How to Evangelize Online and Actually Maintain Your Peace

So the Internet exploded yesterday. That’s just the best way to describe it.

Some are jubilant. Others are disappointed, angry, upset. It’s not surprising that many people took to social media or their blogs or the comment sections of news websites to express themselves.

But guess what? This is a great time to be an online evangelist. And we need to take advantage of it.

Online evangelism is a tricky thing. I know… I once tried to evangelize online. And it wasn’t just any old place on the Web, oh no...

I tried to evangelize on Yahoo! Answers.

It's really this terrifying.

It's really this terrifying.

Call me a masochist, but in high school and college, I used to sally forth into the dark realm of the Society & Culture (aka philosophy and theology) section of Yahoo! Answers on a mission to combat error. I searched for questions like “Why do Catholics worship Mary,” “Why is abortion wrong,” “Is there really a god.” I’d try to provide balanced, logical answers in a kind tone, hoping they’d convince someone.

I felt like it was my obligation. The site was there, and I had answers, and people were asking questions; I couldn’t not answer them. And it would have been fine... if I hadn’t read any of the other comments.

Let’s just say I got a little terrified for the future of humanity.

And then one day I realized it depressed me to go there. Every time I clicked on a question, I was presented with the Sisyphean task of ascending an Everest of fallacies and insults. It was exhausting, and it was affecting my happiness, so I stopped going. My first attempt at online evangelization was, for the most part, a complete failure, and for a long time, I gave up doing it.

Let's fast forward to yesterday, the day I didn't post anything about SCOTUS or marriage or equality. Not a tweet. Not anything. Have I still given up sharing the truth online?

Hardly. I'm still trying to evangelize. And I think that's a delicate balance of charity, reason, joy, and prudence.

Here are some tips that I've used since my Yahoo! Answers days, and I hope they'll help you in the coming weeks as you spread the joy of the Gospel online.

#1. Make a friend before you make a point.

Let’s say you’re out with a group of friends at a bar, and a new acquaintance sits next to you. You find you’ve got a lot in common; you like their favorite beer, your music tastes are equally refined, they laughed at your joke. And then they casually mention their live-in fiance.

Should you A) stand up from the table, throw your beer in their face, and prophesy their damnation; B) gently begin counseling them about their life of sin; or C) take another sip of beer and just keep listening?

Jesus would have picked C. After all, He drank with tax collectors and sinners. He wasn’t there to condemn them or even primarily to chasten them. He was there first to show them they were loved.

My guess is that you’d never pick options A or B in real life; it would be reeeal awkward. And yet, for some reason, it’s so easy to do either of those things online. There’s no unbearable silence, laughter, or angry looks in a Facebook comment thread.

The point you could make to someone might be the complete, objective truth, but if you’re not seen as a caring friend--as a trusted authority--you probably won’t be believed. If you speak up in that bar or online without really knowing a person, you won’t have a chance at convincing them. 

Maybe you’ll be good enough friends for that in an hour or after a few more beers, or maybe months; that’s up to your conscience and the Holy Spirit. But if you start off any relationship or conversation by describing in exquisite detail the tortures of hellfire, you won’t win anyone’s heart over.

#2. Debate is great. Argument is not.

Some of the comment threads I saw yesterday were the worst I've ever seen. Each confrontational comment splintered off into a thousand more threads of vitriol and mud-slinging and ad hominem attacks. That’s what happens when you argue online, instead of debate.

I make the distinction because arguments are typically heated exchanges, which evangelization should never be. When commenters argue, they’re only listening for their opponent to take a breath so they can jump back in. They’re not interested in the truth; they’re interested in being right. And that's never more true than on a day when everyone's emotions are running amok.

I don’t mean you should never be emotional or worked about the faith; the truth is important! But never make it a personal attack, and always consider that you care for this other person, which is why you want to discover the truth together. Plus, if you blow off someone or insult them, they'll probably never listen to you again. 

And if someone starts ranting about something you say, don't respond in kind. Same deal.

#3. Be joyful. Don’t be a Calamity Catholic!

My fellow Catholics, we have got to stop being so negative. Now more than ever.

This world has definite darkness in it. There is real evil going on that needs to be pointed out and defeated. Sometimes it feels like all our actions are pointless in the face of it all, and that all we can do right now, in the moment, is vent. But when you’re sharing the faith, don’t make it seem like you’re just shaking your head and hoping tomorrow’s forecast includes brimstone. Be joyful!

We expect about ten inches of divine retribution this evening...

We expect about ten inches of divine retribution this evening...

And I don’t mean “sound happy about it.” Heaven knows millions of people in the world appear happy when they’re really alone, lost, and helpless. What I mean is that joy is an essential element of the Gospel, and if you’re not joyful, you’re not living the Gospel as completely as you could be.

How do you become joyful? It’s the same thing that your atheist friend or agnostic relative will have to do to God: surrender.

Surrender your weakness to God’s strength, because you can’t make it through life by yourself. Surrender your pride to God’s love. Surrender your fear to God’s fatherly care. That’s how you become joyful, and joyful love is what will attract people to the faith. And no ruling of a court of men should undermine your joyful trust in God's providence.

Online communication is so limited and so easy to take out of context. A person may only see one tweet or post from you. Make sure the joy of the Gospel shines through it!

#4. Don't proselytize; evangelize.

Being Catholic doesn’t mean your every Google+ update has to be about the saint of the day. It doesn't even mean you need to say anything about SCOTUS. Just because three billion people are online doesn’t mean you MUST preach to them all. You shouldn’t try to convert the entire interwebs by yourself. 

Unless you're this guy^

Unless you're this guy^

Ultimately, I think that’s why my adventures (misadventures?) on Yahoo! Answers were miserable: I was doing it alone, without help, feeling like it was me against all the idiots of the planet. But that’s silly. When we share our faith online, we’re not preaching to a faceless web of computers, we’re sharing the good news with individual people... no matter how abrasive or ignorant or angry or cruel they might seem. And our online activity, just like our physical activity, should all be accompanied by prayer so that the Holy Spirit can reach the hearts of those who see our messages, even if our words fall short.

So post some spiritual inspiration if you like, send someone an encouraging private message on Facebook, or even (I’m shameless) just share this post, and put it all in God’s hands. He’ll take care of the rest.

And if you're just really tired of a rainbow-colored Facebook feed and you think the most charitable thing to do right now is not to alienate the people you're trying to evangelize to, you've got two options. You could log off for a while and get a Rosary prayed... Or you can start taking Midamor. It’s for high blood pressure.

Just keep in mind that peace is a fruit of the Spirit.


BLOG BY CONER HENLEY

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Conor Hennelly got his start in writing when he began writing subversive literature against his home room teacher in 3rd grade. He never successfully obtained a full hour of recess time, but he did manage to graduate from Ave Maria University with a degree in philosophy. He now works in marketing, which basically means he makes you want things for a living. We here at The Crossroads Pursuit think that's pretty cool.