ (Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s ‘Hearing Her Voice’, edited by Peter G Bolt and Tony Payne, Matthias Media, 2014).
For advice on protecting children, see James P Steyer, Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age, Scribner, New York, 2012.
And you can find some great wisdom in Steven Kryger and Andrew Cameron’s ‘From the Archives: Face to Face or Facebook’, Centre for Christian Living, 15 February, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): https://www.moore.edu.au/ccl/ccl/14-02-2016/from-the-archives-face-to-face-or-facebook

So let’s orient ourselves to this ‘online world’—in particular, the online world of social media. Engaging with social media is just another form of speech. Yes, sometimes it can feel like it’s not: there’s the anonymity, the distance, the fact that the speech is happening on a screen, and so on. But when it boils down to it, it’s communication. It’s speech.

a) The paradoxes of social media

So social media is a form of speech. But it’s a particular form of speech, with particular characteristics, assumptions and an ever-evolving etiquette. It’s important to come to grips with some of those characteristics so we know how this form of speech works. There are great opportunities for Christians on social media to “put on the new self” and “speak the truth” (Eph 4:24, 25). But there are also huge challenges for Christian on social media to stop going back to the “old self”—the “corrupt” self with its ‘corrupting’ talk (Eph 4:22). A good way to get a handle on social media is to realize that it’s full of paradoxes and contradictions.

i. Mediated socializing

Firstly, the phrase ‘social media’ is a paradox: when we say ‘social’, we’re talking about humans being connected—people relating to one another. This is what makes social media great: it helps humans to connect—including connecting with the gospel. As Andrew Cameron has pointed out, we are ‘social beings’.3Steve Kryger and Andrew Cameron, ibid. But there’s a paradox: normally the best kind of socializing involves true closeness and authenticity, with nothing between us. But social media is ‘media’, which means, literally, ‘things in between’: it’s technology that helps people connect with other people by constantly coming between people!

ii. Broadcast conversations

Secondly, social media is full of ‘broadcast conversations’: on social media, you have conversations, but these conversations are broadcast to other people. So it’s both a conversation and a broadcast. But in practice that means it’s not quite a conversation and not quite broadcast. It’s a conversation because people chat with each other about things. But it’s not quite a conversation, because you never know who’s listening in and you never quite know who’s going to join in at any time. The conversation you’re having is being broadcast—sent to other people, who can treat it like a broadcast show if they want. They can watch it, enjoy it, criticize it, make their own comments about it and join in if they feel like it.

However, at the same time, the conversation is not quite broadcast, because it’s only being sent to the people whom Facebook wants to see it. Just think about the various reactions people have to other people’s Facebook posts. I might say to Tony, “Tony, why did you share that picture of your lunch? Who cares about your lunch!” and Tony might reply, “Because I like lunch, and I thought I was just having a conversation with a few of my friends who like lunch too. But obviously you thought it was a broadcast show and found it boring.” Or Tony might say to me, “Lionel, do you usually take this long to respond to comments about that link you shared? Don’t you care about your friends?” And I might reply, “It’s because I just thought I was sharing an interesting article with the world, and then I went to bed. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!” So social media is a weird hybrid of broadcasting and conversations. It’s both and it’s neither. I suspect that the people who are the most successful at using Facebook are the people who have come to terms with this.

iii. Hyperconnected, but misconnected

A third paradox of social media is that it makes us hyperconnected, but so often misconnects us. The opportunities to connect and share on Facebook are exciting, wonderful and (from a purely technical point of view) amazing. It’s easy to connect with anyone anywhere in the world instantly. Wow! And there are so many wonderful opportunities for speaking the truth of the gospel. But then we realize it’s also so easy to misconnect. The connections happen so easily, but they’re often strange, weird or awkward—or worse. For example, you’re having a conversation with a friend you know from school or church about the rain. Then someone else you know from work randomly joins in and says how outraged they are that the rain wrecked their picnic. Suddenly you’re having a bizarre disagreement, and the challenge to our “old self” is to react angrily.

