What Is Fair Game and What Is Not?


There are things to love about how the world is shrinking and other things that are less lovely. We can be involved in ministries that are on the other side of the globe without months of travel and absence from our own place of service. We have access to resources now because of the internet that we did not previously. We can exchange written communication with others in the space of minutes whereas it used to take days, if not weeks. All of this increased access also makes us privy to a lot of things that we would never have known—it’s parked in cyberspace for all to see or hear. Word can spread like wildfire once it hits the email or blog world.

Think about all the heat that was generated a few months ago over a sermon preached in a relatively small gathering tucked away in the mountains (or what Coloradoans would probably call hills) of North Carolina. Had there been no internet and email, I doubt that most of those who heard about it would ever have known it happened. Not that long ago (before Al Gore invented the internet), news about the sermon would have had to travel word of mouth and if someone wanted to hear it for themselves, they would have to call or write in order to have a copy sent through the mail. Almost makes me wish for the good old days.

But we don’t live in that neighborhood anymore. We live in a cyber-bubble where sermons preached in one part of the country get downloaded in another, and where events happening far removed from us seem open to our inspection. The new neighborhood brings many blessings, but there are some downsides to this instant access and wide open existence. For better or worse, a lot of things seem to have become everybody’s business. Presidents resign from colleges (or pastors from churches) and sometimes discussion forums fill up with people’s assessments of whether the full truth was being told or not. An institution publishes a statement and it immediately is dissected and discussed because so many people have a theory as to what it really means or what really motivated it. The increased access just seems to fuel an incessant call for transparency that is joined at the hip with skepticism about most public pronouncements.

I can even pretend to know how to deal with all the craziness that the internet has foisted on us, but I do think we need to set some boundaries somewhere. For me, I am completely in favor with interacting with what people preach and write—public content is fair game. If a sermon is published via paper or pixel, then it is open to evaluation. But the evaluation should stick to what is actually said and seldom (if ever) include guesses about what is motivating it or sharing of opinions about the internal workings of some church or ministry.

As an example, if someone wants to preach a message on women never wearing pants, then the burden on me would be to evaluate the arguments that are made and, if I disagree, show where I believe the preacher is incorrect. I should not assume that the fact that this message was preached, even with its combative style, means that there is a problem in that church over this issue. Not only should I not assume it, I should never broadcast that assumption in the blogosphere. The sermon is public, but the internal workings of a local church are not. And we should be careful about making comments about the preacher himself since our comments are also public. Stick to what he said and leave out personal opinions about his motives or other personal matters. If he is crank that is better ignored, then ignore him. But if you aim to refute his arguments, then deal with his arguments and don’t get sidetracked into all the other stuff.

I know, to my shame, that I have not always practiced what I am saying here. I’m trying and I would urge you to think about it before you send that email or make that blog post or add your comment to some discussion board. The line between cultural commentator and tabloid busybody needs to be maintained.

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