Not long ago, we talked about the evangelical concept of a witness. This Christianese term describes the sum total of their knowledge of Christianity, their wisdom in communicating it, their effectiveness as evangelists, and their overall credibility as people. Evangelicals have never been great at maintaining their witness. In the decades since their decline began in earnest, they’ve somehow gotten even worse at it.
But there’s one place that they fail more spectacularly than anywhere else, and that’s the internet. Online, they have wrecked and mangled their witness beyond repair. Why? Let’s explore that question today.
(This post appeared on Patreon on 11/14/2023. Its audio cast is there too!)
Evangelicals have always paraded around online
One nice afternoon around the late 1980s, I was walking around my college campus with a pair of evangelical friends of mine, Mike and Tom. Both hailed from out of state, though from markedly different states. Both attended the local Maranatha church, while I was of course Pentecostal. And both were intensely evangelical and involved with playing worship music for their church.
That day, Tom acted particularly revved up. He’d just learned that some churchmate of theirs was planning to make an actual internet service! This was really incredible news for all of us. At the time, such access was almost impossible to attain for normies. We only had it because we lived on-campus and had accounts through our school. What Tom described sounded almost exactly like America Online, though none of us had ever heard of it: a portal service that granted some limited access to the outer Wild West outposts. And get this: it’d be distinctly evangelical! It’d be evangelicals’ home away from home, a place to fellowship and learn and have sinless fun!
I think he called it Harvest America or something like that. I’m not sure if it ever became a reality; I never signed up for it. When AOL burst upon the scene around that time, I got the impression AOL had bought them or that Harvest had turned into AOL or something. At the time, a lot of internet folks hung out on Usenet, a sort of text-only forum with next to no moderation tools. It wasn’t the only way to communicate, but it was one of the most popular at first.
Here’s one Christian’s summary of how it worked (archive), along with how groups and topics were designated. And here’s a list of old Usenet groups from around that time (and another from what appears to be 1997). Also in 1997, Christian.net offered a guide to help Christians find religious resources on Usenet.
Almost from the start of their adventures on that more-simplified consumer internet, evangelicals’ conduct online wasn’t often anything their pastors would have wanted to see.
Evangelism online in wild and wooly Internet 1.0
Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians populated the internet from its beginnings, though their footprints can sometimes be difficult to perceive. One 2011 book, Digital Jesus, describes a few of the earliest vanity websites in the 1990s, like Marilyn Agee’s Prophecy Corner (see also her 2009 Rapture prediction here) and Lambert Dolphin’s Lambert’s Library. Heck, Bible Gateway got started in 1993!
By 1996, Time had noticed all this religious stuff going on (archive). After describing the remote, anachronistically primitive Monastery of Christ in New Mexico, their writer slings this head-turner:
If you must reach one of the monks, a hand-carved wooden sign offers a simple 16th century suggestion: “Ring this bell.”
Or you can send E-mail, in care of email@example.com. Remote as they may seem, the brothers of Christ in the Desert are plugged into the Internet. Using electricity generated by a dozen solar panels and a fragile data link through a single cellular phone, the monks have developed a heavily trafficked Benedictine home page and started a new business designing and maintaining other people’s Websites. [. . .]
The signs of online religious activity are everywhere. If you instruct AltaVista, a powerful Internet search engine, to scour the Web for references to Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the program turns up an impressive 25,000 references. But ask it to look for Web pages that mention God, and you’ll get 410,000 hits. Look for Christ on the Web, and you’ll find him–some 146,000 times.
And just after describing how quickly Americans were heading online, we get these interesting conversations:
Thus on the Internet, Catholics suddenly find themselves keyboard-to-keyboard with devil worshippers, Jews modem-to-modem with Islamic fundamentalists. “I put the [Reverend Moon’s] Unification Church right up there with the wonderful world of Mormon,” someone with the screen name Marzioli posted recently on a Usenet newsgroup. The next message snapped back, “Marz, you are an ignorant disinformationist. Wake up, man!!!”
Uh oh! Trouble in paradise—already?!?
