Challenges for Online Thought Leadership in the Church
It isn’t easy following online Christian forums. Carefully crafted blog posts can quickly be reduced to babble when the comments begin.
A few posts ago, I addressed some issues raised online by a blogger associated with Christianity Today. I wrote the post on the 2×2 platform because the Christianity Today platform requires either subscription or registration to comment on the site. Multiple attempts to register failed.
I have significant experience with and therefore, I hope, something worth saying. In order to join the conversation, I had to address the topic on my own platform. A decade ago this would not have been possible. Pronouncements from church leaders could go unchallenged. Challenge will be a characteristic of the surviving Church. It may take some getting used to.
The dechurched are an important topic. The dechurched outnumber the churched.
Today I revisited the post I referenced a few posts ago and read the thread of comments that I could not join. I would have been surprised at the forum’s caustic tone if I hadn’t already noticed the tendency of religion blogs to get nasty quickly.
As one commenter noted, a nerve was hit. But the commenters took off in unexpected directions effectively derailing the topic.
How did this happen?
There was no agreement on the premise of the blogger’s topic. Readers were defining the key topic (the dechurched) differently.
Lesson to be learned: lay the groundwork for the discussion carefully.
Why does the Church have problems communicating on the web?
There are bigger lessons to be learned. Communicating on the web is different from the customary communication channels familiar to church people.
The Church is accustomed to operating in its own world. Dialog is characteristically peer-to-peer or pastor-to-parishioner. Some clergy rise to a level of respect that gives them extraordinary authority. Their words carry influence.
Laity, on the other hand, have a difficult time influencing. Call it the stained glass ceiling. All of this is normal in Christianity. It’s how things have been for centuries.
The Wild Wild Web lets everyone in. The potential for evangelism is magnified infinitely. However, it calls for new communication skills. Online religious writers must nurture the dialog. Less preaching. More teaching and listening.
Bloggers must recognize that everyone can access and read their posts. You may intend to reach clergy about parish problems. You may think that your audience has basic agreement. But on the web, your audience is much wider. You will be reaching clergy with diverse backgrounds. And another thing . . . When you take the discussion online, your parishioners can find the discussions. Write and engage accordingly. This is a good thing. We can learn a great deal from one another.
Lesson to be learned: Write as if your post is being read by a diverse audience—including the people who populate the back pew on Sunday morning.
Why are church bloggers so touchy?
For the first time, the laity have the ability to participate and initiate church dialog. They have been excluded from church dialog for a very long time. Perhaps clergy have some unwritten protocols for discussion. Laity will be unfamiliar with any such protocols. Laity will use the protocols from their experience, which have been established with longer experience with the web.
Let’s look at how this well-intended post got derailed.
The post was about ministering to the dechurched. The commenters couldn’t agree on what dechurched means.
The writer offered a definition.
By “dechurched” I mean people who were at some point either briefly or for a long time involved in a local church, but have not been active for several years.
Seems specific, but there is room for interpretation from readers who aren’t on the same page.
I read this from my experience. I imagined people who had been seriously hurt by their involvement in church—not just those who drifted.
Other commenters determined that the dechurched were — are you ready for this — Democrats. In the midst of a hotly contested presidential campaign, they saw political implications where none were intended. They saw the dechurched as actively in opposition to the Church of their experience.
In short, some writers saw dechurched as instigators while others saw the dechurched as victims.
The editor considered some of the comments to be grossly off topic and an abuse of the platform. The commenters thought they were on topic—or at least, in their experience, an extension of the topic. In the absence of a well-defined common ground, there is ample room on both sides for misunderstanding.
His only remedy was to threaten to block their participation.
The discussion quickly became defensive and smart-penned — opening the door for more misunderstanding. All this on a topic that was exploring divisiveness in the Church.
Here’s where the Church can learn from earlier adopters of the internet.
The online community calls persistently nasty commenters “trolls.” This view is dangerous in church dialog—especially on a topic that by nature is addressing division. Every dissenting comment should not be categorized as coming from a troll. Some may be the very dechurched people you hope to reach.
Dissent must be allowed. There must be a way of welcoming dissent while keeping the dialog helpful and civil.
The blogger/editor can set the tone. If the editor responds with sarcasm (difficult to interpret in writing), it will provoke.
Best Practices in Community Management
Here are some best practices in the business world for encouraging multi-sided dialog.
- Keep the community rules simple. This blog has a community guide that is six pages long. That’s long enough to be ambiguous even if participants take the time to read it.
- The editor or moderator should address offensive commenters offline. Public whippings discourage diverse contributions. Privately, the commenter and editor might find there is a misunderstanding—maybe even common ground.
- Check ego. Assume commenters have strong opinions for good reasons and are not attacking the editor’s words as vindictive sport.
- As author or editor set the tone. Assume the writer’s best intentions. Avoid sarcasm, which is difficult to interpret in writing.
- Be courteous to all. Lecturing some commenters while stroking those who applaud your view is creating a class system. Both should be done offline.
- Online religious bloggers should resist the temptation to censor—for their own sake. The unhappy serve a purpose in helping us define mission. Remember, many people have been excluded in church dialog for a very long time. Their venting may feed your future content. Officially censoring their view is reinforcing the hurt.
While the Church needs to develop best online practices, there is danger. If the protocols return us to the controlled forums that have defined the Church for centuries, the Church will lose the advantages of the web.
It doesn’t feel good to have your online arguments torn apart by commenters. But applause from the choir is not why thought leaders blog, is it?