By T.R. Robertson
I’ve dreamed of being a writer since I was just a kid, back in the 1970s. Being a writer would give me the chance to express myself, to share my thoughts and opinions.
Little did I know by the time I became a published writer, anyone with Internet access would be able to instantly publish his or her thoughts.
Social media enable everyone to have their say, whether insightful or spiteful, eloquent or ignorant. Twitter recorded 738 million tweets in the 10 days following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Social media drove the public perception of the event more than the traditional news sources.
The urge to put our ideas and opinions into print is not new to the digital age.
“What was will be again, what happened will happen again. There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing.”
That hot take on whether or not anyone ever really has anything new to say about anything is 67 characters long. Add a reference about who wrote it (Solomon) and where (Ecclesiastes 1:9, The Message), and you’d still be well within Twitter’s 140-character limit.
Solomon didn’t have to concern himself with character limits when he wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, but he was concise. Both books resemble collections of quick tweets about the hot topics of his day.
“This old chestnut. It’s like a racist-idiot 8ball got a Twitter account.”
This tweet, on a theme not that different from Solomon’s, was posted in response to another Twitter user’s rant about rioters in Ferguson. It uses a miniscule 68 characters, but it speaks volumes about the character of the person who made the tweet.
Of course there’s a difference between Solomon’s pithy proverbs and the 21st-century’s online viral viewpoints.
There also should be a difference between the social media presence of Christians and most of what the world puts out.
Anyone familiar with social media knows the quality of posts ranges from profound to trite to impolite.
Sadly, most of the Christian footprint on social media is either predictable or lamentable. Add the most-followed Christian personalities to your Twitter feed and you’ll see a daily stream consisting mostly of click-bait. Clicking the link takes you to their latest blog post. There you’ll likely find yet another “new” take on the ideas in their latest book or sermon series. You’ll also find a prominent link to the relevant Amazon page or podcast download.
Worse than the predictable posts are the lamentable ones. The currency of social media is the never-ending, constantly evolving online conversation about trending topics. This could be anything from the latest news out of Washington to the most recently leaked spoilers about an upcoming superhero movie.
In the rush to comment on those hot topics, there’s little time for reflection, deep thought, or second thoughts. If you wait, you miss the moment, and the fast-scrolling crowd leaves you behind. Timing is everything if you want to make your mark on social media.
At the recent Journalism Interactive Conference at the University of Missouri Journalism School, Annie Colbert, viral content editor for Mashable.com, advised people who want to have an impact in social media, “If you see a conversation happening, get in the conversation.”
Christians who are trying to jump into those conversations can easily fall prey to the temptation to say whatever it takes to be noticed.
Some of the most malicious online comments I’ve seen have been from Christians who claim to be representing the God of loving-kindness. I’ve frequently seen posts on Facebook and Twitter by fellow believers who say the worst possible things about President Obama. My suggestions that the president deserves respect even if they don’t agree with him are met with disparagement. The common response is, “When he shows respect for us, we’ll show respect for him.” I’ve yet to find a supporting Scripture for that approach.
Other tweets, posted by Christians eager to be noticed for their insight, seem to beg for ridicule from the Twitterverse, for example:
“The 7.8 magnitude earthquake near Lamjung, Nepal on 4/25/15 is a Warning of God’s Judgment against the government & town of Greeley, CO!”
Online resources like stickyjesus.com provide good advice to Christians who want to express themselves appropriately on social media. The Bible, a book written several millennia ago, also provides pertinent advice for being a person of God in the online mission field.
It’s not about getting noticed for what you tweet with your 140 characters. It’s about the godly character you express in the tweet.
David was a thought leader a millennium before the time of Christ. His 140th Psalm still speaks powerfully about how the people of God should conduct themselves online in the 21st century.
Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers; protect me from the violent, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day. They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips. Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent, who devise ways to trip my feet. The arrogant have hidden a snare for me; they have spread out the cords of their net and have set traps for me along my path (Psalm 140:1-5).
Eugene Petersen’s The Message makes those same verses sound like David was talking specifically about the social media environment:
They practice the sharp rhetoric of hate and hurt, speak venomous words that maim and kill. . . . Stuffed with self-importance, they plot ways to trip me up, determined to bring me down.
The anonymity of social media can bring out the worst in people. Hiding behind pseudonyms, they become enamored of their power to get a reaction. The Internet community calls them trolls. They lurk under the bridges of social media platforms, just waiting for someone they can attack.
The temptation is great to rise (or stoop) to the challenge presented by this ubiquitous atmosphere of confrontation. A believer has to decide between being a godly thought leader or a self-promoting opinion warrior.
The online actions of some Christians make it appear they believe the greatest commandment is to boldly share their personal opinions.
On the contrary, the highest purpose should be to lovingly glorify God and to lovingly win people to him, not to glorify your own thoughts and win arguments.
Nowhere in Scripture are we told we must form an opinion on every topic. And the greater purpose is not always best served by sharing the opinions we might have.
Some trending topics provide an opportunity for God’s prophetic mission. Others offer an open door for his mission of reconciliation and peacemaking. Neither is best served by using the world’s weapons, the sharp rhetoric of hate and hurt.
I say to the Lord, “You are my God.” Hear, Lord, my cry for mercy. Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer, you shield my head in the day of battle. Do not grant the wicked their desires, Lord; do not let their plans succeed. Those who surround me proudly rear their heads; may the mischief of their lips engulf them. May burning coals fall on them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise. May slanderers not be established in the land; may disaster hunt down the violent (Psalm 140:6-11).
David’s words stir the warrior’s heart in some believers and tempt them to provoke a confrontation. This is not what David is counseling.
He acknowledges the fire for the battle within himself, but he’s redirecting that zeal. Instead of attacking his adversaries, he pours his energy toward his prayers to God, who is able to fight his own battles.
One True Thought Leader
The goal is to point people toward God, not simply to make your point. Make sure you’re letting God speak for himself.
“I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. Surely the righteous will praise your name, and the upright will live in your presence” (Psalm 140:12, 13).
The best way to have a righteous influence on social media is to always reflect the character of the one true thought leader.
The effective social media missionary will live daily in the Lord’s presence. Cultivate a disciplined heart and a soul centered in him. With a character molded to reflect God’s character, his thoughts will increasingly become your thoughts.
Then you’ll instinctively respond to trending topics with the love of God, seeking justice for the poor and upholding the cause of the needy. You’ll use your 140 characters to spread the light and salt of God’s character.
T.R. Robertson is a supply chain analyst with the University of Missouri in Columbia and a freelance writer.