iv. Together alone

Fourthly, social media brings us all together, but it can also make us more alone. When you’re on Facebook, you feel like you’re in a universe with other people, with whom you can connect and communicate. But at the same time, we’re not all actually in the same universe: we’re not all on the one Facebook. Each of us has our own Facebook: everything is filtered and tailored to us. So you don’t see what other people are seeing; you’re having your own experience. Facebook has to be filtered, of course. You can’t keep up with everything your friends are saying; there’s too much and you’d go mad. We need filters. Facebook filters, tailors and gives us a private experience based on what they know we like (which, of course, means they can advertise to us). But that means it’s not exactly a shared experience. It’s not like TV, for example. Even though Facebook feels like an online universe, it’s more like a multiverse full of parallel universes, each with a population of one.

This can be a great challenge for us. Here’s a hypothetical scenario: Jill has a baby and shares some baby photos. Bill is Jill’s single friend. Bill says to Jill, “Your baby photos are all over Facebook. Can’t you think of people who are single or struggling with infertility?” But Jill says to Bill, “Can’t you share my joy? Anyway, my baby photos are not all over Facebook. What’s all over Facebook is your photos of your parties, nice food and wine. I see it all the time when I’m up half the night with my screaming baby.” Here are two friends who think they’re in the same world, but they’re not. They’re together, but they’re alone. And it’s easy for their “old self”—the one characterized by lack of love and envy—to come out.

v. Words multiplied, communication divided

Fifthly, a further paradox of social media is that words are multiplied, but communication is often divided. With Facebook, you can get your point across easily, quickly and often. A few seconds of typing and suddenly your friends know what you’re doing, where you are and what you care about. This is amazing and it really helps us share our message and our lives. But speech isn’t just about literal words. When you hear someone, you always want to know why they’re saying what they’re saying. What are their motives? What’s their purpose? In face-to-face communication, we have all kinds of social cues, we can hear the speaker’s real emotions more easily and we’re more likely to get their motives right. But on Facebook, when the words come to us quickly without a context and, at best, with only a cartoon emoji, we react quickly and without reflection, and we tend to automatically presume that we know the writer’s purpose. Your friend shares that they’re on a plane to Melbourne. Why are they doing that? Are they boasting that they can afford a trip to Melbourne? Are they wanting their friends to rejoice with them that they’re going to a place of culture? Or is it a cry for help: there are no good beaches any more? Maybe they just accidentally downloaded an app that automatically posts whenever they enter an airport. We don’t actually know what their motives are, but we fill in the reasons. That can bring out the “old self”: it can inflame conversations. You tell me you’re on a plane to Melbourne. I envy you. I think you’re a rich snob. And so on.

vi. Manufactured authenticity

Sixthly, social media creates the paradox of manufactured authenticity. Facebook is a place to share your life. You can even share the little details. You have the opportunity to be honest, real and authentic. And that means, of course, that you can share how the truth about Jesus impacts your life. But it’s not that simple is it? Whenever you share something in this high-speed hyperconnected place, you have to think about how other people will take it. It’s going to be broadcast, after all! So how’s it going to come across? Are people going to read your motives correctly? Will people get the wrong idea? Will you make people sad or envious? You have to consider those things. But that means your authenticity needs to be calculated. That has a dark side: the actor George Burns once said, “In acting, sincerity is the key. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” In social media, sincerity is the key. And if you’ve worked out exactly how to appear authentic to other people—if you know how to get liked—if you can fake the cues so people really see how authentic you are—it’s no longer the truth.

