What follows is a conflation of three different recent conversations, but my responses were consistent within all three. I merge them for the sake of the message, so if anyone involved reads this and thinks, “I don’t remember saying that,” they are probably right.
“Uhm, someone left a negative comment about you on Facebook…”
“Really? I didn’t think I had been here long enough to upset anyone yet,” I responded.
“Well, they’re not even from this church, but they were pretty harsh. How should we respond?”
“Just let it go. Or just thank them for their concern,” I said.
“But, don’t you want to know what they said?”
“No, not really. Why should I feel bad? This person felt a need to express a negative comment, they did it, now it is best to let it drop,” I said.
“But shouldn’t we say something? Shouldn’t we let this person know we didn’t think his comment was appropriate?”
“Why? What good would it do? This is an unhappy person who somehow thinks that bullying, gossip, malice, and lying are acceptable “Christian” behaviors. Arguing with him isn’t going to accomplish anything. This is a broken, hurting person who needs prayer and compassion, not reaction and attention. This kind of behavior exists because we allow it to spread uncontested and unchecked. This person is a church leader; the congregation obviously has no accountability for bad behavior or he wouldn’t act this way. I don’t know why this person thinks it is okay to act this way. But the person isn’t evil; he is either ignorant or immature, and fighting with him won’t help him. He needs a community of faith to help him grow up.”
I wish this were an extreme example or an aberration, but unfortunately it is something happening all too often in the church today. Personal insult and attack, assault, bullying, threat, intimidation, malicious gossip, and rumor-mongering are evident in many faith communities. Our social skills lag behind our spiritual aspirations, and the whole community pays the price. It only takes one or two immature Christian pilgrims to lead an entire congregation into a wilderness of negativity and unpleasantness.
This happens because many Christian faith communities make a few false and flawed assumptions:
- Everyone here is a “good Christian”
- We all know how to behave
- Everyone here is friendly and kind
- Christians are nice
And on and on. We live in the delusion that good, loving Christian conduct happens automatically. In my experience, good Christian conduct happens intentionally and with a lot of practice and accountability. The healthiest congregations I know are explicit about the behaviors they will cultivate and practice, the behaviors they will not tolerate or ignore, and the practices they will engage in to build community and healthy relationships.
I know of no church that believes gossip, bullying, lying, or name-calling are acceptable behaviors. Yet, I know of hundreds that allow such behaviors to occur unchallenged by a handful of members. This is a primary reason why people outside of organized and institutional religion feel the church is hypocritical and no better than any other organization. They see the same dysfunctional and destructive behaviors at work in the church that are undermining civil society.
Churches that are truly counter-cultural are those who make an intentional decision and plan to be so. I often use a simple process with communities of faith to establish a simple behavioral covenant that makes the implicit desire to be a loving, caring culture an explicit plan and process. It is based on John Wesley’s General Rules for early Methodism: first, do no harm; second, do all the good you can; and, third, attend to all the ordinances of God (practice the means of grace).
Gather any congregation together and ask the question, “What behaviors, words, and actions harm healthy relationships?” You will have no problem filling a few pages of newsprint with the answers people call out (gossip, lying, making fun of people, name-calling, ignoring people, disrespect, rudeness, put-downs, etc.). A follow-up question is, “Can we agree together NOT to do these things, and to hold each other accountable not to do them?” It is very rare that someone can’t agree to this.
Then ask, “What behaviors, actions, and practices build strong, healthy relationships?” Again, a cascade of answers (honesty, respect, encouragement, praise, kindness, helping in time of need, compliments, laughter, sharing interests, smiles, eye contact, patience, allowing people their own opinions, etc.). The question: “Can we make these a priority to try to cultivate, improve, and support?” Most people readily agree.
Last question, “What can we commit to do together than help us build Christian community and relationships?” (Pray for each other, study the Bible together, worship together, work and serve together, pray with each other, check in with each other about our relationship to God.) Maybe not everyone will commit to the same level of participation here, but almost everyone agrees that these things would be good for healthy relationships in a community of faith.
I encourage communities of faith to write these things down, print them on a big poster, and have everyone sign their name to the covenant. Signing your name gives weight and gravity to your commitment. It is an outward and visible sign of your commitment to healthy community and a culture of Christian care.
Sometimes people will say to me, “Well, we shouldn’t have to write this all down; we’re Christians, we already know it!” I agree, we shouldn’t have to write this down, but the reality is that we DO need to write it down and sign our names to it. We need to make the implicit (what we think everyone knows and agrees on), explicit (what everyone can see and make a conscious agreement to).
True covenant communities (within, and between churches) and cultures of care happen by design, not by accident. They are intentional communities. They are well-defined. They are easily understood and agreed to. And they are defended by a shared accountability – we are all responsible for the behaviors, words, and actions of others as well as our own.
Social media makes inappropriate behavior so easy, but it also becomes a test of how deeply committed we are to doing the will of God in the world. Social media can be a weapon we use to hurt others, to do harm, and even to do violence, or it can be a tool we use to build the kind of culture, society, and world we believe God wants us to live in. But good behavior begins at home: our communities of faith can commit to becoming cultures of care and kindness that teach every member to witness to the love and grace of God, dispelling the ignorance that generates prejudice and division, and confronts spiritual immaturity with accountability that helps us all to grow up in every way into Christ Jesus.