While discussing interactive church websites at the Interactive Church Conference, one of the pastors in our group brought up the issue of how people interact online. He was concerned that so much in our culture has become self-focused. He said, “You choose what TV programs you want to watch, you choose what websites you want to go to, you choose what food you want to eat, etc. It’s all about what you want.” He was concerned that the interactive website just played into that self-focus. Personally, while I do see an issue with self-focus in our culture, I don’t see an issue with being able to choose what I eat or watch on TV, but it became an interesting conversation about greater questions:
“How can you, as a church, shape the interactions of your members on your church’s website?”
“Can the church use the website to help people change their focus in life?”
In other words, how do we keep our church site from becoming a gossipfest or place where people are constantly arguing and how can we effectively use the website to change the lives of our members?
A Dangerous Tool:
One of the things that make Christians different from the world is belief that we should love one another. This can be true online, but is it? If you surf the web for forums, regardless of the topic, you will often find people that are, well…less than loving. Unfortunately, this is all too often true of Christian forums. In fact, I think I could make a pretty good case that Christian forums and discussion groups are some of the meanest places on the web. If I post a comment on a tech forum and someone is rude in return, they may post something about me being an idiot or call me a jerk. That’s not nice, but on the other hand, I’ve posted comments in Christian forums and been told I am an agent of Satan and am going straight to hell. (I promise I’m not!)
There are reasons Christian forums and interactive church websites can be so harsh:
- Online interactions tend to be more easily misinterpreted. When you talk to a person face to face, if they misunderstand something, you can explain yourself immediately and prevent problems. Online, however, if may be several hours or days before you realize someone has misunderstood your comment and by then they may be upset and may have spread that misunderstanding to others.
- It can be very easy to forget that you are talking to a real person when you are interacting online. Because if this, people are more apt to post something online, that they would never say in person. This can be good and bad; bad because people sometimes post very hurtful things, but good because people are more likely to be open and honest about their thoughts.
- The first two reasons are common to all interactive online experiences, but church websites (and Christian forums in general) have an additional element that can make them worse. Faith is very personal and some aspects of our faith can have eternal consequences. People also tend to be very passionate about their beliefs. As a result, people can very easily become offended or hurt by even something as simple as not agreeing with their belief.
The issues mentioned above are things to be aware of, but don’t let them dissuade you from having an interactive site. I believe the benefits out weigh the risks. Being aware of the potential issues, you can work shape the interactions of your church members on your church’s website and possibly change some perspectives.
Prevent The Pitfalls:
There are some things you can do to make your church website an effective tool and prevent it from being destructive:
- When you first announce the new interactive features of your website, don’t be afraid to remind your members to show the love of Christ when interacting with each other.
- If you plan to have the website play a key role in the church (and you should if you want people to participate), set aside an entire Sunday to focus on the website. This will allow to not only make sure people are aware of the site, but you can also base your sermon, dramas, Sunday school lessons, etc. on how to behave on the site and use it effectively in ministry.
- Schedule some church website classes. No doubt there will be some people who aren’t sure how to use some of the features. A class can help them to become more comfortable with the site and give you an opportunity to talk about web etiquette. You may even want to have a class specifically about web etiquette.
- Monitor website activity. Some trusted people in the church should be looking over the church website every day. This doesn’t have to be church leadership. This is probably something that can be done by some volunteers who are interested in the web.
- Lead by example. Monitoring the site is not enough. The leadership in the church should actively participate on the website. This can both provide an example to the members and remind them that, yes, the pastor will know what they said.
- Nip issues in the bud. If you start to see people gossiping more or becoming more argumentative, etc., talk to those involved.
- Use teachable moments. The fact is there will be some incidents on your site. We’re all sinners and we all mess up, but in Christ there is always forgiveness and in the church these are often great teaching moments. These are not only times to teach about how behave online, but also display the love and forgiveness of Christ and teach about various aspects of our faith.
How Should We Act?
So what is web etiquette? What should we be telling our members when talking about how to use the website?
- Remember you are interacting with real people. Be aware of their feelings.
- Be aware of what is ok to discuss in public and what is not. Some things are private. Just like you wouldn’t discuss certain things in front of the whole church, some things shouldn’t be discussed on the website.
- Watch your mouth…or fingers. Use appropriate language.
- Don’t gossip.
- DON’T YELL AT PEOPLE!!
- Consider others before yourself. Just as in the real world, on the Internet we need to put others before ourselves.
- Have tough skin. People are going to disagree with you and that’s ok.
- Don’t condemn any one to hell. I feel a little weird having to say that.
- In all things, show love.
And The Greatest Of These Is Love:
Most the “rules of etiquette” are the same for the website as they are in real life. If we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our virtual neighbor as ourselves, the website will be a wonderful place where members can connect, lean on each other during struggles, share joys, deepen their understanding of the Scriptures, and share the Gospel with visitors. The secret is that the website is really just an extension of our lives. That’s how the website can influence people’s off-line life. As people learn to show love online, they will also show love offline.