vii. Controlled freedom

Seventhly and finally, social media is controlled freedom. Facebook gives you great freedom: you can see so many ideas and connect with so many people easily, at a click. It’s like flying. But we need to remember that Facebook is a highly controlled world. It’s like the Matrix movies: the premise of The Matrix is that sentient machines have placed humans in a gigantic virtual reality game where the humans live a virtual life, while the machines feed off their energy, using them as batteries. Facebook is bizarrely similar. This isn’t a conspiracy theory (I know Mark Zuckerberg isn’t actually a sentient machine). But we need to realize that Facebook is a business: it uses us. Facebook makes money by feeding off our conversations. Conversations create ‘energy’ for them—that is, clicks—which means advertising revenue. It’s not free; we are the product.4“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Andrew Lewis writing on MetaFilter, cited by Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You (Viking, Penguin, London, 2011), p. 21. The challenge for us putting off our ‘old selves’ is that angry, heated conversations generate even more energy for Facebook. They want you to talk outrageous drivel, because that’s more interesting and will get more conversations going, which will cause more people to click. They want things to be public, not private, and they’ll fight with you to make that happen, literally changing your privacy settings. And they will show you things—things not in line with the truth in Jesus—things they want you to click on.

b) Attitudes to social media

So the online world of social media is complex. Not surprisingly, people have reacted differently to it. On the one hand, there are the embracers—those who see the opportunities of social media: “It’s a new world, full of promise! It’s where people are at. We should embrace and use this media for all we’re worth!” Embracers take into account the opportunities, but they can be naïve when it comes to the challenges. On the other hand, there are the naysayers:5See chapter 3: ‘Harbingers of Gloom and Glory: Christian Responses to Media Technology’ in Andrew Byers, Theomedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Cascade, Eugene, Oregon, 2013, pp. 29-41. they see the world of social media as evil, twisting our message and our lives so much that it is pointless to be a part of it. The naysayers have a point: they see the challenges. But they don’t see the opportunities. Facebook has billions of users. It’s where people are at. Can we and should we leave this world behind?

Less extreme than the naysayers are the conscientious objectors—people who deliberately leave social media behind because it’s bad for them. There’s Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager who had half a million followers on Instagram, but who realized the drive for attention was consuming her, so she quit.6Elle Hunt, ‘Essena O’Neill Quits Instagram Claiming Social Media “Is Not Real Life”’, The Guardian, 3 November, 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/nov/03/instagram-star-essena-oneill-quits-2d-life-to-reveal-true-story-behind-images There’s Louis CK, who quit Twitter because it made him depressed.7Jon Blistein, ‘Louis C.K. on Why He Quit Twitter’, Rolling Stone, 16 April 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/louis-c-k-on-why-he-quit-twitter-20150416 There’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who deliberately don’t use social media.8Kate Dries, ‘Non-Social Media Users Tina Fey and Amy Poehler Cover Glamour’s “Social” Issue’, Jezebel, 1 December 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://jezebel.com/non-social-media-users-tina-fey-and-amy-poehler-cover-g-1745445433 Similar points are often made by Christians too.9Alan Jacobs, ‘My year in tech’, Snakes and Ladders, 23 December, 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://blog.ayjay.org/uncategorized/my-year-in-tech/ and ‘I’m Thinking It Over’, The American Conservative, 4 January, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.theamericanconservative.com/jacobs/im-thinking-it-over/; cf. Justin Taylor, ‘The 8-Point Social-Media Apostasy of Alan Jacobs’, The Gospel Coalition, 4 January, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2016/01/04/the-8-point-social-media-apostasy-of-alan-jacobs/ Running away from social media may well be something you need to do too. If that’s you, do it. You’re allowed to. There’s no law that says you have to be on Facebook (at least, not yet). Another reaction, which I think has a lot of merit, is the ‘disciplined user’: these are people who don’t see social media as inherently evil, but realize we need to regulate it and discipline ourselves to not have too much of it.10John Dyer, ‘New Year’s Technology Resolutions of the Internet Famous’, Don’t Eat The Fruit, 5 January, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://donteatthefruit.com/2016/01/new-years-technology-resolutions-of-the-internet-famous/ They advocate practices including removing apps from our phones, not being connected all the time, keeping the smartphone away from the bedroom, and taking whole days off social media to enjoy the sunshine. If you take this approach, I think you could go a long way towards avoiding the pitfalls and making use of the opportunities of social media.

