The Christian Social Internet and (Sorta) Learning to Shut My Virtual Mouth

When I graduated college in 2013 and entered the realm of “professional social media manager” for a world-renowned Christian leader and avid online content creator at one of the largest Christian organizations in the world, I was an idiot.

But before we get into that, let’s take a minute to explore what I’ll call the “Christian Social Internet.” This context will provide a basis for my self-reflection.

A Recent History of the Christian Social Internet

This makes me sound old, but 2013 was a much different time in the Christian Social Internet than it is today, event though it was just six years ago.

Please note this tweet, which I think provides a simple framework to shape our exploration:

In 2013-2014, the Christian Social Internet was, in my view, at Stage 2 of this progression.

Christians of varying beliefs had already gotten over the novelty of being able to connect with other believers online, and 2013-2014 seemed to be peak in-fighting on the Christian Social Internet. Ex-evangelicals were rallying around one another and evangelicals were huddling together to defend basic tenets of evangelical faith that were being called into question by people “leaving evangelicalism.”

Much of the in-fighting I was watching can be summarized most simply as a warring of worldviews between conservative evangelicals (Southern Baptists, PCAers, Reformed folks, etc.) and liberal evangelicals/Mainline protestants.

For example, I remember many a Twitter battle between Rachel Held Evans, Joe Carter, Jonathan Merritt, Jared C. Wilson, and others. Rachel and Jonathan would often contend for a more liberal view of a particular issue, while guys like Joe or Jared would contend for a more conservative view.

In my newfound role as social media manager for a well-known Christian leader, I spent a significant amount of time monitoring the conversations (read: “fights”) among Christians arguing about everything from what makes someone an “evangelical” to whether or not a megachurch pastor who has a moral failing can ever lead a church again.

I would say that, though there is division and fighting among Christians online today, it doesn’t quite match the intensity and fervor of what was going on in 2013-2014 (but some may disagree). Much of the division centers around political issues, whereas the division in 2013-2014 often related more to theology or overall worldview issues.

It was like the internet brought thousands of vocal Christians together on Twitter and when they all realized they didn’t think the same way about important issues, they fought for social confirmation of their rightness. In public. Before a watching world.

I think that, in large part, much of the Christian Social Internet has moved to Stage 3 of the progression given in my tweet above. I think many evangelical and liberal evangelicals/Mainline Protestants have come to realize that they are not going to get one another to agree on biblical sexuality, the role of women in the local church, or other hot issues.

It almost feels as though the warriors who once patrolled the Christian Social Internet have retreated to their homelands, now more interested in building up their own citizens than winning battles and seizing cultural territory.

The battles were unhealthy. They were unhelpful. None of the combatants left convinced or converted. They earned clout among their like-minded peers, but no land was actually won.

I speak as one who observed these wars, but I didn’t just observe them. Remember what I said at the beginning? I was an idiot.

I tried to enter some of these battles as an infantryman. That’s where I messed up. I played myself.

I Am Culpable

I remember standing in the eight-foot-long kitchen of our Nashville area apartment making dinner with my wife and furiously tweeting at people like Rachel Held Evans or Jonathan Merritt to tell them how dumb and misguided they were.

I also remember receiving phone calls from various people at work telling me that I need to stop tweeting.

I didn’t always listen.

I showed up to fight in a battle to which I wasn’t invited in order to take a stand no one was asking me to take so that people who don’t know me would see how smart I was.

How dumb was that?

I was so mad at people peddling what I thought were lies that I was willing to spend hours of my days tweeting at other people how wrong they were. As if they needed some 22-year-old kid to right their theology and worldview.

I was arrogant. I was pursuing my own glory. I was satisfying an urge. Yelling my two minutes of hate into the void.

It was a different time. It was, perhaps, more acceptable to do that back then. But that doesn’t excuse how I acted. I messed up. I shouldn’t have done it. I sinned against a lot of people.

I was one of those people about whom friends of mine would say, “Yeah, but he’s not like that in real life,” when defending my idiocy on Twitter. What a shame. Foolishness.

But a lot has changed since 2013-2014.

The Christian Social Internet has become more ideologically segregated, which is maybe a good thing (depending on who you ask).

I have become a much more spiritually and emotionally mature person. God has graciously sanctified me by his Holy Spirit. Life goes on.

This past fall, I was given a new responsibility that has drastically affected the way I interact online in general, but especially on the Christian Social Internet.

