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the internet and gentle speech

January 17, 2012

You may be familiar with Jeff Bethke’s spoken word piece “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”.  It went viral a week or two ago and got all kinds of attention. Predictably, some people thought the guy was brilliant while others thought he was way off base. Kevin DeYoung, one of the Gospel Coalition bloggers, wrote one of the more thoughtful critiques of the clip.

Here is where the story gets beautiful. Jeff and Kevin actually had a mutually respectful and productive dialogue about it. Kevin sums up the exchange here. I think their conversation could in many ways serve as a model of a humble yet mutually sharpening conversation. The two people have points of disagreement, so it’s not just all mutually affirming mush. At the same time, they are extending a lot of charity toward one another. It’s really encouraging to read their interactions. I read Kevin’s blog regularly, and he is generally very measured and fair in what he writes. What really blew me away, though, was Jeff’s humility. It’s like he was incapable of taking Kevin’s criticism personally.

Why are internet conversations like this relatively rare?

We live in an age of shrill, “in your face” discourse. The Internet is often the place where this problem is most acutely felt. From the comfort of our own computer screen, we can safely make use of the many weapons at our disposal—from the sharp-edged email to the snarky blog comment to the ever handy shame-inducing question “Really?”.

What God calls Christians to in this context is to swim against the tide of needlessly polarizing and combative dialogue. In a small effort to help us do this, I wanted to give a couple of practical tips which will help shape both our hearts and our habits.

1)   Love Gentle Speech. We have to understand that  courageous and authentic aren’t the only biblical categories for healthy conversation habits. The Bible has a lot to say about speech that is gentle and kind. When Paul is teaching Timothy, the young and eager pastor, about how he should speak, here is what he says: And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:24-25, ESV)            

Gentle speech doesn’t mean you are afraid of truth. Gentle speech does mean that you value the image of God in the person with whom you are talking. It also means you trust God enough to be patient with people and difficult situations.

2) Self-Critique First. Remember that stuff that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about getting the “log out of your own eye” before you help the other person get the “speck” out of theirs? It still applies. This kind of self-analysis can be incredibly beneficial as it helps take a lot of egocentric steam out of our words.

3) Connect with the Good.  There is always a point of connection to be found when you are in disagreement with someone. There is something about the position they have taken or the way they have taken it that is worthy of praise. Start there. Also, don’t just make this a perfunctory step you quickly get through before you begin your all-out assault. Genuinely honor the person where honor is due.

4) Have a Good Editor. Electronic communications (emails, blog posts, etc.) lack all of the non-verbals that can really smooth out controversial discussions. For those reasons, choose your words carefully. I have a group of pastors who edit my sensitive emails. They live in other cities and don’t know the parties involved, so they can give me objective and helpful input. These people have helped me foster peace by keeping me from saying really unwise things.

5) Connect in Person Whenever Possible. As I mentioned above, on-line communication is very limited in its power to adequately communicate. For this reason, connect face-to-face if it’s possible. If you can’t meet in person, a phone call or a Skype meeting would be an improvement.

In some situations, it may be helpful to have an email exchange before the meeting. I have a lot of friends who process the written word better than blunt face-to-face conversations for which they are not prepared. In those instances, I have learned to carefully write out what I need to tell them and send it to them before we meet in person. So, the on-line communication serves to set up the in-person meeting.

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