Navigating Conversations in the Digital World

“The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. For none now live who remember it.” ­– The Lord of the Rings

The world has indeed changed. If you’re a millennial, you were born with an iPhone in your hand. If you’re a little older you remember the days of pagers, landline phones, and a time when the internet didn’t exist. The world has changed and is changing everyday. The internet brought with it Social Media and brand new methods of communication. As with just about anything that exists, there are positives and negatives of using this platform.

Hashtags have served as a rallying cry for people of various ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and political parties to learn, defend, and promote their stances on numerous issues. Whenever hot button topics begin to trend or when we see conversations occurring in the digital world, what role should Christians take? Should we rigorously defend the stance we believe is Christian? Do we remain silent and pray for people as they engage? Do we ignore the conversations altogether because they don’t apply to our life experiences or ministry context?

I want to offer three suggestions on understanding and navigating conversations in the Digital World.

1. Observe.

As with any good mystery, detective show, or bible study, observation is key. When topics pop up or trend on Social Media, before you jump in to correct people where they are wrong, observe the conversation. As in the physical world, so to in the digital world a post on a Social Media platform is in response to something. Before we respond online, recognize we too are stepping into a pre-existing conversation. It can be in response to an event or series of events, a personal conviction of the author, or the tip of the iceberg of a deeply cherished worldview. There is a history behind every tweet, every post. Before we provide answers, we must be sure we understand the issues and the context in which the issues are being raised. Take a look at the original post and glance at some of the varying responses. How many affirmations or critiques have come from it? Are there similarities or differences between the groups that disagree (i.e. are all the men for and women against, mostly people of color on one side and the dominant culture on another)? Observation is important because it reminds us to approach digital conversations with a posture of humility where we seek to learn and grow together, rather than correcting people we think are wrong.

2. Contribute.

After making some basic observations, join the conversation. Especially in areas where there is tension across ethnic lines, silence destroys cross-cultural trust. If you’re unsure what to say, feel the freedom to not write a dissertation. Affirm it’s a messy situation. Embrace Dr. Christena Cleveland’s words at Urbana 15, “Tell me more,” and invite people to share what items have led them to their particular stances. Feel free to share your opinion as well, but be sure to stay engaged. This can be difficult for anyone who may be perceived as having a dominant stance, particularly men if an issue that pertains to women is raised, or people in the dominant culture when issues are raised by people of color. A mentor once told me, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.” As you contribute, be mindful of the power your ethnic group, gender, organizational status may have. You have power and a social media history—whether you know it or not. Be sure to contribute in a way that considers others better than ourselves and, again, has a posture of humility that seeks to both understand and be understood.

3. Transform.

Ultimately, I believe the goal of Christian witness in any digital space is to be an agent of transformation for the kingdom of God. We are not online to announce Christians are present—we are there to model healthy conversations. We should be leading in peaceful disagreements, reconciliation, and responding to crisis with grace, compassion, words of hope and healing. It may take an hour, a week, or a month, but hopefully the people we engage in dialogue with online should see something different about how Christians embrace the world in digital spaces. The posture Jesus took was that of a servant (Philippians 2) and the end result was the transformation of the world. He invites us to do the same. Serve people in digital dialogue. Apologize first if an offense occurs. Digitally defend orphans and widows—or those being trolled—whether we completely agree theologically or not. (Jesus’ defense of the woman caught in adultery came before her repentance.) Consider where light and salt needed to be added to the conversation, where the gospel is not merely proclaimed in 140 characters, but is lived out by example in your interactions with other people.

Social Media platforms are being invented everyday (two more will be published by the time you are done reading this). As Christians, we can either be against ministry in digital space or we can embrace the changes on the horizon. People are becoming more and more honest online—whether in video game chat rooms, social media apps, or blogs. Their honesty on any issue is an invitation to be the gospel of Jesus. We can proclaim Good News to people no matter the circumstances…and we can sometimes do it in 140 characters.