I have been blogging—almost every day, normally 5 or 6 days a week—for five and a half years. I never imagined this would be a significant part of my ministry. I never thought many people would read what I wrote. I never thought I would write as much as I do. When I starting blogging at the beginning of 2009, I never, ever, ever thought I would still be doing this in the summer of 2014. Others have been going at this longer than I have, but still, five years is a long time in blogger years.
And in these five years I’ve had plenty of occasions to reflect on the nature of blogging, the possibilities of social media, and the pitfalls of everyone being connected to everyone else all the time. I made fun of bloggers until I started a blog. I made fun of Facebook and Twitter, and now I’m on both. I fit the demographic of Gen Xers and Millennials who spend too much time online and exert too much emotional energy in keeping up to date on the latest internet scuffles and kerfuffles.
I’m thankful for blogs and tweets and posts and embeds and links and all the rest. God is no Luddite when it comes to defending his name and proclaiming the gospel. And yet, on many days I would be thrilled if all digital sound and fury disappeared and we went back to the slow churn of books, phone calls, journal articles, newsletters, and (gasp!) face to face conversation.
But we won’t and we aren’t. So we need to think about how to post, what to post, and when to post. As Christians, we need to be more prayerful, careful, and biblical about our online presence. After more than five years of blogging—less than that with Twitter and Facebook—and having gleaned lots of wisdom from others and having made lots of mistakes myself, here are ten things to think about before you hit “publish” on your next blog post, status update, comment, or tweet.
1. Is this idea, question, or rant only half baked? One of the posts I’ve always regretted was the one several years ago on where are all the Lutherans. I didn’t expect the post to get much attention. I was trying to ask a question I had asked in my head many times. I should have kept the question in my head, or posed it in a more private setting. The question wasn’t bad, and through the post I came in contact with some good Lutheran brothers. But as a blog post, it was half-baked. I was asking that question for myself without considering that some people might give me an answer!
The internet is public space. As such, it is not the place for every crazy thought or personal revelation you’ve ever had. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with putting out certain ideas tentatively, in hopes that your thinking can be sharpened and refined. But don’t pull things out of your mental or emotional or experiential box that you may want to put back later. If you want to spill your guts and be completely raw and try out far flung new theories, keep a journal.
2. Have I considered that anyone anywhere at anytime could see this? When I started blogging I knew people might read it, but I never seriously considered how public a post could be. After my second day of blogging a friend emailed me, “Wow, people are actually reading your blog. Very cool. But just remember this is going out there to everyone and people are going to see it.” At that time my friend was only talking about dozens or maybe hundreds of views. But his admonition was apt no matter the scale. No matter how many followers or friends you have, no matter how many subscribers, no matter how micro or macro your normal traffic, you have to consider that anything you put online can be seen by almost anyone on the planet. Are you sure you want to post that picture, slam that person, share that secret, make that accusation, go on that hilariously caustic riff?
Years ago, while speaking on the emergent church, I got a question during Q/A that I never should have touched: “What do you think about so and so?” Unless you are prepared to tell the world that so and so is your best friend and his ministry has meant the world to you, almost nothing good can come from answering questions like that. After trying to qualify the critique that I knew was about to come out, I strung together a sentence that was uncharitable and over the top. I wasn’t wrong to disagree with the person in question, but I wasn’t careful in how I voiced my disagreements. A few days later my slipshod statement was being broadcast far and wide on the internet. Eventually, I talked on the phone with the person I had pontificated about. We had a nice conversation and I was able to apologize for being careless. I learned the hard way—but at least I learned it early on—that anything said in public can be heard by anyone else.
3. Do I really know what I’m talking about? One of the great things about working on my PhD is that I can see more clearly how hard it is to really, truly be an expert in something. The internet is full of amateurs who think they are experts. That doesn’t mean you can’t voice an opinion about the Hobby Lobby case without being a lawyer or that you can’t explain the Bible without a seminary degree. It does mean that we should at least pause before posting to consider whether our brilliant manifesto is anything more than opinion rooted in speculation, based on hearsay, buttressed by a 45 second Google search.
4. What if I run into this person later today? Let me share another lesson I learned from an early blogging mistake. One of my first posts was a snarky jab at another author I disagreed with. A few days later I was speaking at an event and saw that this person’s colleague and friend was at a table across the room. As soon as he saw me he made a straight line for my table and proceeded to dress me down for my snarky post. It was not a pleasant experience, in part because few people like this sort of confrontation, and because this man’s friend had a point. For me as a no-name blogger it never registered that this big-name author I was tweaking was actually a real person. I never considered that he might get wind of my post, or that he might have friends, or that he might have a wife and kids, or that he might be having a bad day, or that he may be in the midst of profound grief, or that he might have had a much harder life than I’ve have, or that this famous pastor or author or leader or athlete was just like me in most ways, or that he could get in contact with me, or that I could meet him or someone close to him at anytime.
Again, there is nothing wrong with disagreement, even sharp disagreement. Even satire has its place. But you shouldn’t be a bigger man behind the keyboard than you would be across the table from someone. Ever since this painful experience in the early days of blogging, I’ve tried to think with every polemical piece “Would I say this same thing if he or she were in the room with me right now?” Although I’m sure I’ve still made mistakes, and some people still think I’m too polemical, that simple question has helped me think much more carefully about how I say what I say and whether I should say anything at all.