You Just Don’t Know the Whole Story

This is where this post gets a bit dicey because I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say here, so I’ll say enough to make my point and not say more than I should.

I manage the @LifeWay social media handles. When you tweet @LifeWay or engage with the @LifeWay Facebook page, that’s my desk. That’s my work. That’s me.

I took the keys for the @LifeWay social media handles this past October when a colleague took a job at a different company. I haven’t crashed the car yet, despite the spotty driving record we just reviewed.

A lot has happened at LifeWay since last fall, if you aren’t aware. Namely, we just announced a shift in focus toward a more “dynamic digital strategy” which will result in the closure of some of our LifeWay Christian Store locations.

Between that and some changes in leadership, it’s been an active first few months to be running the @LifeWay social media handles.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of managing the @LifeWay social media handles, particularly the Twitter handle, has been observing the wide variety of negative feedback we get about an assortment of issues. But internet hate is the way of the road these days, even (perhaps especially) on the Christian Social Internet.

But the most striking feedback I’ve seen is the comments on various news articles about the “erosion” of our brick-and-mortar stores and the shift we’re making toward a more “dynamic digital strategy.”

Everyone has an idea about why the erosion of retail has happened. But that’s beside the point. Here’s the point:

Watching all of the reaction around LifeWay’s recent announcement humbled me.

Seeing dozens of commenters incorrectly theorize why LifeWay brick-and-mortar stores have struggled made me realize how little I know about the things I have criticized in the past. For example:

Something silly I like to criticize is ESPN’s botching of the Monday Night Football program. They’ve had the program for years and I’ve always thought it’s terrible, as have most people on Twitter, it seems. I think they try too hard. Their commentators are too over the top. They Disney-fy it too much.

But what do I know? With what authority am I able criticize ESPN’s (mis)handling of Monday Night Football?

Am I a television programming expert? Do I know what makes a good football commentator? Do I have any right to call out one of the largest entertainment companies in the world on how they handle a program?

The answer is “No” to all of the above.

So often I don’t know the whole story, and I act like I do.

It didn’t click with me how foolish I am to do something like that until I saw all of the errant criticisms of the erosion of LifeWay retail stores. I was humbled and I recognized my own foolishness.

It’s really transformed how I interact with social media.

On Deleting Apps and Logging Off

I haven’t left any social media platforms entirely like some of my friends have, but I have dramatically changed how I interact with them.

I deleted the Facebook suite of apps off my phone long ago, except the Pages app, which I need for work.

I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, but still access it on my web browser from time to time. The more annoying interface of the web browser makes me use it less often.

I go back and forth between being logged into my personal Instagram account. I have to have access to the LifeWay Instagram at all times, though, so I can’t delete the app.

I created an anonymous Twitter account for lurking when I’m working so that I am not tempted to tweet dumb stuff from my personal Twitter account when it comes to mind during the day (because I’m on Twitter all day for work stuff).

I stopped following anything on Twitter that made me mad and exclusively use it as a platform to engage with people and things I enjoy: friends or professional contacts, funny comedy accounts, or various accounts in my areas of interest (sports, gaming, social media culture).

It’s super difficult to “leave” social media when it’s your everyday job and when you genuinely enjoy so many bright parts of it like I do. But it is helpful to deploy guardrails that can assist in a pursuit of sanctification and wisdom.

My relationship with social media and the Christian Social Internet has matured a lot in the six years I’ve been creating content for a living. I went from needlessly entering Twitter fights I had no business entering to managing the corporate accounts of one of the largest Christian resource providers in the world. God has done a work, amen?

But he’s not done working, either. Which is why I’ve taken many steps to protect against any foolishness that still seeps out of my fingers from time to time.

The Lord has taught me the merit of shutting my virtual mouth more often than I have in the past.

My friend Michael Kelley wrote in a blog post that went live on LifeWay Voices today:

We have an increased opportunity to run our mouths more than any other generation.

That’s because we can effectively run our mouths not only with our actual mouths, but with our devices as well. We have at our fingertips the ability to broadcast our deepest thoughts, most profound opinions, and hottest takes more easily than ever before. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we are such a loud people – it’s because we have the opportunity to be loud.

You know the feeling as well as I do. There is someone who brings something to us – it’s an accusation, it’s a criticism, it’s a rebuke – it’s a whatever. Someone does something or says something or insinuates something and we, in return, feel a compulsion inside of us. It’s a burning down deep in our guts. We. Must. Respond. And usually when that response comes, it’s part and parcel with what has just been dealt to us. If it was anger, we respond in anger. If criticism, we respond with criticism of our own. If accusation, we respond with defensiveness. Whatever the case, we respond.

