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It was the kind of text, right before I went to bed, that one does not like to receive. A prominent Christian leader texted me a screenshot of a tweet I had published earlier in the day. It was 2016 and in the heat of a presidential race. My friend said my words had caused a stir and were being passed around to various leaders as a bad example of engagement.

Sigh. I knew he was right. And I took it down. This also made me reevaluate some of my social media activity. If you follow me, especially on Twitter, you know I like to mix it up and have conversations about the topics that always unite people: politics, religion, and the Cubs. But I’ve learned it’s not enough to speak the truth and engage important issues (baseball aside). There needs to be a distinctly Christian way for us to live online.

I’m far from perfect and some days I go to bed wondering if I’ve been too strong on a particular issue, if I’ve tweeted too much, or if I should have said something and didn’t. But I have a few principles that guide my interactions. Perhaps they will help you:

1) Have a plan

There are many wonderful books about social media and screen time. I think it’s good for us to take periodic breaks, and for many it may be wise to not be online at all. But for the vast majority, especially those who write or speak or lead for a living, social media engagement is necessary. The truth is that the Internet is not going away and we are not suddenly going to go back to the 1950s or become Amish. So, given that social media is a reality we have to deal with, how then should we live? First, we need a plan. What topics will you engage? How often will you engage? Who will you consult before posting on controversial issues? Who will you follow? These are important questions for everyone.

2) Remember you are a Christian, even online

The Bible urges believers to be outspoken about the truth of the gospel and to love our neighbors by speaking up for their welfare. But as much as Christians must use their mouths to speak (and in the 21st century, their thumbs), God also cares about how we speak. In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter urged believers to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” and to do this with “gentleness and respect” (ESV). In other words, not only does God care about what you say, but how you say it. Christians should speak the truth in a distinctly Christian way. You can be on the right side of an issue but on the wrong side of Jesus when it comes to your choice of words. It’s important to remember that even when you are playing in the rough and tumble jungle of the Internet, you are still a Christian.  

3) Be quick to get the whole story, slow to post, slow to Internet rage

The apostle James didn’t have Twitter and he wasn’t distracted by alerts on a smartphone, but he did have a few things to say about Christian discourse. Specifically, James 1:19 tells us that we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (ESV). That’s still good advice for the 21st century, but especially in our interactions online. We are so tempted to believe headlines and bad news about people and groups and public figures with whom we disagree, so much so that we are often guilty of posting incomplete information and spreading falsehoods. Instead, we should slow down and ask ourselves questions: Do I know the whole story? Am I sharing this because I want it to be true or because it is? Sometimes it’s wise to wait 24 hours or more to see if that salacious headline about your ideological opponent is actually true. Spreading rumors is a sin, even when we do it online.

4) Be quick to apologize when you get it wrong

We will not always get it right. We will sometimes tweet something that, upon reflection, was mean-spirited or perhaps we’ll post a story that turns out to be false. If we do that, we should be quick to apologize. Doubling down on meanness doesn’t make us any more courageous. It’s actually a sign of weakness. It takes strength—spiritual strength—to recognize when we are wrong.

5) Follow a variety of sources from a variety of perspectives

If we are not careful, we will cocoon ourselves into a bubble of information where we only hear from perspectives and opinions with which we agree. This is why it’s important to follow people from both sides of the aisle and get our news from multiple outlets. It’s also important to have friends, online and off, who challenge our assumptions a bit. If not, we can easily get catechized toward one perspective or toward one narrative. We shouldn’t be cynical, but we should be skeptical, asking questions, getting information, being informed.

6) End every argument with civility

Some arguments are best left offline in the privacy of a conversation, without the glare of onlookers and random people eavesdropping. But there is a place for public polemics, for back-and-forth conversations and arguments. I’ve had some heated discussions online with people who radically disagree with me on important topics. However, I try to do two things with my online arguments: ask myself if it’s fruitful and productive to keep going and always, always end in a civil way. A simple response of “You raise some good points” or “I can see where you are coming from” relieves some of the tension and also models for onlookers what civility looks like.

7) Don’t take yourself so seriously

Social media is important and can be a useful vehicle to fight for justice and create awareness, to inform and to be informed, but it doesn’t have to be all business all the time. The best people online are able to poke fun at themselves, to joke and have a good time, to talk about things other than the dire topics on the news every day. Humor, Proverbs tells us, is good medicine for the soul. You don’t have to have a furrowed brow all the time on social media. Share a funny meme or two. Crack jokes. Engage in light-hearted conversations.

8) Have a group of close friends who can hear your hottest takes before you publish them

I have a group of five close friends who I text with regularly. I can work out my hottest takes in this private community in ways that prevent me from embarrassing myself online. Sometimes I’ll even ask them about a potential tweet and see if they think it’s too over the top. Talking about controversial issues in community, however you do it, is wise before you post online. This is part of obeying the “slow to speak” portion of James 1:19. Sometimes your friends can save you from yourself.

9) Remember that social media is not real life

This is especially true for Twitter. Most of the online arguments that folks like me have are light years away from the real-life conversations regular folks are having. I’m always amazed when I go to church and realize that our people are not aware of ten out of the last ten controversies on Twitter. Social media can be a hive mind, an echo chamber. As important as the Internet is, it is not everything. So, make sure you take breaks, log off, and engage in conversations with folks who aren’t frothing at the mouth to be mad online.

If used properly, social media can be a great vehicle for connecting, discussing, and engaging. But far too often, our flesh gets the best of us and our use of technology is more a reflection of the world than the God we serve. Bottom line: as believers we are instructed to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). This is how we will save face and reflect our faith when using social media.

This article was originally written for The Brink Magazine.

Daniel Darling
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