By Michael McCann
Let me clarify from the beginning: I am addressing these comments to followers of Jesus who, accordingly, take seriously their calling as disciples to reach out to those who don’t know Jesus and lead them to become his disciples as well. Everything below is slanted toward that end. If you are not committed toward that end, these suggestions will be irrelevant to you.
Social media can be fertile ground for toxic conversation, and it often bleeds over into face-to-face encounters. Someone might say, “That is my social media persona, but that isn’t the real me.” Yet Jesus made it clear that what proceeds from our mouth originates in our heart. The same can be said of the words that spring forth from our heated fingers as we engage in challenging and sometimes emotional discourse.
I do not claim mastery of this topic, but I have made observations from my experience—both from my wiser and my more foolish interactions—and I have studied the engagements of others. From all these observations, I have noted seemingly predictable patterns that can lead to potential openness and fruit . . . but also patterns that seem to lead quickly and directly to the gutter.
And so I suggest these guidelines for interacting with those who seem thick-headed and unable to pick up on what seems to you to be obvious . . . and those who seem to be belligerent and unwilling to consider a different angle . . . and those who are mean-spirited and seek to hurt your feelings or damage your reputation.
But first, I want to emphasize this important point: Your attitude, behavior, and style of communication with the types of people just mentioned affect not only them, but can have continued influence on those who are “eavesdropping” on the conversation. How you interact with others can play a significant role in either attracting them to Jesus or repelling them from Jesus and the gospel.
Fruit from Spirit-led interaction often springs not from the person with whom you happen to be conversing, but from those on the sidelines who happen to be interested in the discussion. Every conversation has the potential to bear extended fruit for Jesus, as well as collateral damage among those who are listening in.
Before I begin, I should say I am indebted to an article by Bill Muehlenberg, based on Proverbs 26:4, 5, which led me to reflect on applying these verses. I suggest these guidelines for having influence in these controversial conversations. (There are many more that could be listed.) These are directed not so much toward content, but attitude, style, and behavior:
1. Ask God to search you and know your heart and to give you his wisdom from above. Then believe he will.
2. Check your heart and make sure it is seeking God’s glory, not your own personal esteem . . . and that you genuinely have Christ’s love for the one with whom discussion is difficult.
3. Learn to listen to what the other person is trying to say, not just what you think he or she is saying. Listen with your heart and ask God to help you sense his or her emotional and spiritual condition. This insight can have rich dividends in loving them more wisely and communicating more effectively.
4. Resolve that success is not determined by whether the other person agrees with you, but whether you have represented God and gospel truth well in speech and conduct.
5. Focus on the key issue that seems most vital to help the individual see their need for Christ and to look to him and his Word.
6. Avoid unnecessary side disagreements that have no immediate effect on the person’s coming to faith or to understanding the truth.
7. Make it your goal that, in every encounter, the other person(s) will be moved at least one step closer to Jesus. Singles add up, and home runs are not always immediately available. Celebrate the singles as well as the home runs. And don’t assume that what you thought was a strikeout was, in fact, really a whiff.
8. Don’t push and push, trying to get the person to say “uncle.” Allow the Holy Spirit to take truth spoken and love demonstrated to soften calloused hearts.
9. Make it your goal that no matter what the outcome, the other person will sense something in you that attracts them to Christ.
10. Don’t apologize for speaking hard truth. But rather than blast, come alongside the person with both grace and conviction. Communicate boldly, wisely, and graciously.
11. Use wise questions to help the other person consider another angle.
12. Refuse to belittle or mock the other person or groups he may represent . . . even if the other person does so to you.
13. Remind yourself that, as Leonard Ravenhill has emphasized, he who fears God fears no one.
14. Remind yourself that it is not about you, it’s about Jesus.
15. Remind yourself that if they mock you, hate you, and falsely accuse you, you are secure in God’s love and need no one else’s affection, approval, or applause. These things, in reality, make you especially blessed, according to Jesus. Ask God to continue to make that clear to your heart, and in so doing, avert defensiveness or tail-wagging shame.
16. You don’t need to correct every error. You don’t need to answer every accusation against God or you. Keep pointing back to Jesus, his beauty, sufficiency, spectacularity, power, and love.
17. Acknowledge if you don’t know something. Don’t try to look smarter than you are. God doesn’t need a person with a PhD to change hearts.
18. Look for ways to follow up after a conversation or exchange . . . just a simple note thanking the other person for the discussion. Express care and concern even in the midst of disagreement.
19. Continue praying that the seed of God’s Word will penetrate the soil of the other person’s heart and become fruitful.
20. Pray for God to direct others into their lives to sow more spiritual seeds and/or to water what you’ve sought to plant in their heart.
21. Find your joy in the gospel . . . even when you have been rebuffed or ripped apart. God sees and he is honored that you have sought to honor him. Ask him to teach you from the encounter and help you gain further wisdom and skill.
22. There are times we may need to confront or rebuke . . . but those times should be very rare. And rebuke should be done only with sadness in our heart for the other person, not vengeance or meanness. I suspect what we label as our “righteous indignation” is more often the flesh in disguise.
23. Ask God to work in the hearts of those who were on the sidelines listening to or reading the discussion.
What are your thoughts? What would you add? What didn’t sit right with you from the suggestions above?
Michael McCann serves as senior minister at First Christian Church, Leesburg, Florida.