Come, follow me (Loving others in the digital age)

Some days I lament that I spend more time cultivating a digital presence than personal Godliness. I have thus, with a disconcerting mix of eagerness and uncertainty, come to accept the continued digitalization of the world in which I live. One thing I am certain of is the need to think seriously about how to live as a follower of Jesus in the digital age.
The following is based on a seminar Andrea delivered at the Barneys Broadway weekend away this year.

I am a member of the most technologically connected generation that has ever existed. Both a child of the technological revolution, and one caught up in its persistent expansion, the future I imagine is a thoroughly digital one. Australians in particular are among the most connected people in the world: not only to each other, but also to those beyond our shore. News, fashion, money, culture and ideas have never treated the sovereign border with more contempt than in the 21st century. Tweets of 140 characters have fanned the flames of political uprising, apps have been created for every possible area of life, and society increasingly operates in acronym. Some days I lament that I spend more time cultivating a digital presence than personal Godliness. I have thus, with a disconcerting mix of eagerness and uncertainty, come to accept the continued digitalization of the world in which I live. One thing I am certain of is the need to think seriously about how to live as a follower of Jesus in the digital age.

Following Jesus means submitting every aspect of our live to his Lordship. Our online behavior, just like our ‘real-life’ behavior, is no exception (#SorryNotSorry). I have six practical tips for how we can love others online:

  1. Don’t troll: A troll is someone that attempts (usually successfully) to de-rail the conversation from its intended purposes. Trolls typically throw something inflammatory into the online conversation and watch the whole thing implode. In essence, it is the deliberate creation of an argument. It is divisive by nature, it doesn’t facilitate fruitful conversations, and it serves no greater purpose than aggravation.
  2. Be quick to listen and slow to speak: We’ve all been here. You’re scrolling through your newsfeed, and then you see it. It jumps out at you from the screen. This THING that is just plainly incorrect. And our first reaction is to politely inform the person that they are at best misinformed, and at worst ignorant. However, we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. On one level, it’s because humility means to assume you don’t know everything. And on another level it’s because the perfect example of humility listened to those who came to him, before he made a judgment. Jesus asked questions, preferring ‘Who do you say that I am?’ to correcting those that called him a blasphemer, a sorcerer, and a criminal.
  3. Think before you type: A good discipline when using digital technology is to ask yourself: what are the relational consequences to what I want to say? Now this may seem simple, but we can fail in well-intentioned ways. For example, don’t post an article about substance abuse on the wall of someone who has told you (in confidence) that they are struggling in this area. It also means that we need to think about our tone on social media. The things we say and do on social media have a real-life, relational cost.
  4. Sometimes, silence is louder: If you engage with someone on social media that launches into a personal attack of your character, or on your faith, remember two things: the digital space, just like any other, is a space where we can be persecuted for our beliefs. And second, we are called to turn the other cheek. Sometimes, our silence speaks louder than anything.
  5. Ask yourself: does this love my neighbour? In part this relates to thinking through the consequences of what you say. On another level, it also means not participating in activities that do not love others. For example, joining groups or sharing posts that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or contain bad language. While we cannot win a battle to rid the Internet of these things, but we can choose not to participate in them. Perhaps the biggest issue for Christians in this area is viewing Internet pornography. Aside from not honoring God, it does not honor the people in the pornography, who are made in his image. As well as this, it feeds an industry that is also responsible for the exploitation of men, women, children, transgender, and intersex people. What you click on has relational and spiritual consequences.
  6. Put down your phone: When you are having a conversation, don’t be scrolling through your newsfeed. When you are having dinner, let the phone ring out. Opt for a phone call rather than a text to ask someone out. As I write, I realize that this is a huge rebuke to me and my life. I find myself continually checking my phone for updates, text messages, and ‘likes’. I realized that instead of finding my identity in Christ, I was looking to my facebook wall for digital gratification. Be content; don’t attempt to find meaning in your digital presence. And don’t – for the sake of Jesus – neglect your ‘real-life’ relationships.

Our engagement with this topic need not be limited to our behavior online. The Internet and social media is a great blessing through which we can engage our peers and the world with the gospel. Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press said this of his invention over 500 years ago:

“Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men. Through it, God will spread his word; a spring of truth shall flow from it; like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine among men.”

I think we would all benefit by having the same attitude towards the Internet that Gutenberg had about the printing press: a means by which God’s word will go out to the nations. In Gutenberg’s day the written word was the front door to the gospel for millions (and it still is). Today, though, the Internet and social media is the front door to the gospel for billions of digital users. And this varies from people that live in areas of the world that are hostile to the gospel, to people here is Sydney that feel uncomfortable walking through the doors of a church.

Albert Mohler says,

“The digital world is huge and complicated and explosive. It contains wonders and horrors and everything in between. And it is one of the most important arenas of leadership our generation will ever experience. If you are satisfied to lead from the past, stay out of the digital world. If you want to influence the future, brace yourself and get in the fast lane.”

The Church must not cease to be relevant to an always-changing world, because the gospel will always be relevant. While we cannot let the gospel be shaped by technology, we can shape our use of technology by the gospel. We can, by God’s grace, use it as a means through which God’s word can go out to all nations. Ultimately, we express our love for others in sharing with them the greatest act of love the world has ever seen: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.