Loving your (internet) neighbor

Given that there are currently over two billion active monthly users on Facebook alone, the question “who is my neighbor?” takes on a whole new dimension in a digital age. Neighbors that you might not ever interact with in a lifetime of world travel are now only a finger tap away on your computer or mobile device.

by Peter Slayton

When faced with the prospect of talking about your faith online, are you excited? Are you petrified? Or are you ambivalent, not sure how you feel? As social media manager for the LCMS, I spend much of my day lurking near the “bottom half of the internet” (also known as the comments section). What I see there encourages and discourages me in equal measures. The interactions that take place can be clear, beautiful confessions of our faith … or they can make me want to seek shelter under my desk until the violent storm has blown over. Many of my friends have given up social media entirely, because they are frustrated with the drama of it all. Although I’m not ready to abandon the feeds just yet, I do sometimes wonder if internet Christians are causing needless offense and doing more damage to our confession than good.

This is not to say that Christians should necessarily avoid offending at all cost. The Bible tells us plainly that the Gospel of Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Our confession of faith is offensive to those who are not Christ’s sheep. But it is also true that how we say something can be just as offensive as what we say. The Gospel is offensive enough on its own. Don’t let the way you treat your neighbor online add to that offense!

I’m aware that this advice is easy to give and hard to follow. Communicating well online is difficult. No one can see the expressions on your face or hear the tone of your voice. Your wit can be a liability if it comes across as mockery. Your directness can be misconstrued as arrogance and callousness. Even your humility can be misunderstood as sarcasm! Because of the disjointed and depersonalized nature of online communication, opportunities to cause offense are multiplied, and extra care must be taken.

Here, then, are three guiding principles that may help you better show Christ’s love to your internet neighbor.

1. Understanding is more important than winning

One of the most common causes of offense online comes when we are more concerned with making our point than we are with actually understanding what our neighbor is trying to say. Do you read and ask questions to understand your neighbor’s point of view? Or do you only wait for a break in the conversation so that you can scan for weaknesses and insert your own argument? Comment sections are notorious for this, because it is very easy to fire off a series of quick comments without giving your neighbor adequate time to reply. My advice: Slow down. Read your neighbor’s comment several times before responding to make sure you have understood it correctly.

Of course, reading a comment multiple times for meaning is only the first step in a civil exchange. Next, take stock: How are you asking your questions? Do you ask questions that are actually traps, seeking to point out all the holes in your neighbor’s position? If you do, congratulations! You’re like most of the internet. A better way is to listen and ask questions that will clarify your neighbor’s argument in your own mind — so that when your neighbor has made his point, you understand it well enough that you can reflect it back to him in your own words and lead him to exclaim, “That’s exactly what I mean! You said it better than I could!” This time-honored approach to dialogue treats your neighbor with dignity and respect, as a fellow human being created by God.

Avoid the strong temptation to look for shortcuts in this process. You will need time, patience and humility — three things notably absent from many online discussions — but if you seek understanding with respect, you will in turn earn respect. And you’ll need that respect if you are to continue in the discussion.

2. Confessing is more important than winning

When you talk about your faith online often, inevitably someone will make a theological statement which you know to be wrong. Because you took the time to earn your neighbor’s respect first, you now have an opportunity to challenge and gently correct him. Remember, though, that the manner in which you offer this correction has the potential to offend as much as the correction itself. Too often we think a clear confession means winning an argument. But the Gospel doesn’t need to be defended — as if it can actually lose. It only needs to be confessed! Your goal in this kind of conversation, then, isn’t to win, but to give a clear confession of the faith you’ve been given.

“Someone is wrong on the internet. I must correct them!”
– A typical social media user, acting under the assumption that winning is more important than confessing 

God’s Word is never wrong, but we humans often are. We need to be open about that distinction. Confidence in our own “rightness” can very easily appear as arrogance. (It can also actually be arrogance.) Even if you are convinced you are right, be open to the possibility that you may be wrong. If you realize that you are wrong, be the first to point it out and apologize. When you make an assertion, do so with humility. Your calling is to confess your faith “to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 PETER 3:15).

A clear confession is better than a winning argument. It’s also less susceptible to accusations of pride and arrogance.

3. In all you do, point to Christ

While the first two principles might make you a good online neighbor in any circumstance, it is this last one that makes your online discussions distinctly Christian: Make your clear confession all about Jesus. One of my favorite Lutheran sayings is that “all theology is Christology.” All of Scripture points to Christ. John 5:39 and Luke 24:27 (two of my favorite passages in Scripture) clearly show us where our theology begins and ends. What does this mean for our online discussions?

If, in the midst of a theological discussion, you are unable to demonstrate to your neighbor how the point in contention relates to Christ, then you have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Online or off, Christians confess Christ. It’s what we do.

If these guiding principles seem overly daunting, remember: There is no biblical command to be active on social media discussions. As a Christian, you are free to engage or walk away. Perhaps your personality or communications skills are such that you need to avoid online discussions entirely. There is no shame in that! If loving the neighbors in your digital proximity proves too difficult, it’s okay to focus on loving the neighbor in your physical proximity instead.

In the end, your confidence isn’t in your ability to make a good argument or “win the internet.” Your trust is in the Savior who died for you, who chose you in your baptism and who, through the Holy Spirit, renews your faith each day. When you fail to love your internet neighbor, you are forgiven. When you don’t even want to try to love your internet neighbor, you are forgiven. And that Gospel, that forgiveness, itself creates and renews your desire to love your internet neighbor because, while you were yet a sinner, Jesus Christ first loved you.

Peter Slayton is social media manager for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

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1 thought on “Loving your (internet) neighbor”

  1. Hi, I liked your article. Firstly, for pointing out that the people with which we interact online are our neighbors. I also liked ideas on how to measure your response, and that it is ok not to “defend” God’s position while on line. He can perfectly do it, right?! That gives me a lot of relief. Sometimes best to only offer your understanding/sympathy of pain or loss, and pray for them privately, than to try to change a heart that’s not ready. I also like the idea to honor the person by really trying to understand what they are saying, and to maybe reflect that back to them. Joy

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