Wrecking a witness online in the early days
That one Christian Usenet summary I mentioned earlier (relink)(archive) also offers some notes taken during a seminar from 2005 on the topic of internet evangelism. Since he notes it occurred in Lynchburg, I’m betting it was a Liberty University production. It’s noteworthy to me that the writer goes to the trouble he does to caution against hypocritical behavior that would wreck an erstwhile evangelist’s witness:
If you were to reach more people in the world via one communications medium, which would you use? What would your message say? [. . .]
DON’T SHOUT; spelling flames aren’t considered good taste; say more than ‘I Agree’ ‘Amen!’ etc. be careful with humor and sarcasm; pray over your posts: sometimes leave the ‘hot’ ones while you sleep!
Apologetics on Usenet is not about winning arguments, scoring points, belittling others; good theology and hermeneutics; moving from ‘simplicity this side of complexity to simplicity the other side of complexity’ (concrete vs. formal thinking – Piaget); Google research; don’t use Bible texts-out-of-context as weapons; use non-sexist language (without being a slave to ‘political correctness!’); be ‘irenic’ and teachable; ‘what unites Christians is much more important than what divides them: but we often have less patience with the one denying half our creed, than with another who denies the whole of it: learn to affirm Christian unity-in-diversity (‘In things essential, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; In all things, charity.’ Thomas a Kempis. [. . .]
Wisdom From Usenet friends: ‘Be careful of just how transparent you are, and above all, share nothing you wouldn’t share with the entire world. :)’ ‘On Usenet everything’s archived, unless you request otherwise. THINK before you post, and if you can’t stand by it, don’t say it.’ ‘If you don’t want your faith challenged, stay off the ‘Net.’ ‘You cannot make any assumptions about the people. All you deal with is black characters on a white background. All you have is the text, and no context.’ ‘People in most newsgroups are not here to truly listen, they are here to prove their point. For most, logic and reason are used for the first post or two, then when attacked (personally or ideologically) it reverts to name calling.’ ‘This is not a place for the faint hearted or the easily upset!’ [John Mark Ministries, 2005 (archive)]
He also offered what he called “samples of Usenet ‘theology.'” Yes, the scare quotes were in the original. This was just gotcha questions he said non-Christians were asking even back then (I can’t say either way if they were):
- “Was Hitler a Christian? He said he was.”
- “Were there Australian koalas and Antarctic king penguins in Noah’s ark?”
- “You have your God. I have an Invisible Pink Unicorn. Same evidence for the existence of each!”
And all that comes from 2005. By then, the internet was evolving into forums and the age of social media was beginning in earnest. Usenet was already fading into the background at the time. That said, you can see that evangelism-minded Christians still desperately wanted to infest all those crowds of non-Christians.
By 2003, a snark site dedicated to mocking particularly delusional, controlling, and hypocritical evangelicals had already taken root: Fundies Say the Darndest Things. So had Bishop Accountability, which gathered together information and documents regarding sex predators in then mostly-Catholic ministry. Stop Baptist Predators, run by sex abuse survivor Christa Brown, started just a few years later.
But no evangelicals cared about dumb stuff like their witness
If I found the freedom online back then intoxicating, I can only imagine what strung-tight, ultra-repressed fundagelicals thought—and think—of it. But their lack of self-awareness keeps them from understanding just how bad the situation is.
- They judge and condemn people mercilessly.
- They’re utter hypocrites.
- They have no clue how to be friends with others. (True: See Karen Swallow Prior’s 2022 essay “The scandal of evangelical friendship.”)
It’s more related to offline behavior, but it sure describes their online behavior too. Hilariously, Nieuwhof himself misses the boat often on his own exhortation. Regarding that last point, he himself insists that any friendship with a heathen must at some point involve evangelism.
As well, Outreach Magazine ran an excerpt from Ed Stetzer in 2018 (archive) that specifically addressed evangelicals’ online behavior. It is an absolutely and hilariously un-self-aware bit of pure snide, aggressive nastiness from someone who feels free to smear and insult tons of people he doesn’t like while lecturing his evangelical followers to use the internet in a properly-Jesusy way. You’ll notice, if you check out the post, that Stetzer’s first targets of derision and ridicule are apostates. It goes downhill from there.
On that same note, Marv Knox wrote a very good opinion post at Baptist News Global (archive) about evangelical hypocrisy. In it, he briefly mentions “the aggressive hypocrisy of big-name preachers, social network influencers and the occasional denominational kingpin.”