5. Will I feel good about this post later? Boy is it tempting to send off that witty retort in the midst of the battle. Dropping the bomb can feel so good. But it is often unwise. Why do we think that the biblical injunction to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19) applies to everything else except the internet? I know there is the rush to get the scoop. I know that we expect instant denunciations from everyone anytime something doesn’t look right. I know that in the heat of the moment it cools you off to fight fire with fire. But at the end of the day you need to be able put your head on your pillow and sleep with a clear conscience.
Too much of our online commentary is of the “post first, ask questions later” variety. When we rush to voice our opinion on everything under the sun it makes changing our mind that much harder when we learn five minutes or five days or five years later we didn’t know what we were talking about. It makes repentance harder as a 30 year-old when we start to be embarrassed for the insouciance and ignorance we specialized in as a 20 year-old. Why not put off posting today what you could regret tomorrow?
6. Have I sought the counsel of others? Almost every blog I write is read by someone else before I post it. First by my assistant, sometimes by other staff members, often by other friends in ministry, and occasionally by my wife. If I’m writing something controversial or polemical I always send it to one or more friends before posting the piece. I can’t tell you how many headaches I’ve been spared, how many silly lines I’ve deleted, or how many posts I’ve scrapped altogether. I’d rather go to sleep regretting the time I put in to an article I never posted or a comment I never made, instead of repenting of a stupid thought that had no business being made public. If you don’t have a multitude of good counselors for your online life, get them (Prov. 15:22).
7. Do I have this person’s phone number? It’s been explained many times that the process of confrontation laid out in Matthew 18 is not meant to eliminate public discourse. You don’t have to send me an email before you write a critical review of one of my books or before disagreeing with a blog post. Public material can be dealt with publically. But at the same time, we should not do personal work in public space. That’s why the phone number question is a good rule of thumb (a rule I’ve followed at times and should have followed at other times). The closer someone is to you the more incumbent it is upon you to try to settle your disagreements personally before going public, especially if those disagreements have gotten personal. If Jonathan Leeman, for example, wrote a post arguing against my defense of infant baptism, I wouldn’t be offended or surprised. Jonathan and I are friends, and we know we disagree on the issue. But if he took apart the last five sermons I preached, I’d be bothered. I’d wonder why I had never heard about these concerns before. I’d wonder why he didn’t talk to me first. Sure, he has a right to talk about public material in public, but he has my number. Why not just give me a call?
This point should be commonsense, but it is easily forgotten. And you end up with one part of the family blasting another part of the family online, church members going after other church members, parishioners critiquing their pastor, and pastors going after congregants. Pick up the phone! Don’t settle for public spats over private conversation.
8. What is my motivation? I know, this is difficult to gauge. It’s almost impossible to be sure we have entirely pure motives in anything we do, let alone when it comes to social media. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine our hearts before exhausting our readers: “What is going on in my soul as I write this? Why am I so agitated? Have I worked all day on this post because of the fear of man? Am I about to shoot off this comment because I love the praise of man? Am I trying to drive up my traffic? Am I entering the fray because controversy means hits and hits mean money? Am I just piling on because it seems like an easy way to win friends and impress people? Am I too scared to disagree with the influential? Am I too eager to stick it to the man (or woman)? Is my main concern to go with the flow? Is my driving ambition to be unique and stand apart from the Institution? Do I hope to serve or be served with this post? Am I looking to love or be loved for this tweet? As far as I know my own heart, what’s motivating this madness? Have I even taken time to ask any hard questions of my heart?”
9. Have I tried to love my neighbor as I love myself? You aren’t a Christian blogger (or tweeter or commenter or updater) if you don’t do what you do in love. I’m not talking about how often you write about love. That’s fairly easy to do. The loudest love-ites can be the most unloving. The greatest champions of grace can still be graceless. I’m talking about whether in your writing you use the measure with others that you would like used with you? (Matt. 7:2). Don’t assume the worse. Don’t jump to conclusions. Try to understand. Withhold judgment. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Christian charity cannot be reduced to unconditional affirmation and agreeableness, but neither can it be made less than basic humility and forbearance.
10. Have I lost all sense of proportion? Every blog, every Twitter account, every Facebook page will have its own feel, its own emphases, passions, and peculiarities. No problem. No one person or one platform can give equal play to everything that is important. But even with these caveats, we must be careful. We can easily get off kilter. We can quickly lose the plot. We can let our rhetoric get the best of us. We can ride our hobby horses into the ground. We can believe the hype about our own importance or the lasting significance of the latest ecclesiastical meltdown.
Beware lest your online presence reflects a truncated list of biblical concerns. Be wary of yourself when you start believing your enemies can do no right and your friends can do no wrong. Think twice before posting your second screed of the week. Something is wrong if your blog seems to be caught up in the perpetual celebration of Festivus. Do people get more from your posting and tweeting than the daily airing of grievances? Doesn’t James say we are supposed to be slooowwww to get angry? (James 1:19). Then why are you so ticked off all the time? Have I become obsessed with defending my territory in my little corner of my little internet fiefdom? Am I still hanging on to bygone battles?
If people took their cues for Christian doctrine and Christian discipleship from reading my posts, tweets, and updates day after day, for years and years, what sort of Christians would they become? What is the dominant mood in my neck of the virtual woods—outrage, belligerence, cynicism? What is constantly being lifted up—the Bible, the glory of God, the cross? Or perhaps this is the best question: Is the real heartbeat of my online presence to promote my Savior or myself?