Evangelizing The Online Haters: Is It Even Worth It?
It’s all just so predictable. Someone writes a thoughtful piece from a Christian perspective for an online paper like The Guardian or the Independent or on social media, and instantly the haters start hating. The comment feed is clogged up with references to sky fairies and imaginary friends. Someone will mention the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, or perhaps the latest abuse scandal. It all gets very venomous very quickly.
What’s happened is that a Christian has, as it were, come out, and staked a claim to be heard outside the Christian bubble. All the forces of hell converge upon the poor soul, with a view to reclaiming the space for right-thinking atheists everywhere.
So is there really any point? It’s not just in these comment feeds. Anywhere on social media – particularly on Twitter – being open about your faith means you’re open to abuse, and it’s usually infuriatingly prejudiced and ill-informed. Should you even bother to engage?
This is a particular problem for evangelicals, who are meant to be, well, evangelical about faith-sharing. We want to persuade people of the truth of the gospel. But all too often they are idiots who don’t deserve it.
Rather than deleting that last sentence (look, I know it’s not true) I’ve let it stand as a testimony to the teeth-grinding irritation created by people who aren’t interested in discussion, or even in its hairier cousin, argument. They are fuelled by rage and contempt, originating from who knows where.
I’ve had a few run-ins with people like that over things I’ve written. Having fallen into the temptation of being defensive, and into the worse one of being aggressive back, I now tend to ignore them unless a real zinger comes to mind.
But here’s the thing: not everyone is like that. Sometimes people will come back with a pretty hard answer to a statement you make, but it isn’t just abuse: they’ve thought it through and come to a conclusion. Then there’s a way and you can talk. Sometimes they’re right, at least up to a point. If someone says religion’s been responsible for a lot of violence we have no business denying that, though we can point out that it’s stopped a lot of violence, too – and that atheist violence (Stalin, Mao etc) eclipses it by a long way.
And I’ve also been contacted by people who are genuine seekers, with real questions to which they need answers. They’ve asked about things like the violence in the Old Testament, whether they need to believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian, about hell – all sorts of things. I can’t say anyone’s ever come back to me and said, “As a result of what you said I’ve been converted and am going to be baptized.” But some of them have said thank you, and it’s made them think, at least.
Should Christians engage?
Someone who’s thought a good deal about how, and whether, Christians should engage with atheists online is Justin Brierley, who presents Premier Radio’s Unbelievable? programme.
“You have to judge each situation,” he tells me. “There are often types of individual and places on the internet where you pretty much know that it’s not going to be a fruitful discussion and you’re best using your time doing something else – you can just end up frustrated. But there are situations where if something seems open to having a friendly, rational kind of discussion and we should be open to that.”
He runs a closed Facebook discussion group linked to the show, which he describes as a “bearpit”. It has Christian and atheist members and discussion is robust on both sides – neither some Christians nor some atheists do themselves any favours, he says. His own rule is, “Would you be willing to spend as much time praying for this person as you are debating with them?” “It can turn in to an intellectual contest. No one really wins.”
For Brierley, the “relatively superficial” level of argument and debate is one thing. “Where you do tend to see fruit, where someone comes through to becoming a Christian, is where that moves from online to getting to know someone – whether through private messaging, Skype, or even meeting up. Once that happens and you get to know someone, they stop being anonymous. There’s so much of someone’s personality that’s integral to whether someone accepts or rejects the Christian faith. Many a non-Christian will put forward rational objections, but the reasons they reject faith are rarely purely intellectual.”
“Here to listen”
This sense that people are more than just their online persona – which may sometimes be pretty unpleasant – lies behind another initiative aimed at Christians engaging with non-Christians.
Matt Rich is behind the ChatNow site. It works with similar projects including the US-based Groundwire organisation to help provide worldwide, round-the-clock one-to-one conversations through its volunteers.
But it’s not designed just to answer questions about faith, though that’s a big part of it. Its strapline is “Here to listen, here to talk”, and it says: “We want to talk through your questions, fears and worries, to help you find a new hope.” As well as questions like, “Does God exist?” “Did Jesus exist?” “Trust the Bible?” and advice on how to become a Christian, it also offers resources on suffering, pornography, cutting, rape, loneliness and many other problems.
Matt tells Christian Today: “We talk to people who are Christians and struggling, and with others who aren’t Christians and who are wondering whether there’s any hope out there.” He says they speak to the kind of people who might call the Samaritans – but “being an actively, outwardly Christian organisation, we talk about the bigger picture – about faith, and about Jesus helping in the storm”.
He likens what they do to putting on a big T-shirt with the message “I want to talk to you” and sitting down on a bench in a town centre. “They’re choosing to come to us and talk to Christians,” he says.
They find they can talk to people about spiritual issues at the same time as addressing their practical needs. “Another element is that if they get to know Jesus, they’ll focus on him more. Their issues won’t magically go away, but they’ll have extra help to overcome these things.”
And in some ways it helps being anonymous. “People are able to be more real when they don’t have to face you than when they do have to face you. It’s common for someone to say, “I’ve just told you something I’ve never told anyone before.”
In Matt’s experience not many people just want to get into a row, though they might want to persuade them they’re wrong. “Our aim in all our conversations is that people will have taken a step closer to Jesus,” he says. “If they’re aggressive, it’s our aim not to treat them in the same way. I will want them to realize – even if their motivation is not good – something of love of God and move closer to an understanding of what God’s like.”
This sense that when we’re engaging with someone online there’s a real person behind the words on the screen comes across from David Lucas, too. He’s the co-ordinator of Looking For God, a video-based resource and enquiry service developed by UCB with the Union School of Theology in Wales. It answers questions sent in via its website with high-quality theological content. David says: “We have people clearly searching for an answer to their needs, who use the questions box to pour out their hearts. It can be difficult to read – there are some very hurting people. But we respond with the gospel and help in that way.” There are also questions from Christians wanting answers to particular issues about life and faith.
But there are also angry atheists, and David’s response is to treat them as though they are serious inquirers. “What I find interesting is that rather than just going on to the website, seeing it’s Christian and going away, they’ve taken time to write a question and submit it. For me, what I see and wonder about is, is this God using them, leading them to look for Him and encouraging them to find an answer? That person has submitted an angry question, but they need Jesus just as much as I do. It’s part of their spiritual journey.”
And he’s aware that behind the anger there’s a story he knows nothing about. “Maybe they blame God for something – they see the sort of fairytale God portrayed in some sections of the media – if God is all-powerful why didn’t He stop that suffering? Or they might have been a Christian and prayed, but never felt the sense of God’s presence. We don’t know their circumstances, we can’t even work out how old they are.”
Has anyone ever been converted by an exchange over email or in an online chatroom? I’m sure it happens all the time – after all, we don’t raise an eyebrow at stories of people being converted by books. But the online world is different. It’s angrier, for one thing; people will say things in a comment box they’d blush to say to your face. So perhaps the demands on Christians are greater, too.
One point that’s been made repeatedly is that the people behind the fury, the contempt and the vitriol that all too often characterizes debate about religion today are just that – people, rather than words on a screen. They have their own stories and their own reasons, which we don’t know – and they are still loved by God. And when they shut down their computer, they haven’t deleted the words they’ve been reading from their minds – and they haven’t switched off God. Who knows what He’ll do with gracious words and kindly hearts?