When a writer for Relevant lamented the overall situation in 2022, he might not have realized that evangelicals have literally always been like this:
Christians are called to be Christ’s ambassadors: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
But for some reason on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, many times, it seems like Christ is completely absent from our minds.
Why evangelicals keep acting like asshats online
To translate Marv Knox’s post from Christianese, he blames two main factors for evangelicals’ hypocrisy:
- They’ve reduced the rich breadth of Christian theology to “a mere transaction.” In other words, after acceptingjesusastheirpersonallordandsaviorthankyouamen, they feel they are now safe from Hell—and so they can fly their hypocrisy flag high from now on.
- They now care more about the “hollow-but-consuming God of power politics” than obeying their god’s commands. Well, it’s always been like that, but now it’s a lot more so. Peasants, slaves, serfs, and commoners had no real input to their leaders’ decisions in centuries past, but now that any normie can become a big-name politician, influencer, or megachurch pastor, the kind of power they can barely even imagine must seem like it’s right at their fingertips.
To a great extent, both of these factors derive from evangelicals’ utterly warped, solipsistic, and cruelly-sadistic worldview.
First and foremost, evangelicals are dysfunctional authoritarians. That means that the first thing on their minds is power: acquiring it, guarding it, growing it, protecting it, flexing it, and taking it from others. Their groups can’t function in any real sense to accomplish their own stated goals. Instead, they exist to funnel power from followers to leaders, who use it however they please. The more and the stricter the rules of the group, the more the leaders act out—because power is nothing if it is not used, and following rules means the rules hold power over you. Every person in these groups is jockeying to climb the ladder of power, or else they function as stepping-stones for the rest.
This is why evangelicals constantly disobey the rules they claim a real live god handed them for the good of all humanity. Their entire system is sick and broken; you cannot get from Point Conversion to Point Completely Obedient Christian following these rules, and they’re not even meant to take followers there. They’re meant to be broken. The entire system of rules and demands is made to be failed, always, constantly, egregiously. That way, followers will always be chasing the dragon of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
Put an evangelical like that into a situation where they think they can get away with abusing someone, and that is what they will do. Put them in a situation where they can safely transgress even their group’s most sacred rules, and that’s what’s gonna happen. The higher up the ladder that person is, the safer they are in breaking their rules and abusing people. Underlings usually need to scurry under cover of darkness and abuse only utterly-safe targets like children and retail workers, yes. But big-name evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Donald Trump (archive) can openly flout their rules and openly, flagrantly silence their victims.
If their victims don’t want to be victimized, then they need to find protectors. If they can’t, then they’re fair game for those with more power, just like little fish are food for big fish.
The Evangelical Alternate Internet Fuckwad Theory
Back in 2004, a webcomic called Penny Arcade formulated John Gabriel’s “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.” It runs thusly:
Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = TOTAL FUCKWAD
It has since seen some alternates proposed, like this one:
Relatively Normal Person + Perceived Internet Privacy + Yes-Man Audience = TOTAL FUCKWAD
This alternate theory might explain why Brianna Wu, an influencer on social media, had to apologize mightily just a couple months ago for participating in a group chat insulting the clothing choices and appearance of a fellow trans woman. In this pic below, she’s the one saying “God” and “I mean…”
She felt at-liberty to participate in this discussion because she thought she was surrounded only by sympathizers. But someone capped it and leaked it along with some other conversations. The same happens to countless Christian hypocrites online every day, like Tom Buck of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). These little secret transgressions, if you’ll pardon a bit of a pun there, are the bread-and-butter currency of social climbers in authoritarian groups.
So it’s not anonymity that loosens one’s inhibitions, I don’t think, because in recent years young adults have gotten much more comfortable with interacting online under their real names. You’ll notice that in the above example, Brianna Wu is the only one using her actual real name! So the same stuff is going on, but it’s happening with and without anonymity. Cartoonist “But a Jape” captured the phenomenon well:
And this is a new situation, really. Of the high-school classmates whose names I can even remember, I can’t even find most of them online. I know they’re there, but they use Gen X-style opsec. We’re all locked down and sitting behind seven proxies. But Millennials started tentatively using their real names on MySpace and Facebook, and now Zoomers seem completely comfortable about doing the same. It blows my mind that parents even put pictures of their kids online, ever, for any reason, but it seems like the privacy dam has long ago burst and will never be rebuilt.