2. To speak Christian

But how exactly do we make the most of opportunities on social media? What does it mean to speak Christian in this online world?

a) The word of truth

Ephesians has a lot to tell us about what it means to speak Christian. Firstly, it tells us that there is definitely something worthwhile to speak. In Ephesians, Paul calls this message, “the word of truth”. It’s a word that has come to Christians and turned their world upside down: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…” (Eph 1:13). The “word of truth” is another way of talking about the gospel. What is the gospel? First and foremost, it’s a message about salvation: it tells us that there is rescue and relief from something. What are we rescued from? Ephesians 2:1-10 says we’re rescued from the futile life of this world, from our sins and the greed and envy of this world, from God’s wrath against our sin, and from being under the control of the powers of this world. We’ve been forgiven through Jesus’ death for us; we’ve been made alive; we’ve been given a new life, which is secure because our true status is that we are actually seated with Christ, far above all rulers and powers; and we’ve been given a whole new life to live—in which to honour God and to walk and talk in new ways. This is the “word of truth” in Ephesians—the gospel message. And when Paul refers to ‘truth’ in Ephesians, he’s talking about this gospel message and the implications of that gospel message in our lives.11Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, pp. 473-474. How does this “word of truth”—this gospel truth—come? God has broadcast it to the world. But he didn’t broadcast it like a TV show; God doesn’t just beam the gospel into everyone’s heads. No, this gospel truth, in God’s wisdom, is broadcast through human beings. In a sense, God uses human beings as ‘social media’. Firstly, there’s Paul himself: he’s an apostle of God and he calls himself a “minister”, which actually means something like a ‘go-between’:

Of this gospel I was made a minister [or ‘go-between’]12John N Collins, Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990, p. 233; cf. pp. 77-132. according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ… (Eph 3:7-8)

But it’s not just Paul who brings this word of truth. In Ephesians 4, we see that Christ equips the saints for the ‘work of ministry’—that is, Christ creates a whole people who are to be a kind of social medium: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:11-12). Indeed, all Christians need to ready to act as God’s ‘social media’, knowing and speaking the truth: “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:14-15). We’re all commanded to be part of God’s great spiritual battle by wearing the “belt of truth”—that is, the gospel.

Furthermore, the command for us to put on those gospel shoes is about preaching the gospel, like in Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace”.13O’Brien, p. 477. At the end the Book of Ephesians, Paul returns to his special role as a mediator of the gospel. He asks the Ephesians to “[pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19-20). Notice how Paul feels the need to speak this message: the world is in darkness and in need of the gospel message. People need to hear that message in order to be saved from sin and God’s wrath, and in order to have life. This salvation comes by a message—a word. It’s a word that needs to get out there. It needs to be broadcast. And God uses people to do just that. By the way, notice how Paul also uses technology: Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a letter—an ancient social medium. Paul uses this ancient social medium to encourage his church and get this message to others. The same is true today: people need this message. That’s why Christians need to be online—or, at least, some of us do. There are real people in the online world, and these people need to hear (or read!) the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. If we Christians aren’t there with them, they will not hear this truth of the gospel. All they will hear is the ‘noise’—the endless frivolous chatter, the corruption of the old self. Social media creates opportunities for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to be broadcast and heard by people who otherwise might not know of him. Even better, it’s a medium that isn’t just for the ‘experts’; it’s for everyone to use. You don’t have to be a professional speaker to say something about the gospel of Jesus Christ on social media; you just need to know Jesus and speak. But there are challenges too: because anyone can use this medium, there are many opportunities for misinformation, slander, corruption, lies, degradation and worse to be given a voice, perpetuated and believed. That noise can drown out the truth far too easily. The gospel is a message of peace—peace between people and God, and peace between one another. But Facebook feeds on controversy and drivel. Facebook fans the flames of anger, but tends to quench the words of peace. So it can be hard for the gospel to get a hearing. The challenge for us Christians is to try to speak the gospel online and make clear that the gospel opposes many of the world’s values, without getting caught up in the anger and needless arguments.

