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Rules for the Digital Road
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By Shawn Boonstra

Many hail social media as the next great frontier for outreach, and perhaps they're right. Twitter and Facebook, after all, provide the ability to touch peoples' lives immediately, constantly and personally, from anywhere on the planet. Can you witness on Facebook? Yes, you can ... but there are some important keys to remember.

1. It's a social network. People use the network as part of (or sometimes, in lieu of) their social lives. Advertisers have learned, the hard way, that people don't use Facebook for shopping. They're mostly looking for real contact with real people, and aren't likely to pay much attention to those who are forever posting announcements or ads, even if they are for church events.

2. Don't abuse tagging. Tagging is used to let someone (or their friends) know when he or she appears in a photo. Christians are sometimes tempted to take things a little further, unfortunately: they'll make a religious statement with a picture - say a graphic that promotes their favorite theological hobby horse - and then tag people in that picture in an effort to get them to look at it. Or, worse yet, fearing that their own friend list is too short for the picture to garner much attention, they'll tag people with longer friend lists in order to broaden their exposure. It's the modern day digital equivalent of stuffing religious tracts into the pockets of clothing in a store - a form of theft, because it takes something that belongs to someone else (be it shelf space or personal reputation) to promote your own views. Don't assume people will be excited by the same things you are. If you tag them, and they don't see it for weeks, it'll only create resentment, and instead of serving as a witness, it'll get you unfriended.

3. Don't hijack threads. When you insert a thought into a discussion that is unrelated to the topic at hand, you're hijacking a thread. It's considered rude, and looks especially distasteful when you post links to websites that promote your political or religious views. The same holds true for peoples' walls: someone else's wall is not free advertising space for you. It's his or her wall, and the place for you to advertise is on your wall. Using someone else's is the digital equivalent of telemarketing. Annoying, right?

4. Don't preach. I will never forget the day I posted that I had just discovered, to my delight, that Oreos are vegan. In the space of about twenty minutes, I had received more than eighty replies warning me of the dangers of sugar. I had eaten a single Oreo. One. The previous day, I had posted that we had baptized hundreds of people in a recent evangelistic effort - and that garnered eleven responses. Fortunately, I know the Adventist community and its obsession with checking peoples' plates, so it didn't strike me quite as negatively as if I had been an outsider, but it still resulted in a few people getting booted off my friend list. Yes, we're all about health - but pouncing on someone's statements and/or activities, especially in a public forum, is not likely to score you points. A casual statement that my wife had enjoyed something Lucille Ball had said scored me a couple of mini sermons about the entertainment industry, too. It's not witnessing, it's uninvited meddling. And invited is a key concept in evangelism. Before you post, picture a street corner preacher shouting people down as they pass by: "you're on your way to hell!!!" Then remember that, believe it or not, it's actually easier to come across that way online. Don't forget: it's a social network, and to succeed, you have to avoid being anti-social. Go ahead and treat your own Facebook account like a pulpit (let me know how it turns out), but never, ever use someone else's.

5. Don't add people to groups without asking. This is an offense related to thread hijacking and intrepid tagging. Facebook has now made it possible to add people to groups without first asking them, which means that someone could make a group that called "Charlie Manson is a True Prophet," and add you to it without your permission. You might not discover your participation for weeks, or months. What's that? Your group isn't offensive? You need to extend the courtesy of letting your invitees make that decision. Don't forget: just because Facebook lets you do something, it doesn't mean you should.

6. Protect a person's right to privacy. There is a generation that now assumes that everything is for public consumption. They record every event and put it up in cyberspace for all time. They hang their private lives out in front of the world every day, scarcely remembering that once it's on the web, you will never likely be able to retract it. Before commenting on something, ask yourself if it might not be better to send the message privately. If Sarah, a very close friend who confides in you frequently, posts, "having a tough day," the place to ask, "is that because you're still fighting with your mother-in-law?" is her private message box, not her wall. I know: in that instance, it seems obvious, but we ought to ask every single time we reply to a post whether our comments ought to be public.

Most people instinctively known how to behave online, but alas, there is an alarming percentage of our church membership that doesn't have netiquette - so much so that I've taken to keeping my non-Adventist friends in a separate account to be sure that the "witness" they experience is positive. Perhaps it's time for churches to include netiquette in soul-winning workshops.