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Being salt and light online

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I am old and young enough to remember when the internet started becoming a staple in American culture. I remember the old AOL (a web portal and online service provider) CDs we used to receive in the mail offering free trials of access to the internet. (Doesn’t that sentence sound crazy?) I was active on MySpace and signed up for Facebook back when you were required to have a college email address.

The online and offline worlds have changed dramatically since the early days of the internet. I firmly believe these tools (the internet and social media) are just that—tools. Like hammers, nails and chainsaws, these tools can be used for tremendous gain or tremendous pain. I don’t believe they are inherently good or evil. But how we use them says a lot about who we are as people and who we are as Christian leaders.

Sadly, when it comes to unhealthy online behavior, many of us (me included) often fall into the same traps as our non-Christian friends and neighbors. We’re called to be salt and light to this troubled world, but I fear on some days we’re known for simply being a little too salty.

The online, connected world provides many promising opportunities. What if we, as devoted followers of Jesus, turned the tide with our online behavior? We have platforms and opportunities to share the gospel for which saints of the past would yearn. How can we best utilize the internet and social media to share the love of Jesus?

We’re called to be salt and light to this troubled world, but I fear on some days we’re known for simply being a little too salty.

What does healthy online living look like for the 21st century Christian? In our divisive culture full of outrage and misinformation, here are three tips from your friendly neighborhood millennial web designer.

1. Do some research.

Years ago, a used car salesman told me, “If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.” These are wise words, both for buying a car and for living our lives online. This is my biggest tip for healthy living online today: Don’t believe everything you read online—especially if it seems too good (or too weird) to be true.

The best and worst thing about the internet is that anyone anywhere can publish whatever they want any time. This makes the internet—and more specifically, social media—a great and horrible thing.

No one proofreads the internet. You can say whatever you want online with very little consequence, as long as you’re not breaking any laws. Lying (usually) isn’t against the law, and the internet is full of lies. A lot of your Facebook news feed is probably full of articles that aren’t true.

At the time of this writing, the url absolutelytruefacts.org is available for purchase. If you wanted to, you could buy this web address for $9.99 and do whatever you’d like with it. You really don’t need any training or coding knowledge, and there is no fact-checking required to publish anything on the internet.

Don’t be deceived by outrageous headlines. Instead, we would be wise to learn from the Berean Jews described in Acts 17. When they first heard teachings about Jesus, they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (v. 11).

This process of truth-seeking is a valuable trait for modern Christians. If you see a headline that sounds intriguing but a little far-fetched, don’t accept it at face value. Don’t “share” or “like” it without reading the article. Take an additional five minutes and do a quick Google search. See what other people are saying about the topic. Read an article from an alternate worldview than yours and see what they have to say.

In the sea of misinformation and fake news, do the hard and responsible work of finding the truth.

2. Be kind.

Have you heard the term “keyboard warriors”? These people spend a lot of time commenting on articles, social media posts and YouTube videos. In my experience, these comments are rarely nice. The culture of the internet doesn’t seem to reward respect, kindness or intellect. It doesn’t take long for the comments section on just about any website or blog to get toxic with wild accusations, name-calling, insults and crude humor.

The same is true on social media. I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own feed and maybe even on your own personal page. I know I’ve posted things in the past that led to heated he-said, she-said exchanges in the comments between people who don’t even know each other.

Sadly, kindness rarely goes viral. Do you know what gets the most likes and shares? Outrage. Headlines that attack our core beliefs and strike fear in our hearts tend to spread very rapidly. Content creators know their posts will spread far and wide if they can get people angry. And it works.

If we’re honest, I think a lot of us in recent years have felt a responsibility to share the truth online. And when people inevitably disagreed, we stood up and corrected them. And here we are.

Sadly, kindness rarely goes viral. Do you know what gets the most likes and shares? Outrage.

I’m learning that most of us tend to overestimate the influence of our social media comments and underestimate the impact of our kindness. I can’t think of a single time over the last 20 years when an angry or overly opinionated Facebook comment impacted my worldview or changed my mind on a controversial topic.

Do you know what does change my mind?

Kind people who love me and take time to invest in me. The long, hard, boring work of simply being a good person is much more effective than an outraged social media comment—every time.

Don’t get sucked into the keyboard warrior vortex. We have enough of those. Mature Jesus followers can learn to let the tides of social media wars rise and fall, while they choose to do the hard work of maintaining a calm and inviting presence.

3. Take it offline.

The internet and social media still feel like relatively new tools. But honestly, they’re not that different from other communication tools humans have been using for several thousand years.

In fact, you could argue that the early apostles were among the first major “influencers” of their time. Paul, John, Peter and the other authors of our New Testament weren’t posting reels and stories for the early church, but their letters are actually very similar to our social media usage today. These authors are individuals writing a message intended to be read by a large audience—often living many miles from where they were writing.

I find it interesting that 2 John and 3 John end in a very similar way. In both books, John writes, “I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to write it with pen and ink. For I hope to see you soon, and then we will talk face to face” (3 John 1:13-14). He uses these same words at the end of 2 John, but this time he adds, “Then our joy will be complete” (2 John 1:12).

John recognizes that some discussions are just better in person. Even with all the latest advances in technology, there is still no substitute for sitting across the table from someone, looking in their eyes, sensing their body language and probably sharing a meal or a cup of coffee. This atmosphere tends to invite true community and meaningful relationship. These tables and coffee shops, dorm rooms and living rooms are where real, deep, meaningful change is possible.

Social media is great for sharing photos, memes and updates from your life. These outlets are great tools for communication when handled properly and responsibly. But the real stuff—the good conversations that lead to life and encouragement and knowledge and growth—those tend to happen best offline.

And when you have these conversations, “your joy will be complete.”

So may we become known as those kinds of Christians. It’s certainly harder, it may not be as fun, and you may not get as many likes. But I believe this grounded, centered approach to online communication is the narrow road that leads to life. No AOL CDs required.

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