I propose, then, the Authoritarian Greater Fuckwad Theory to explain evangelicals’ behavior:
Authoritarian Person + Cravings for Power + Seemingly Safe Opportunity = TOTAL FUCKWAD
Or I could just go all Jesusy on evangelicals and quote Luke 6:45:
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
But if evangelicals didn’t heed him earlier, then they sure won’t listen to a heathen quoting him now.
A completely utterly without-question blown witness
Some years after that conversation about Harvest America with Mike and Tom, I found myself a nice ex-Christian forum to hang out on. I made a lot of friends there and enjoyed most of our discussions. When I had to join Facebook for my blog platform at the time, I connected with many of those folks there too.
One day, one of the men there mentioned that he’d run into some purely awful, toxic evangelicals at a Christian site. We went over to have a peek for ourselves, and yes, it was as bad as he described—if not worse!
These were Calvinists, a doctrinal stance I hadn’t encountered much before. And they were just nasty, awful people. They insulted us, tried to cold-read us to manipulate us, smeared us with strawmen set ablaze, declared us sub-human and incapable of any human emotions like love, and more. For a very brief spell, it really fucked with my head. I just had no idea how to deal with people that genuinely cruel and sadistic. They weren’t persuading us that their fairy tale was true, no, not at all. Rather, they were just the most unabashedly worst-behaving Christians I have ever beheld in my entire life, and they still hold that grand title even today. And yes, I’m counting Biff there. Even he was never so evil toward heathens.
I cannot for even one moment overstate how shockingly bad of a witness they had.
When I pointed out this fact, however, they had a very easy way around the problem. See, they had already redefined their behavior as Jesusy! Therefore, we were the ones with the problem here, not them! We just couldn’t handle the capital-T TROOF they had as TRUE CHRISTIANS™!
That incident was one of the two that sparked Roll to Disbelieve into life.
A couple of years later in 2014, Neil Carter of the blog Godless in Dixie described almost identical behavior from a darling big name of Calvinism, Sye Ten Bruggencate. Seven years later, Bruggencate would lose his ministry career (archive) after someone threatened to make public that he’d sexually abused a “vulnerable woman.” And a few months later, the guy tried to redefine himself as “exonerated” (archive) to get back onto the money train. Alas for him, many evangelicals weren’t having it.
How evangelicals get around their blown witness
Communication and engagement are a two-way process. Even what we’re doing now, with my writing or audio casts, is two-way. I’m thinking about you, and what you like to hear about, and what might interest you. You in turn hear me or read what I write, and any comments you make or any upticks in page views tell me more about what you want. I call our schedule a dance card because that’s how I think of writing!
The closer two people get, the more two-way their engagement becomes. There are social rules that govern how they behave, like for what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and how to handle normal potential conflicts and misunderstandings.
If one person unilaterally redefines the terms of engagement, though, that can destroy any potential for communion and mutual understanding. It allows that one person to act in ways that hurt and damage the other person and their relationship. But when the other person protests, the first person just loftily declares that they’re totally being loving and kind—just the second is too subhuman and disgustingly sinful to recognize this behavior as such.
It’s gaslighting, yes. But it’s also how evangelicals get around their blown witness. They just redefine what they’re doing as Jesusy! That lets them get away with absolutely any abuse they care to fling their enemies’ way. The people they injure and insult can’t rein them back by providing the feedback evangelicals need to change route. Evangelicals have specifically designed their worldview to ignore that feedback as invalid.
In 2013, Rachel Held Evans described this behavior as “the scandal of the evangelical heart” (archive). In her iconic post, she railed “about how my objections to this [Calvinist] paradigm represented unrepentant pride and a capitulation to humanism that placed too much inherent value on my fellow human beings; about how my intuitive sense of love and morality and right and wrong is so corrupted by my sin nature I cannot trust it.”
Nothing has changed since then—except to get worse.
We’ll explore that evolution when we meet next time. See you then!
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