b) Speaking the truth in love

This leads us into my next point, which is summed up by an important phrase found in Ephesians 4:15. At this point, Paul is talking about what the truth of the gospel does to us when we hear it and believe it: the gospel doesn’t leave us as isolated individuals; the gospel actually unites us to Jesus Christ and gathers us together into a church, which Paul describes as a body. That body is the place where the truth makes its biggest impact and grows:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph 4:15-16)

The phrase I’d like to focus on is “speaking the truth in love”. The original is actually “truthing in love”, but clearly the truth is a spoken message. Sometimes people use the phrase ‘speak the truth in love’ to mean something like ‘say true things in a nice way’. That’s not wrong, but “speaking the truth in love” is far more than that: that truth isn’t just any old truth, it’s the gospel. And “in love” isn’t only about the way we speak, it’s about the whole context and arena of our truth-speaking. It’s a network of loving relationships in the body of Christ, created by the love of God himself (Eph 1:4-5). This love of Christ is enormous and something that Christians need to grasp. Paul prays,

that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:17b-20)

So in Ephesians, the meaning of “speaking the truth in love” is more like speaking the gospel, speaking the implications of the gospel and speaking in a gospel-shaped way within the whole network of loving relationships characterized by God’s love for us in Jesus, which should be seen most clearly in the church, where that love is lived out in the presence of one another.14Ibid., pp. 310–312. Speaking Christian happens in the context of loving relationships.

c) Opportunities in the online world

i. Speak the truth

What opportunities does the online world create for us to speak the truth in the context of love? Well, social media creates connections for you. It’s not just broadcasting, it’s relationships: you have a network of relationships—‘friends’—and when you post, you speak into this context. Yes, it’s not the same as being physically present, and it has problems, which we’ve talked about a bit already. But it also gives people a connectedness that they might not otherwise have had—especially people who would otherwise be isolated by their location or life circumstances. I’m in touch with all sorts of people I would have forgotten otherwise, and in a small way, I have the opportunity to speak the truth in the context of these online relationships. Ephesians 4:25 says, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another” (Eph 4:25). What is “speaking the truth” here? In one sense, it’s just generally being honest.

But it’s more than that: we have to put away the ‘lie’ that the devil holds the world captive to—the lie of the world that life is found in greed and living for yourself. We don’t have to pretend any more; we have the truth—the truth that we were sinners under God’s wrath, that we have been saved by grace, and that we have a life that’s secure and found in God and a relationship with his Son Jesus Christ (Eph 2:3-5, 4:23-24). On Facebook, if you don’t have the truth of the gospel, you have to keep lying about yourself. You have to project an image to make people like you and commend you and to make you feel good about yourself. If you have the truth of the gospel, you can and should be honest—honest about the fact that you’re a failure and a sinner, and that life’s hard. But God’s shown you grace: you’re actually secure with Christ and that’s fantastic. You don’t have to do any photoshopping or airbrushing—either of your profile pictures or your life. You can speak the truth. I know Ephesians 4:25 seems to be talking more about speaking to fellow Christians. But that’s the beauty of social media: you can’t easily separate what you say to Christians from what you say to non-Christians. Facebook doesn’t respect those kind of boundaries. If you speak the truth, you’re essentially speaking the truth both to Christians and non-Christians. If you hide the truth, you hide it from both. But if you are just honest in light of the gospel, that’s powerful.

ii. Walk in the light

Paul also talks about this sort of behaviour—our actions and speech—as “light”:

for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. (Eph 5:8-12)

Like the world, the online world is full of darkness—darkened hearts that don’t know the love of God and haven’t experienced (or won’t experience) God’s love and the honesty and truth that it brings. But the truth of the gospel shines a big light on that darkness. Notice that it’s not just the gospel that’s called “light” here: we Christians are also called “light” (v. 8)! Light illuminates the darkness. On Facebook, simply speaking the truth—speaking about your life in light of the gospel—is like a light shining in the darkness. Posts of joy in the midst of sorrow—posts of thankfulness to God in the midst of darkness—are like opening up the curtains in a dark room and letting the bright morning light flood in. Light also exposes the darkness and shows it up. There’s certainly a place for speaking about an issue or getting involved in an exchange or a disagreement. But when you do, make sure that the truth of the gospel and your life in light of the gospel shines brightly. Ultimately it will be that light and not your clever arguments that will expose the darkness.