But into the throng of noise steps the command from James – the command to listen. Not tweet. Not broadcast. Not Facebook Live. But listen.

Amen. Let’s run our mouths less and listen more.

When we’re tempted to take up arms in virtual battles over frivolous issues, let’s remember that the war’s already been won.

The Hype Train Doesn’t Deliver

I am, admittedly, more into video games and gaming culture than the average 28-year-old man. I own that.

I’ve played video games in some form or fashion since before I could read. I remember going across the street to my cousins’ house to play Super Dodge Ball on the NES before I owned a Sega Genesis and eventually an N64 in early elementary school.

This Christmas season, I have had a number of friends five or 10 years older than me inquiring about the Nintendo Switch what all needs to be purchased for a family to enjoy the games together.

I watch other adults play video games on Twitch pretty regularly.

I watch YouTubers whose primary content revolves around games and gaming culture.

For a long time, until the last couple of years, gaming culture has been a fringe culture. Only nerds played video games when I was growing up.

This is no longer the case.

Video game culture is blending into mainstream pop culture in unprecedented ways. But that’s another post for another day.

The Hype Train

When I get time to play video games these days, which is usually a couple of hours on the weekends, I am spending most of my time on the Nintendo Switch. I think it’s the greatest video game platform of all time (also another post for another day), and I love a number of the games available on it right now.

In the months leading up to a video game release, there is what is called “the hype train.” This phrase should be pretty self-explanatory, but, in short, it is the anticipatory build-up and conversation among fans of a game in the months (or even years) leading up to its launch.

In video game culture today, the primary corner of the internet through which the hype train chugs is Reddit.

As a social media platform, Reddit has always been more gamer-friendly, and the ability to create subreddits around various games is unmatched when it comes to building community and fueling the hype train for a video game.

Game developers watch subreddits of the games they are producing before and after release to get feedback from Redditors about what they want added to or changed in the game.

It’s a powerful system of communication between fans and game developers and among fans themselves.

It is in these subreddits, like this one for Super Smash Bros. which has a new game releasing this week, that the hype train is fueled.

The last couple of years, as I have joined the subreddits of a few highly-anticipated games I’ve purchased, I’ve noticed a common thread that runs between all of the games, no matter the platform or genre.

It’s sad, but every single time it has proven true:

The Game Never Fully Satisfies

Watching the hype train rev up and speed into the station is astounding. It truly is a cool experience.

A community of thousands of fans who have spent the better part of a year theorizing, sharing strategies, reviewing trailers, and more all coming together around the shared love for something truly is special. It is fun to experience and neat to watch.

Leading up to the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate game releasing later this week, I have participated in the subreddit a good bit and it has been cool to build community with others.

But, sadly, I know what is going to happen as soon as the hype train pulls into the station and the anticipation disappears because the game has arrived.

It will just be a game.

It will be fun.

It will blow away some expectations.

It will not live up to some expectations.

But eventually, whether it be two weeks or two years down the road, the game will go away. And another one will take its place.

Now, some of the people aboard the hype train are probably fine with that. They understand that video games come and go and aren’t meant to be around forever.

But I read some of the anticipation and fervor around the release of some of these games and I just have to think to myself, “It cannot provide that for you. This game will not fulfill you!”

It’s almost as if many rabid fans of these games are looking to find meaning in some of these games. Looking for purposeFulfillment.

And don’t think I’m pointing a judge-y finger. It’s not like I haven’t been there before—I certainly have.

But as I’ve watched this phenomenon the last couple of years, it never goes away. It’s always the same.

It’s because a lot of folks are expecting more out of the game than it can give them.


It’s More Than Just Video Games

I’ve used video games as an example throughout because its where I’ve seen this phenomenon most present in my own life.

But the eager anticipation of a hype train pulling into the station and the ultimate dissatisfaction of our souls isn’t limited to video games. We’d be foolish to think that.

We do it with marriage.

We do it with careers.

We do it with children.

Throughout countless areas of our lives, we fuel up hype trains of various kinds with the desperate hope that when the train pulls into the station our lives will have more purpose, more meaning, more value.

It’s just idolatry. That’s all it is.

We expect the things of this world to be something they can’t.

Enjoy the hype. Lean into anticipation. Just don’t put your hope in it.