If you know me well, you'll agree that I'm always on social media. I've been on the road for about 30-35 weeks of this year, so I often use it to connect with friends and family.
It has also been helpful in connecting my evangelical theological studies with the views of people I attend church with. Pentecostalism prefers orality over library. So Facebook gives me a chance to discuss issues as they arise, and connect opinions of diverse groups together.
Yep, I've found it to be an awesome tool. But it can also be incredibly damaging for human relationships.
Given that many of my friends are Christians, I could expect Jesus hippie love-
fests, right? Well, I can tell you, my online discussions prove that theory wrong. I find Christians some of the most difficult people to interact with.
And it confuses me, so I've been trying to figure out WHY?
Firstly, Christians tend to use very particular language. For example, they usually know what the word "justification" means. Many phrases are no longer in normal everyday use (can I get a witness?).
But they believe this language is normal. It comes up in interactions with non-
Christians: "You are bitter, and I will pray for you", and also between Christians. In fact, communication between Christians of different denominations is often more fierce. Here's a comment I received last week about my observations on the change in Prime Minister; "Honey, if you haven't gotten the foundation right, no amount of study will help you". Okay. That's a thinly veiled accusation. Or it could be a warning about my house structure.
But I get it, because in their minds these people are fighting for the right to define the Christian faith and identity representatives of over two billion Christians all over the world. Jesus prayed for unity, so the stakes are high. There are some points we have made clear (Jesus was both God and man, etc.) but many things are open to interpretation. Particularly in these areas they persuade, debate and coerce towards defined, and absolute truth.
In this way, Christians often play a "zero sum game". And what is a zero sum game you ask? It's a game in which there is a clear right and wrong, and one winner.
Here is a depiction of a zero sum game.
My problem is that zero sum games only work for simple problems. And that's great, say most of my Christian Facebook friends, because life is simple. You accept Jesus into your heart, and He becomes your Lord and Saviour. Well, while conversion may be simple, our lives as Christians in the real world are not simple. There's nothing in the Bible to give that impression. Try reading Job, for example. Or, for that matter, Paul's life story.
Many universities dealing with real world problems have now abandoned simplicity for complexity theory. While communication departments may still advise future marketers to KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid!), those in the social sciences are grasping complex (wicked) problems. These are difficult or impossible to solve issues. They have incomplete, contradictory, and/or changing requirements. In other words "The Problem" is difficult to recognize, and the term "wicked" here means resistance to resolution, rather than evil.
They intentionally engage in discussion that is not a zero sum game, as depicted here:
Can you see where this is going? Churches believe themselves to be in the business of solving people's real world problems: spiritual problems, mainly, but also material and social problems. And they believe it's simple! Because of this, ordinary Christians often fail to find common areas they can agree on when chatting online.
How does this relate to women?
Well there is just no way to be a woman and miss the memo that life is complex.
Decision to have children: a complex problem.
Child rearing: yep, a complex problem.
Raising a child while working: very complex problem.
Keeping the house vaguely clean while raising a child while working: a super complex problem.
Women have a host of real world issues they face every day. Throughout time, they've dealt with this through communities of women that share information. Often, these women gathered around the kitchen table to talk. Everyone was qualified to speak in these groups, and share life experience.
When a woman gifts me a part of her story, I see it as an honor. I may disagree with her on some things and want to bop her over the head. But I still walk away profoundly richer when she shares with me from her life experiences.
Mothers (and fathers!) more recently have created online spaces for this type of discussion, to deal with complex areas of real life. They collaborate on child raising, and get advice on immunization (do it!), teething, and blended families. These "mummy blogs" now have a great deal of social power.
And similar forms of community building are now all over the web. People swap stuff. They share ideas. They support each other in difficult seasons.
How does this relate to the church?
In contrast, communication in the church tends to be more hierarchical. There is one "expert", and a group of people who are learning biblical application from them. And this is important for a sermon. But few churches spend as much time facilitating discussion and dialogue between their members.
These two ways of talking are becoming further and further apart. More and more, we're segmenting media into groups that discuss the things that are relevant to us, and that reinforce our views. And it's not just the spaces it's also in the communication styles.
I've watched a number of online threads recently as Christian male leaders participate in zero sum games.
It's become a cliche for me, a typical pattern. Women post their experiences of ordinary things and life events, particularly on issues that affect them in the church: family violence, sexual abuse, or even gun control (gasp) and quickly I see a man aggressively enter the discussion, questioning their experiences, implicitly or explicitly denying them. And in these circles, women leaders are now engaging less and less.
The reality is, there are few good online discussion spaces between female and male Christian leaders on Facebook about ordinary non-gendered things.
That might be just me, and my circle of friends. But it's consistent with what seminaries are saying about the formation of Christian women leaders. And it's also consistent with the international development literature, which has been forced to try new ways to get women to participate again in community spaces.
Sometimes I think it would be way easier for me to shut the account down, and walk away. But then I don't get the joy of being able to share my view in a way that adds value to someone, or to learn from these men I appreciate so much.
There are a couple of things I've found important and helpful for discussions, maybe a good rule of thumb for a worship team Facebook page, or a church website.
- Don't let a man enter a conversation by denying a women's direct life experience. Dismissive questions like, "where were you when that happened?" can be effective in communicating that she is wrong.
- Do encourage guys (and girls) when they find a common point of agreement in a tricky discussion.
- If someone says something that's good in helping the conversation move to common ground, be as quick to note it as you would be to note a point you disagree with.
- Be quick to apologize when the other person communicates that they are offended by your words or actions.
- Respect the other person. Remember, they are made in the image of God (Imago Dei).
- For more productive sharing of wisdom, intentionally set up conversations that are not a zero sum game.
We have a long way to go in some places. But it's important for the church globally to know that men don't have to be "right" at the expense of women. Save zero sum games for the sports field, and let's start sharing wisdoms about our complex real world lives.