Social media conversations or discussions in the comment section of a website can quickly devolve into an all-caps yelling match and pointless argument.
Even followers of Christ can find themselves drawn into a virtual fight and using decidedly un-Christian language or tactics when arguing with someone else online.
So how can we avoid those temptations? One way would be to stay away and avoid all those opportunities. For some, that may be wise.
If you constantly find yourself arguing with strangers on Twitter or family members and friends on Facebook, it might be good for you to take some time away from it.
For many others, however, social media can be a way to engage those around us with the gospel and with a Christian worldview.
Here are some tips for keeping online discussions fruitful and not having them devolve into name-calling and blood-pressure-raising situations.
1. Remember the other person is a human.
When we keep this simple biblical fact in our mind, it can reorient the way in which we speak to others online.
I’m not talking to a digital avatar. I’m having a conversation with another individual created in God’s image for whom Jesus died. Does the way I’m speaking to them reflect that?
If they are a fellow believer, they are your brother or sister in Christ and you should treat them as family.
If they are an unbeliever, you should remember that since they are flesh and blood, they are not the enemy. They are someone who is spiritually blind—as you used to be.
2. Work to understand their perspective.
It can be easy to fall into caricatures of someone on the opposite side from us and have that color how we speak to them online.
Make the effort to present their argument fairly even as you aim to confront it. Beating up on strawmen never convinces anyone.
3. Use careful language, but extend grace to others.
Many online arguments take a turn when someone says something innocent, but it is taken the wrong way by the other person.
As far as it is up to you, make your wording as clear as possible to avoid those misunderstandings as much as you can.
Recognizing that those moments do happen even to the clearest communicators, however, seek to give the benefit of the doubt to the other person.
Extend grace to them and do not assume the worst of their words.
4. Try to lighten the conversation.
You may be discussing issues of live and death, heaven or hell, but those can quickly become heated due to the stakes.
Look for ways, especially self-deprecating ways, to lighten the mood and release some of the tension that can build during those conversations.
Even just inserting something not so serious into the banter can prevent the discussion turning into an argument.
5. Keep your goals manageable.
Frustration can mount when you have unreasonable expectations about the conversation you’re having online.
While the Holy Spirit can obviously work miracles, you probably won’t see the atheist you’re talking to on Twitter suddenly become a Christian immediately after you fire off that well-crafted less than 280 character argument for God’s existence.
Don’t be upset about that. Work to build a relationship with the person and keep your goal manageable. Try to bring Jesus’ sacrificial death into the conversation or aim to give them something to think about.
Trust the Holy Spirit to keep working in the life of the other person far after you’ve had a conversation online.
6. Ignore trolls and rabbits.
The two biggest killers of fruitful conversations online are trolls and rabbits.
Online trolls are a waste of your time. They aren’t looking for a conversation. Their goal is to cause chaos or at the very least annoy you and waste your time. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
But chasing rabbits in an online conversation can be just as fruitless.
When you are sitting face-to-face with someone, you can bounce around and have a wide-ranging conversation. That just doesn’t work online.
Keep the discussion as focused as possible and avoid going down every rabbit trail that presents itself.
7. Pray and keep praying.
Just as we trust the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of those we talk with, we should trust and encourage the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.
Pray and ask Him to help you better reflect Christ online and off. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in who you engage and how you engage them.
Pray for the person you talked with and ask God to use the conversation in their lives.
Aaron Earls is online editor of Facts & Trends. He is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared at numerous sites, including The Washington Post, World Magazine, and Think Christian.