As expats living far away from our home culture, we feel disconnected at times from Christian life back in Canada. I’m not complaining. That’s the choice we made when we decided to follow Jesus’ call on our lives and become missionaries. God has blessed us with many wholesome, refreshing, and deep relationships in the Japanese church, and we feel that we’ve received so much more than we’ve given up.
Being so far away, sometimes our only glimpse of the Western Christian church is through social media. A couple of months ago, Peter pointed out, “For the first time we’re experiencing the Western church from the same viewpoint as people who aren’t Christians experience it—from the outside.”
This is true because we’re only exposed to statements made on social media, etc., without actually going to in-person services and experiencing the “personal touch” of the Christian church. If there is Christian love being shared in virtual services and prayer meetings, we don’t know about it. The only thing we see is what’s posted on social media—and at times, it’s pretty horrifying.
Our actions on social media are just as much a part of our lives as our actions out in the “real world”. In fact, our thoughts and attitudes are key drivers for our later actions. This means the attitudes that we adopt on social media are quite likely to translate into attitudes and actions we carry out in the “real world” later.
As Christians, we are under obligation to submit ourselves to the lordship of Jesus, and allow Him to have a say in every thought, attitude, and action. So, today, I’d like to take some time to tell you about a few principles that I like to follow when I’m interacting with people through social media. These aren’t “rules”. They’re just things I keep in mind when deciding what’s the most godly approach in the sphere of social media. Perhaps you’ll find them useful too.
1. Routine self-examination is key
Here are some questions I like to ask myself as I scrutinize my online behaviour:
- Am I doing anything to propagate hate, whether towards people of different cultures and beliefs, or towards people who share my beliefs and culture but have disappointed or wronged me in some way?
- Am I doing anything to celebrate sinful behaviours and attitudes?
- By watching my life and behaviour, would someone else be emboldened to sin in some way?
- Through my words and attitudes, am I spreading discouragement and/or engaging in self-pity?
- Am I being honest? Am I “doctoring” the image I present on social media to appear as though I’m richer/thinner/more fulfilled/better than I really am?
- Am I acting with self-control or am I engaging in emotional immodesty, sharing every thought and emotion that passes through my mind and heart?
2. I am responsible for what I post
If I post something, I have a responsibility to moderate it. If things are getting too out of control, I should be willing to delete my post. I have a responsibility to not insert more evil and ungodliness into the world.
3. I cannot separate my role on social media from my other roles in “real life”
If I’m a pastor or missionary, anything that I post personally will reflect back on my ministry, and on the people I’m ministering to. Whenever I post something, I try to think of who might see it. This might include people inside my congregation, as well as people outside of my congregation.
Let’s do a thought experiment, using the current pandemic as a case study. If I post something that rails against yet another shutdown, how might this impact a nurse in my congregation who’s been recently struggling with suicidal ideation because her hospital is overrun with COVID patients, and she’s completely overwhelmed and depressed? If I’m her pastor, and she sees my post, what will be the effect on her?
How might this same post affect the person who’s outside of my congregation and not a Christian? He might be holed up in his home, terrified for his life, with none of the hope of salvation and fearlessness of death that I have. How will he react to my disregard for his terror in favour of my own “rights”?
Of course, pastors and missionaries are not the only ones whose online lives are fused with their ministries. As Christians, we each are called to lives that reach out and love our neighbours, serve the poor, and proclaim the good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. How will our decisions on social media influence the way that our neighbours experience what it means to be loved and forgiven?
4. I have a responsibility to the truth
There are loads of lies floating around the internet. We cannot afford to believe everything we read. We need to be willing to put in the work to determine whether the information we come across is real or not—before we repost it! (I’ve written more about this here.)
Fact-checking websites, such as snopes.com, are helpful in debunking many of the lies that are floating around.
If I can’t find my issue listed on Snopes, I might try going to original sources. I carefully read the “information” presented (until I verify it, I try to treat it as questionable), and take note of names and places that are listed. If someone is mentioned as being a professor with Kyoto University, are they actually listed as employed on the university website? Are there articles from legitimate news sources (e.g., the CBC, The Globe and Mail, The Japan Times, etc.) backing up the claim? Keep a sharp eye for any mention of “sponsored content” in an article. If it’s sponsored content, it can’t be treated as legitimate. Anyone can pay to put their viewpoint out there. The normal journalistic fact-checking standards do not apply to sponsored content.
If in doubt, I don’t repost. It’s better to be silent than to become known as someone who’s sucked in to every whacky conspiracy theory. If this becomes my reputation, then my Christian witness will suffer. People who aren’t Christians will come to think of my faith as yet another “conspiracy theory” I’ve bought into.