d) Challenges in the online world

This leads us into talking about the challenges of online speech. Ephesians talks a lot about the pitfalls for Christians—the traps and sins that stop us from speaking in a godly way. Firstly, there’s the challenge of not sinning in anger. In Ephesians 4:26-27, Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil”. We’ve already seen that part of the problem of online speech is that it is, in many ways, disembodied. Speaking the truth online in the context of loving relationships is harder, because the means of relating itself can be shallower. The socializing is mediated, the conversations are broadcast, there are misconnections everywhere and the non-verbal communication cues are gone. That makes anger so much easier—not just righteous anger, but sinful anger—anger at those people out there who are just wrong. Ephesians tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger. In other words, don’t let the anger fester. Sometimes that means stopping our involvement in an online conversation and maybe picking up the phone or arranging a personal chat. At the very least, it involves praying and remembering that we are all sinners in need of grace.

Secondly, there’s the challenge to be mindful of others. In Ephesians 4:29, Paul writes, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear”. Notice his emphasis on thinking about others when you speak. This is other-person-centred speech: you are not thinking of yourself, but of what is good for others. This is a huge challenge in the online world, because the ‘others’ aren’t physically present, so it can seem like it’s just you. Your selfishness can take over. You just want to look good. You just want to be liked. But as Christians, our motivation in speaking is not to make ourselves look good; it’s to help and build others through our speech. That means we might not be liked. Not being liked: that’s the worst possible fate on Facebook! But the gospel reminds us that we don’t need to be liked on Facebook! People who crave being liked are insecure. We’re all emotionally insecure in some way, but the gospel reminds us that in actual fact, we’re as secure as we can possibly be, because God has loved us and rescued us. We’re not just ‘liked’ by God, we’re loved by God. We’re seated with Christ above all rulers, above all authorities and above Facebook—above the people we fear and the people whose attention we crave. So when you post and comment, pray and consider why are you doing it? Is it to build others up and give grace to those who hear? Your security in Christ means you can do that. This is a very serious matter: if you are not speaking to build others up, you are actually grieving the Spirit. Consider the next verse: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30). If we are not speaking to build others up, we are not speaking in line with the word of truth—the gospel, through which the Spirit came to us in the first place. Isn’t that a terrible thing! A clear way to ensure that we’re speaking to build others up appears in the next few verses: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:31-32). Please consider printing these verses out and putting them on the back of your phone or on your computer screen. Then before you post or comment, just run it by these verses. Are you being kind? Or are you bitter? Are you angry? Are you seeking to slander someone? We need to be different in this regard. Instead of grieving the Spirit by our speech, we should be filled with the Spirit in our speech:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… (Eph 5:18-20)

Our singing, prayer, thanksgiving—these are forms of speech too, and what Paul says about them also applies online. Christians talk different; we should be seen and heard as people who talk different.

e) Learning to speak

So how can we learn to speak the truth in love in this online world? Here are some further ideas arising from what I’ve said above:

  • Remember that you are speaking to people and that you are in some kind of relationship with them. The online medium might make them seem remote, but they are still people.
  • Speak out of a desire to love, not a desire to be liked. That can be very hard. But you can only really do it if you have security in the gospel.
  • Slow down your speech. Facebook doesn’t want you to slow down; they want fast-paced action. They want controversy. They want speed. You don’t have to play their game.
  • Before you post or comment, make a habit of showing a trusted friend or your spouse (if you have one) what you’re going to post or write. They can often see things you might not see.
  • Break out of the medium. Take the red pill and leave the Matrix. Go offline. You’re still officially allowed to. There’s no law yet that says that if somebody says something on Facebook, you have to respond on Facebook. There are still other media in the world: give the person a call. Offer to meet. Send an email. Speaking the truth in love can mean affirming the relationship by a voice on the phone or a bodily presence.

