The growth of the Internet has given all of us the opportunity to reach and connect with people we would never otherwise meet. There are many places where people post what they believe on any number of topics, including issues related to faith and reason. Twitter, Facebook, Christian and non-Christian message boards; the choices are daunting. I get email all the time from believers who have been frustrated by their efforts to share what they believe, particularly when discussing issues of faith with non-believers. It can be brutal out there and the level of vitriol and passion is sometimes overwhelming. After taking a berating on-line, several people have written to ask if it is still wise to share what we believe on the Internet, given the nature of discourse that often occurs. I've also struggled with this, even as a Christian apologist! Given many failures and a few successes, I'd like to offer a few words of advice.
Our Wisdom Should Guide Our EvangelismBegin by remembering that there is a difference between engaging someone "on-line" and engaging someone "in public". I love it when people find me on-line as the result of some podcast or blog entry. I also love it when they want to dialogue about something I've said or written. But this dialogue does not necessarily have to be public. I typically invite people to interact via email once they've discovered me on-line. Its important to be wise about how I interact with people and remember that not everyone is motivated by innocent intentions. Wisdom in this area tells me that many people are less interested in the issues than they are in the publicity or platform. An invitation to discuss the matter privately via email eliminates those who are motivated by something other than an honest desire to discover the truth. Sadly, many people who would love to argue with me publicly are uninterested in an honest exchange privately.
Our Theology Should Guide Our EvangelismI also have learned that what I believe about the nature of salvation has a huge impact on how I interact with people on-line. I believe that Scripture clearly teaches that God must first remove the enmity that someone has toward the things of God before that person can evaluate the evidence for God reasonably. In our natural state, we resist the truth about God. We are rebellious, fallen human beings. Given that this is the case, it would be wise for me to limit my interactions to those people who God has already started to call. These people will be easy to recognize, because they will have questions rather than proclamations; they will be seeking rather than pushing back. You probably won't see them trolling around the angrier atheist message boards and websites, but they may seek you out on sites that you host or frequent. The apostle Peter wrote about such people and described them as those who will ask you to give an account for the hope within you (1Peter 3:15). Peter told us to be ready to give a defense, and this defense is appropriate when people are seeking. It's our job to be sensitive to this evidence of God's calling on their lives.
Our Time Constraints Should Guide Our EvangelismBut before we begin to engage people on-line we need to be honest and realistic about our ability to contribute. If you've ever tried to consistently express yourself and communicate complex ideas with written language, you already know how demanding and time consuming it can be. There's a reason why I seldom engage people on our Facebook fan page. I know my own time constraints. If someone is truly struggling or seeking the truth, I will sometimes ask for a phone number rather than type 1,000 words in an effort to communicate my heart on a matter. This is also another reason why I seldom allow comments on my blog posts; I know I don't have time to do justice to an open dialogue after a post. When someone voices an objection to something you've written on a website, it's important for you to take the time to respond. An unanswered objection appears to be an unanswerable objection, even when the truth was simply that you didn't have the time to respond. If you don't have the dozens of hours that most of these on-line conversations require, don't jump in. Don't start something you can't finish.
Our Character Should Guide Our EvangelismFinally, remember your Master. Remember whom you represent. Remember that character is important in these conversations. I know this sounds like an simple one, but you and I both know how easy it is to get sucked into a fight. In case you haven't already noticed, on-line debates about spiritual matters can be vicious. Sadly, I've seen it get ugly on both sides, although to be fair, it is usually far more cocky and vulgar on the atheist side of the ledger. But if you don't have the character and patience to withstand the ready temptation to "give as good as your getting," stay away from angry interactions that produce more heat than light. Don't go places that will bring out the worst in you.
I fancy myself a Christian apologist, but I've learned how to limit my on-line activity as a good steward of God's gifting in my life. Ive tried to be wise about distinguishing between "on-line" and "public," allowed my theology to guide my choice of audiences, been respectful of my time constraints and done my best to reflect the nature of our Savior (that's probably the hardest part). When I've been true to these goals, I've had some success. When I forgotten them, I've usually done (or written) something I've regretted.