Christian Piatt recently posted on Red Letter Christians about the problem of “trolls” in the Christian blogosphere. For those of you who are unfamiliar, “troll” is a term that’s used for people who enter into Internet discussions for the purpose of heckling and sabotage rather than genuine dialogue. As you might imagine, calling someone out as a troll is a very subjective assessment that is often unfairly deployed.
Sometimes people are wrongly accused of being trolls but other times people have every intention of being trolls. I’ve been parts of groups that did this. In shareholder protests, for example, people buy a stock in a company that does something they disagree with so they can get into their shareholder meeting and cause a disruption. While the goal is ostensibly to raise the awareness of other shareholders, it’s not because the shareholder activists are truly invested in the success of that particular company; they come for the sake of their cause. Now to be clear, I don’t think this is necessarily wrong. If a group of people has an agenda that isn’t worth supporting, it may be appropriate to infiltrate that group and sabotage their agenda to promote a different one.
The question is whether it is appropriate to troll one another’s conversations within the body of Christ. Should we sabotage what other Christians are trying to do because we disagree with their theology? Some Christians think that other Christians are false prophets and consider it their duty to expose and sabotage them. I have a question for Christians like this who have given themselves the authority to judge who is a real Christian and who isn’t: at what point do you decide someone else is irredeemably damned and unworthy of evangelism? Because being a troll is the opposite of evangelism.
Let me explain. It is essential to my identity as a Christian that I continually represent Christ and evangelize (share the good news of Christ with) everyone I encounter. Before you react in terror to that statement, let me clarify that evangelism doesn’t really mean what it’s come to mean in our age of self-righteousness. It absolutely does not mean getting in other people’s faces and telling them they’re going to hell. That kind of one way conversation has the purpose of puffing myself up with pride and self-satisfaction rather than inviting others into a deeper experience of God’s kingdom. That kind of “evangelism” is an oxymoronic trolling for Christ which blasphemes His name by making other people that much less receptive to the true gospel.
True evangelism involves recognizing that I don’t own Christ. Christ cannot be my Lord and savior if He’s my trophy. In true evangelism, I am sharing the joy of a savior I have only started getting to know. If my purpose is to make it clear that the other person is an outsider and I’m an insider, that’s self-affirmation, not evangelism. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about evangelism in our time is thinking it’s entirely directed at causing an instantaneous “conversion” from not being something to being something rather than being a continual encouragement of others regardless of where they are on the perpetual journey of coming to know God.
True evangelism has to do with sharing the exciting news of Jesus Christ. False evangelism is most concerned with making sure somebody else knows, “You’re not, but I am.” If I have the right understanding of evangelism as a Christian, I should hope to be evangelized by other Christians because it shouldn’t signify any loss of status on my part to receive the good news again and again. It’s also entirely appropriate for me to evangelize other Christians which isn’t about arguing theology with them and convincing them that my way is better but instead about winning them into a deeper experience of the kingdom even as God wins me more deeply in the process.
Living evangelistically simply means I’m excited about Jesus and I want others to share my excitement so I shape my behavior according to this goal. This means picking my battles ideologically speaking and cherishing the irreducible value of each individual human I encounter. If I’m completely unconcerned with understanding other people and affirming the truths that I can affirm in what they say and do, then I’m really not interested in evangelism because evangelism involves helping others make sense of God and accept Christ’s salvation making use of their own experiences and values. Certainly we all have values that need to change, but that change occurs when we feel safe enough to open our hearts. In a world where trolls are screaming back and forth at each other with their cyber-megaphones, evangelism is like playing a pickup soccer game in the streets of Ciudad Juarez with drug cartel bullets whizzing past you.
So what should we do when we encounter trolls in the Christian blogosphere? We should evangelize them, sharing Christ’s love by speaking respectfully and affirming their values to the degree that we can with integrity, so that they will stop trolling and share the evangelistic word that God has placed in their hearts to give to us. I have utterly failed God so many times in my conversations with trolls. I have allowed Satan to use them to make me into a troll too by putting my own base satisfaction in coming up with clever, cutting sarcasm above God’s call to share His love with all. I need to take to heart Paul’s words in Romans 14:19: “Let us pursue that which leads to peace and mutual edification.” Or the words of Hebrews 10:24: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” That’s evangelism: provoking one another to fall more deeply in love with God. Evangelize me and I will do the same for you. And maybe one day there will be no more trolls.