I want to finish with a reminder from Ephesians. It’s a reminder that we’re engaged in a spiritual battle, and the gospel, the truth and the word of God are key weapons in this battle. A friend of mine who had been bullied online once described Facebook as the pit of hell. In some ways, it is. But it’s not because Facebook is particularly possessed by Satan; it’s because Facebook is just a part of the world, and the world is temporarily under Satan’s control (Eph 2:1-3). But we have these weapons: the word of truth, the gospel of peace, righteous lives changed by the gospel. We have the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, and we pray at all times in the Spirit (Eph 6:10-20). Facebook is a great place to wield these weapons.

Our next event:

“The elusive joy of Christian community” with Chase Kuhn and Tony Payne, Wednesday 27 February 2019 at Moore College.

Read. Watch. Listen.

References   [ + ]

1. To view the talk online and the rest of the talks from ‘Learning to speak Christian in an online world’, visit https://www.moore.edu.au/ccl/learning-to-speak-christian-in-an-online-world
2. There are a bunch of things I’m not going to do in this essay—partly because they’ve been done so well by other people, for example:
Tim Challies’ The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2011) presents an excellent overall theology of communication, as well as how to avoid some of the personal spiritual pitfalls of online communication.
Peter Tong has written an excellent essay on how to do theological debates in ‘Doing Theology in a Digital Culture’ (Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s ‘Hearing Her Voice’, edited by Peter G Bolt and Tony Payne, Matthias Media, 2014).
For advice on protecting children, see James P Steyer, Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age, Scribner, New York, 2012.
And you can find some great wisdom in Steven Kryger and Andrew Cameron’s ‘From the Archives: Face to Face or Facebook’, Centre for Christian Living, 15 February, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): https://www.moore.edu.au/ccl/ccl/14-02-2016/from-the-archives-face-to-face-or-facebook
3. Steve Kryger and Andrew Cameron, ibid.
4. “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Andrew Lewis writing on MetaFilter, cited by Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You (Viking, Penguin, London, 2011), p. 21.
5. See chapter 3: ‘Harbingers of Gloom and Glory: Christian Responses to Media Technology’ in Andrew Byers, Theomedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Cascade, Eugene, Oregon, 2013, pp. 29-41.
6. Elle Hunt, ‘Essena O’Neill Quits Instagram Claiming Social Media “Is Not Real Life”’, The Guardian, 3 November, 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/nov/03/instagram-star-essena-oneill-quits-2d-life-to-reveal-true-story-behind-images
7. Jon Blistein, ‘Louis C.K. on Why He Quit Twitter’, Rolling Stone, 16 April 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/louis-c-k-on-why-he-quit-twitter-20150416
8. Kate Dries, ‘Non-Social Media Users Tina Fey and Amy Poehler Cover Glamour’s “Social” Issue’, Jezebel, 1 December 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://jezebel.com/non-social-media-users-tina-fey-and-amy-poehler-cover-g-1745445433
9. Alan Jacobs, ‘My year in tech’, Snakes and Ladders, 23 December, 2015 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://blog.ayjay.org/uncategorized/my-year-in-tech/ and ‘I’m Thinking It Over’, The American Conservative, 4 January, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.theamericanconservative.com/jacobs/im-thinking-it-over/; cf. Justin Taylor, ‘The 8-Point Social-Media Apostasy of Alan Jacobs’, The Gospel Coalition, 4 January, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2016/01/04/the-8-point-social-media-apostasy-of-alan-jacobs/
10. John Dyer, ‘New Year’s Technology Resolutions of the Internet Famous’, Don’t Eat The Fruit, 5 January, 2016 (viewed 12 May 2016): http://donteatthefruit.com/2016/01/new-years-technology-resolutions-of-the-internet-famous/
11. Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, pp. 473-474.
12. John N Collins, Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990, p. 233; cf. pp. 77-132.
13. O’Brien, p. 477.
14. Ibid., pp. 310–312.
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