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Shatter the echo chamber

Why face-to-face interaction is more important than ever in spreading the Gospel

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Published: 16 November 2017 (GMT+10)
social-media

It is the 21st century. More and more of our lives is being taken over by the prolific use of internet-connected technology. While this is morally neutral, it can lead to all kinds of consequences—sometimes unintended. Researchers have pointed out that one of the obvious dangers of relying extensively on technology is that we tend to become lazy and self-centred, demanding instant gratification rather than being willing to wait patiently.1

Add to this the advent of ‘social media’. Social media use has exploded in the last decade or so, and one of the reasons that social media platforms have been so successful is their ability to capture people’s attention by feeding them content they know will be interesting to that person. They keep track of your past actions and preferences, and use this as a template on which to base future suggestions—creating a feedback loop that some have termed the ‘echo chamber’. Ironically, this echo chamber effect of social media means that, rather than making people more connected, it is tending to have the opposite effect: people are being cloistered into tight-knit groups of like-minded individuals who share similar worldviews, political beliefs, and so forth.2

In a narcissistic, hedonistic culture, people generally want to do things that make them feel good. But listening to people say things that you disagree with—indeed that even challenge the very core of your most deeply-cherished beliefs (your worldview)—is decidedly not a ‘feel-good’ experience. With social media, more and more of our interactions are moving from the real, physical plane to the digital world. But unlike the physical world, if you don’t like what someone is saying in the digital world, it is quite easy to silence them! You can simply ‘unfollow’ their feed and their voice will no longer be heard. I believe this is exactly what happens in the majority of cases online when people are exposed to content that upsets them or attacks their viewpoint.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) confirms exactly that. From their abstract:

Social media heavily changed the way we get informed and shape our opinions. Users’ polarization seems to dominate news consumption on Facebook. Through a massive analysis on 920 news outlets and 376 million users, we explore the anatomy of news consumption on Facebook on a global scale. We show that users tend to confine their attention on a limited set of pages, thus determining a sharp community structure among news outlets.3

The authors of the paper go on to conclude this:

Content consumption on Facebook is strongly affected by the tendency of users to limit their exposure to a few sites. Despite the wide availability of content and heterogeneous narratives, there is major segregation and growing polarization in online news consumption.4

As Christians and as creationists, we would be well-advised to take heed of this information. We are in the minority, but we are commanded to spread the Gospel (the ‘Great Commission’, Matthew 28:16-20). In the so-called ‘olden days’, this would primarily require a person to do what is, for many, unthinkable today: engage an unbeliever with a face-to-face discussion about Jesus, God and the Bible.

Today, however, many Christians are engaging in online attempts at evangelism. I myself could be included in that group; I have been engaging in online witnessing conversations going all the way back to my high school days (over a decade ago). I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that we Christians should not be doing online evangelism! After all, this article is being hosted on our website and of course I want it to be shared on social media.

Where I believe we are missing the mark, however, is when our evangelism is limited exclusively to online interactions. One person plants, another waters, but God gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7); nonetheless, I cannot think of very many, if any, times when I have engaged in online debate with atheists, evolutionists, cult members, etc. that the person has ended the conversation as a new convert. I suspect this is true of more than just my own experience. People just tend not to be won over after online debates. One big reason for this is the polarizing effect that the internet is having on people, as noted by the PNAS study; people who are energized and confident enough to engage in debates to promote their viewpoint are naturally the hardest to convince. They are now emotionally invested in being ‘right’ about the issue. That’s why the main benefit of doing any debate is not for the sake of the opponent but for those listening who may be more open-minded. Developing a personal, face-to-face rapport with somebody is a much more effective way to bring down their knee-jerk defences.

I can also personally attest to the sheer difficulty involved in getting someone who disagrees with creation to actually go to an article at creation.com and read it—even if that person is directly provided with a link. The well has been so poisoned against creationists at large (in the minds of the average skeptic), that they simply will not condescend to reading a creationist article for any reason.

Does this mean that websites like creation.com are a waste of time and resources? Absolutely not! But they must be used for the proper purpose. What do you think is more effective: a) sharing a creation.com article to everyone you know on facebook, or b) reading it yourself and talking about it face-to-face with an unbeliever? After all we have seen thus far, I hope the answer b) is the obvious choice, although these are by no means mutually exclusive!

Evangelism is, more often than not, a lengthy process of slowly answering objections and living out a consistent example, and that is a very hard thing to do remotely and impersonally. Not only that, but the local church must be present to play the vital role of discipleship once a person does become a new convert—that is just the beginning! Jesus instituted the Church for very good reasons, and too often Christians today are falling into the trap of thinking that online interactions and online sermons can substitute for real, physical church attendance.

CMI’s primary ministry role is to equip the Church—while we of course seek to reach unbelievers directly whenever possible, the fact remains that most unbelievers are not going to read our articles or watch our videos. The ‘echo chamber’ effect is illustrated in the fact that, when I write a CMI article, the vast majority of comments I get are positive. That means that most people who read them are already creationist Christians, and I am, in effect, “preaching to the choir”. One of the main ways CMI seeks to equip the Church is by conducting events at local congregations all across the world without charging fees. I have written more than once on the topic of evangelism, as this is perhaps our most important Christian duty. If you have not had a CMI event at your church, I encourage you to talk to your pastor about it and direct them to our events page for more information. We at CMI are depending upon you Christian readers to take this information and spread it further. The Bible calls us to be wise as serpents but innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). Therefore, we should be shrewd about how we go about achieving our Christian goals. If you want to reach people, you have to shatter their personal digital ‘echo chamber’ by talking to them face to face! They cannot unsubscribe from your feed when you are standing right there in front of them.

References and notes

  1. Me, me me! America’s ‘Narcissism Epidemic’, today.com, 20 April 2009. Return to text.
  2. Saxena, R., The social media “echo chamber” is real, arstechnica.com, 13 March 2017. Return to text.
  3. Schmidt, A.L. et al., Anatomy of news consumption on Facebook, PNAS 114(12): 3035–3039, March 2017 | doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1617052114. Return to text.
  4. Cited in ref. 3. Return to text.

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