What The Church Can Learn From the “Fake News” Phenomenon

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2016 could be categorized by an increased sensitivity to the reality of “fake news” in our society. It’s definitely not a new phenomenon, but perhaps a louder, and more rapid-growing one. Years ago, sites such as Snopes were created and dedicated to helping people discern true from false stories, especially Internet-circulated material. We just thought going viral was easy ten years ago; in today’s world, a story can become nationally recognized and reported within mere minutes. Some sites are intentionally fake, such as The Babylon Bee and The Onion, which both aim to provide their own commentary on society in an often playful way, but also experimentally show how some people will believe anything they read on the Internet after all.

There was a great recent example of fake news in America, not far from my hometown. It was the story of a local “Santa Claus” who went to the hospital and cared for a terminally ill boy on the verge of death. In the interview with the man, he talked about their sweet conversation they had before the boy died peacefully in the arms of Saint Nick. The story, needless to say, took off within moments, branching from Knoxville local news to social media, and then to major cable news networks. Within 24 hours, though, reports showed that many details from the story were not only missing, but were unable to be verified. No obituary for the boy, no indication the man visited the hospital, and a host of other information that didn’t add up. Now, many think the story was not at all as it was told.

“Fake news” is truly crippling our ability to receive, transfer, and communicate information. I’ve been there. I shared the picture of the shark that was reportedly a National Geographic award winner for 2016, only to figure out it was fake. I almost shared the fake C.S. Lewis quote from Screwtape on politics, until I realized that I couldn’t find it in the book. Unfortunately, it looks as if “fake news” isn’t going away anytime soon. The burden of separating truth from false is going to fall on our shoulders.

Can the Church learn from this cultural phenomenon? I believe so. The practice of Christian discernment is important, and when we don’t implement it, it leads to bad pitfalls. The reality is, “fake news” is not only concerned with the shared stories that go viral on social media. “Fake news” also rears its head in the local church when we fall into assumption, gossip, accusation, and slander. Many churches have split over a simple “he said, she said” argument. Pastors have been burned by unnecessary defamation, sometimes behind their backs. Rumors rise even within church walls.

We need to do better at not falling for online hoaxes, but for our churches, maybe there is a deeper, more significant issue at hand parallel to this. What are the steps we can take in attempting to avoid falling for church-related disinformation? How can we protect our pastors, our people, and our churches from letting it destroy relationships and trust?

Avoid Reflex Judgments.
Recently I saw a friend of mine in ministry say something that caught me way off guard, something that seemed extremely out of line. I was a bit frustrated, honestly, and after getting to the car with my wife, she asked, “What was that all about?” I explained away that this is just how his personality is at times. But come to find out, once I gathered more context about the situation, I realized that not only was I wrong about the situation, but I found myself agreeing with what he said!

Case in point, I judged him on a reflex. Something he said appeared to me in one way, but it was actually something altogether different. This was me forgetting Jesus’s command in John 7:24 – “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” Right judgment. What does Jesus mean? Jesus means judgment that is deserved, or righteous. This means gathering legitimate information before making an assertion. This means gaining context for what happened. Just like we should do our research online, so we should “do our research” before falling into snap judgments.

Go To Them.
A sure-fire way to avoid making a reflex judgment is going to your brother or sister and saying, “What happened here? I want to make sure I am understanding correct.” In the online world, I am convinced that we fall for fake news and misinterpret communication often because we are not having face-to-face conversation. We often, to our fault, trust online sources without actually searching them out for who or what they are. Encounter means understanding, and referencing my story from above, an encounter would’ve helped me avoid wrong pre-judgment.

In Matthew 18, Jesus gives us wisdom for how to handle getting to the bottom of something when we feel wronged. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (18:15). We should assume in light of this that sometimes, those who have wronged us may not know they have done so. It also assumes that there are two sides to every story, and if we feel wronged, we should labor to better understand. It takes our initiation to search out the truth of the matter. And the goal, in light of this verse, is to go to your brother to gain him, not to push him away, shame him, or put him on the chopping block.

Be Honest.
This should go without saying, but another simple way we defeat disinformation in the Church is by telling the truth. A quick way to demoralize the unity of the body of Christ is telling half-truths, keeping secrets, or creating stories to distract from the reality of what happened. It’s one of the perennial commandments to not bear false witness, and that includes any sort of bending or distortions of the truth.

I think back to the Presidential nominee debates from this year, and I remember the countless times men and women stood with serious dispositions and told everything from half-truths to bold-faced lies. It’s an appalling way of trying to win votes. Why should I want to vote for someone who uses false witness to get ahead? Our churches shouldn’t have to hire fact-checkers; we should people people who are “walking in the truth,” who offer true testimony out of love for the Church (see 3 John for truth-soaked passages).

Leverage Grace.
Sometimes, after doing your due diligence and getting the real story, you will find that someone should be judged with right judgment. There’s no fake news after all. You wouldn’t violate what John 7:24 says by being upset with what happened. So, you’ve approached them, and turns out, it is as you had thought. But before you get ready to tell them off, or to privately or publicly condemn them, take a moment and remember that this could be a wonderful gospel reminder to you and to them both. We believe in a gospel of grace, summed into three words: “God saves sinners.” From Genesis to Revelation, grace fills every page of the Word of God, and the fact that we live and breathe today as children of God is an astounding grace itself.

How powerful would it be for you, in your conversation with your brother or sister in Christ who has hurt you, and explain to them that though you were hurt and wronged, you are choosing to forgive them in light of God’s graciousness towards you? How this would confirm the good news of the gospel in your heart, and in theirs as well! And to your non-Christian friend, what if the best way we can evangelize unbelievers to God’s gospel is by demonstrating it with tangible forgiveness? They see what you did, and are astounded that someone would do that; but human grace becomes more plausible in light of divine grace.

“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers” (Jam. 1:16). That goes for viral stories, but more so for what happens in the Church. Unity is critical to our makeup as being the body of Christ, and we must do away with falling into untested judgment, fueling the rumor mill, and graceless moments of tension. Let’s be an example to the world on how to navigate these matters, and pave the way forward for being grounded in truth.

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