5. I cannot afford to turn off my brain when considering the issues
The Nobel prize winning psychologist, Daniel Khaneman, wrote a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow, which examines two different mechanisms for thought in the human brain. One, the “fast” system, is emotionally-driven and largely based on intuition. The other, the “slow” brain, is more plodding and logical. The fast brain enables us to make quick decisions when needed, and can be attractive because it doesn’t require much time and energy from us. But we should be careful about using it exclusively because it often makes certain equivalencies which can lead to serious errors.
People who rely on their “fast” brains for decision making tend to be more moved by “priming”—essentially, something in their experience predisposes them to act a certain way or display certain attitudes. The brain is extremely sensitive to priming, and without engaging our “slow” brain in decision-making, we’re at the mercy of advertisers, family members, and anyone else who might be interested in manipulating us and our decision-making for their own gain.
For instance, people who have been “primed” with money (e.g., looking at pictures of rich people or bags of money, or even a list of words commonly associated with money) tend to be more independent, self-reliant, and more selfish. They also display a greater preference for being alone. 
These same people, when primed with different images might display behaviours along an entirely different set of dimensions.
These days, many of us are in the habit of quickly scrolling through the various social media platforms. It’s important to allow ourselves to think—sometimes deeply—about the things we see, and not just take everything at face value. Some social media platforms have been exposed as performing psychological experiments on their users. If we refuse to engage our “slow” brains, we are at their mercy.
If we want to have some say over our destinies and decision-making, we cannot afford to exist only along the plane of intuition. We cannot afford to turn our brains off when we’re considering important issues that have the power to impact our futures.
That’s true in the physical realm, and equally true in the spiritual one. Some of Satan’s most powerful lies appear true at first glance. It’s only through careful thought and examination of our worldview through the lens of the Scriptures that we have any hope at all of unmasking the one whom the Bible calls the “father of lies”  and who “disguises himself as an angel of light” . It’s only through submitting ourselves, our ideas, and our decisions to our Heavenly Father than we can have any hope of living lives of peace and freedom rather than of slavery to our often-wrong instincts.
6. Call off the dogs
When engaging in debate over a contentious issue, it’s important not to attack others’ Christianity just because they hold a different viewpoint. Pride is at the heart of this sort of attack. Dare we really claim to have God’s ear when we treat our fellow man with derision and contempt?
Remember, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.” 
We are not the ones who decide who gets into God’s kingdom. (Thank God!) When we make derogatory comments about “supposed Christians”, we are essentially usurping the authority that is God’s alone.
My husband, Peter, points out another aspect to the “attack” mentality that we sometimes engage in. When we go to someone else’s country, we expect to adapt to that person’s culture, language, and customs. On the internet, we’re essentially entering the other person’s country, without knowing where they’re from or what their culture is. This lack of knowledge means that we’re unable to adapt to each other, and instead expect everyone else to be like ourselves.
This is not helpful or constructive. We could learn so much more by adopting attitudes of grace and compassion for the people “around” us on the internet. Perhaps we are the ones who are wrong, after all.
7. The command to love our neighbours and our enemies still holds
As I mentioned before, the way we act on the internet will have a direct impact on who we become in our “real” lives. If we say we’re Christians in “real” life, we have an obligation to act like Christians on the internet. This includes following Jesus’ command to love our neighbours , and also to love our enemies .
If you run across someone who’s acting like your enemy, don’t engage them on their own playing field. Don’t reciprocate contemptuous behaviour. It’s probably best not to engage with contemptuous people at all.
Remember, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”  Sometimes the softest answer of all is to gently leave a conversation after finding something loving to say to online enemies. Try to find the emotions under their words, and be compassionate towards them before your exit.
If someone is exhibiting anger, for example, keep in mind that anger is not a primary emotion. It’s usually a “big brother” emotion that’s protecting the more vulnerable feelings of sadness, fear, abandonment, or betrayal. 
If I’m leaving a discussion, I like to state that I’m leaving before ending with my soft answer. I’m often tempted to re-enter the conversation later, but my statement helps hold me accountable to my decision. It dissuades me from re-entering the fray.
Sometimes, I like to remember how distraught Pilate got at the idea of executing Jesus. And yet, Jesus spent more time in silence than in explaining Himself. Jesus’ silence convinced Pilate of His innocence. His silence and self-control were infinitely more powerful than words would have been.
Many people are addicted to having the last word. Being completely transparent here, I often feel the pull to be a little mouthy and say “one more thing” to put someone in their place. But I try to remember that I don’t want to be that type of person.
Instead, I try to let my soft answers speak for themselves. Over the years, I’ve found that they will echo on far longer than the last word.
 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2011), page 6 of 9 in chapter 4 (“The Associative Machine”).
 See John 8:44, NIV.
 2 Corinthians 11:14, ESV.
 Matthew 25:40,45, NIV.
 Matthew 22:39, NIV.
 Matthew 5:44, NIV.
 Proverbs 15:1, NKJV.
 Reconciliation consultant Marion Goertz, email message, May 12, 2015.