By Tyler McKenzie
A recent Love Thy Neighborhood podcast detailed how fake news spreads in the church. They told a story from the 2016 election as a case study. On November 5, 2016, just three days before the presidential election, the Denver Guardian ran this headline: “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.” The article stated that FBI agent Michael Brown and his wife were found dead in their home. The web article looked legit. It included quotes from the local police chief, comments from neighbors, and links to online sources claiming it was a hit job by the Clintons. The top of the news website even had Denver weather information. The story made its way to Facebook and went viral. At its height, it was being shared 100 times per minute.
Later that day, the Denver Post ran this headline: “There Is No Such Thing as the Denver Guardian Despite that Facebook Post You Saw.” The Denver Post is the largest news outlet in Denver and . . . real. The article asserted that the Denver Guardian was not real. The FBI agent was not a real person. The whole story was fake. And just five days later, the Denver Guardian’s website vanished. It was too late though. The article had already been shared 1.6 million times on Facebook. The damage was done.
The story and website were concocted by Jestin Coler, who became known as “The King of Fake News.” The podcast detailed how Coler at one point was making $30,000 a month because he had perfected the art of creating click-bait fake news stories, building a webpage to make it look legit, launching it to the heights of virility on social media, and then selling ads to the highest bidder. This is a cautionary tale. The algorithms on social media are not Christian. They were not designed to promote truth and love. This is why we should not let social media pastor us.
It’s not just fake news royalty like Coler who know how to harness our outrage. The mainstream media knows this power too. They have discovered over four decades that two characteristics grab people: conflict and hate. If you can push both buttons with one story—a conflict involving people your audience hates—then the public can’t look away. Few things capture us at an emotional level like hearing about what sort of devilry those idiots on the other side of the aisle are stirring up now! The more outrageous, the better the ratings.
Many think journalism is dead because truth is no longer guarded and incentivized. Speed to market and scope of reach are now the highest values. You must be the first to break the story (even if it means sloppy reporting, insufficient sourcing, or occasional misinformation), and you must craft the story to get as many eyes as possible.
Politics is another example of an institution designed to feed our darker appetites. I have watched family relationships fall apart over whom people voted for. Commerce is another example. It ranges from companies that incorporate rainbow colors into their logo to those that hire controversial celebrities to represent their brand, to those that sell décor that promote nationalist thought.
That private companies or citizens have opinions isn’t what makes this toxic. That is their right. The toxicity lies in the warfare mindset that colors the news, the campaigns, the ads, and the storytelling. There’s a religious zeal to it all. It’s designed to make us combatants. It’s a zero-sum game over perceived moral imperatives, and you are morally reprehensible if you disagree. Take notice! We are being socialized at almost every level of life to join the fight and be divided. We breathe a toxic but invisible gas. Do you think after breathing this all week, our people are able to just turn it off when they step into their church communities?
I believe the American church has an incredible opportunity to offer the Divided States of America a vision of something it longs for—community with a loyal, knotted, caring, transcendent unity in something beyond us. To build this unity, I suggest three simple steps:
Stop Excommunicating People Over Secondary and Tertiary Issues
“Is what I’m struggling with essential or is there room for differing opinions?” We need to ask this question more and then offer our brothers and sisters a brand of tolerance that declares, “That which unites us in Christ is far greater than that which the world might use to divide us.”
Imagine four concentric circles. In the center circle we put the essential beliefs of our faith. We will call them beliefs to die for. In circle two we put denominational distinctives; that is, core beliefs we see as clearly attested to by Scripture but which denominations have split over because interpretations can vary. We will call them beliefs to divide over. In circle three we put beliefs which are ambiguous enough to not break fellowship over but which still should be wrestled with. We will call these beliefs to debate. In circle four we put beliefs that my dad always called “recreational theology.” We will call these beliefs to delight in. Our churches must do the hard work of prayerfully discerning what goes where.
The problem is that too many people are sending others to hell over the issues found in circles two, three, and four. I will admit, it can sometimes get gray on which issues go where. However, most of what we are fighting over are not circle-one issues. They may be serious issues, but they are not unforgiveable or damnable. It makes me sad when we break unity over positions that are essential to man but not to God. Until we become more thoughtful and tolerant about the gradations of unity, our tribes will get smaller and more fanatical, and the evangelistic potential of our unity will remain untapped.
Love Those with Whom We Disagree
In my role as a church leader, I have lots of difficult conversations about biblical matters that I know will end in disagreement. I start every conversation the same way, “I want you to know that if we disagree on this, I will still love you.”
Keep the Gospel of King Jesus Central
I once heard Tim Keller say our positions as Christians should both defy and commend our culture (no matter our time or place). We follow a different King. Submitting to his kingship should lead us to positions that awaken awe but also scorn. We must pursue the former and be courageous in the face of the latter, reminding our children and our churches, “God’s way is the best way, so his way is our way.”