When you think of the word "hospitality," it probably conjures up images of that one lady—and I hope you all know her—who is an entertainer extraordinaire. You walk in her house, and it's immaculate with the most delicious baked goods on every spotless surface available.
Fortunately for those of us who will never be that lady, the conversation about hospitality has changed a lot lately. Many Christian thinkers are rightfully reminding us that hospitality is about finding ways to love others well, even—or maybe especially—when it's inconvenient, uncomfortable, and imperfect.
When it comes to real-life hospitality, the question is less about the state of our home and more about the state of your heart: Do you welcome others into your life? Are you quick to offer encouragement? Do you lovingly challenge people for the purpose of restoring them—not to make yourself look better? Do people know the love of Jesus better from hearing your words and watching your actions?
What about the way you engage friends, family, and strangers on social media? Honestly, this is a challenge for me, and I suspect we all could use a little help in this department.
Put some meat on it
Hospitality is meant to be “love con carne." I have to give credit for this phrase to the wonderful Annie Locke from a recent event at Southeastern Seminary. She presented the idea—complete with a little jigg—better than I ever could here. Annie reminded us that hospitality is Christian love with real meat on its bones.
It's rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn, and doing what you can to flesh out God's love in real life. Yes, that means hospitality is often lived out in your house, but more importantly, it's expressed in your whole person.
Scripture promises the world will know us by our love, but I have to wonder if they could recognize us on Twitter. So, wherever we go—physically or virtually—we need to consider our words and our demeanor towards others.
So, how can we make social media a place marked by hospitality instead of hostility?
Practicing Gospel Hospitality Online
1. Build someone else up
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, count others more significant than yourselves. Philippians 2:3
When I first got on Twitter, I spent way too much time proofing my tweets. Was I witty enough? Too silly? Too serious? Engaging the issues? Overly political? Me. Me. Me.
So, I left Twitter completely. After all, if you don't have anything witty to say, don't say anything at all. . .or something like that. For a few years, I was the silent observer if I was on social media much at all.
Don't get me wrong; not being on social media is perfectly ok, but my reasoning was not. I wanted to be on social media only to get something out of it, but I forgot I had something to contribute, even if it was in this virtual world.
If you're a serial over-thinker like myself, take the pressure off by just considering how you could build someone else up. Share an insightful, sweet, or funny thought from a friend. Retweet that helpful article. Comment on your friend's post when they seem to be having a hard time. Better yet, give them a call to see if they're ok. It's refreshing, and all of our feeds will be better for it.
2. Forget your own agenda
Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.
This point is closely related to the last with just a little nuance. In order to focus attention on someone else, we must also be ok with the spotlight being moved away from us. It's easy to want to build someone else up—if you're hoping to ride their coattails. It's something else completely when you're promoting others for the sake of displaying God's beauty, creativity, and work in someone else.
Instead of competing with other pastors, praise God for how He's using them. Work together. After all, we should be building the same Kingdom. So, don't be afraid to like a great idea—even if you've thought of it before. Don't hesitate to retweet someone—even if they have only 3 followers. You don't have to be the wittiest, smartest, or best out there. It's really ok. Let's get out of the rat race.
3. Rebuke in love (for their sake)
This is where real love gets hard, at least for a peacemaker like me. Sometimes, the loving thing isn't just to encourage but to rebuke. When you do it, though, do so tactfully. You wouldn't—or at usually least shouldn't—call out someone as soon as they've stepped on a platform to speak. So, let's not intentionally shame people on public forums if we can help it. Challenge people, but take a kind tone as you challenge. Be quick to assume the best of others, and let them work out their thoughts.
Address those who are saying untruthful things. But maybe at some point, the conversation needs to continue over direct message or, better yet, in person so that you both have a better chance of being understood.
4. Avoid the trolls
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. Proverbs 26:4-5
This proverb may seem confusing, but if you've ever engaged an internet troll, you know both statements to be undeniably true. Sometimes, a person is being so antagonistic and ridiculous that they just need to be ignored. Other times, a person says something so hurtful or so very wrong that it needs to be addressed immediately. Wisdom will teach you the difference.
Unfortunately, trolls are usually on social media for the sole purpose of picking fights. They just want to watch everything burn. So, if you see one—usually marked by an off-the-wall comment—do not, I repeat, do not engage unless it's necessary.
If you've already engaged a troll, remember they feed off your anger. Be polite. Make your point, and be done with them as quickly as possible. These aren't your sister's cute-haired dolls.
5. See the person behind the screen
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Philippians 2:5
This is probably the most important aspect of online interactions. As much of a fad as WWJD was, it's still a helpful concept 25+ years later. Think about how Jesus would respond to the people on your social media, remembering that they are people. In every situation, Jesus interacted with the humanity of those he met. So no matter how much they irk you, remember the person hiding behind their profile image is a person created in the image of God.
Unfortunately, the internet gives us a buffer that can tempt us to say the terrible things we would never say to another human's face. So, think about what you're posting for a moment. With the invention of niche social spaces (neighborhood facebook groups, classmates' GroupMe messages, group texts) comes the temptation to gang up on those outside the group without their knowledge. Don't jump on that bandwagon of outrage just because everyone on your feed is.
I've been on the other side of a small misunderstanding turned into personal denigration, and it still hurts to think about. What you think of as venting may be an overstatement that complicates the issue and leads to bullying—either by you directly or by the group you've shared it with. So, speak about others as if they are in the room, because on the internet, they usually are.
6. Rely on the Spirit inside you
For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Philippians 2:13
This final point is the most encouraging to me as I think about the viper's den that is the Internet. When I don't know what to say, I can pray. I can ask the Spirit for help, strength, and wisdom. That's especially helpful as a large part of my job now involves using social media!
As I mentioned earlier, the peacemaker in me was once paralyzed by social media. (Funny story—it's now my job!) I hoped if I didn't say anything, that could be considered kindness. Everyone would agree with me, and that'd be all that mattered. I wanted to stick to videos of cats running from cucumbers or pictures of my family when we're having a good day. I wanted to ignore the graveyard our own words have made some parts of social media, but doing so won't bring light into the darkness.
As strange as it may sound, we need to engage in the virtual world with the same vigor and care that we use to engage the mission field, because it's how we can speak to our culture. The gospel brings light and restores people as it's communicated across any and all platforms. So, don't be afraid, and commit to using your social media for Kingdom purposes. That would certainly change the world we live in—both physical and virtual.
Marie Burrus is UBA's Communications Specialist. She manages, edits, and contributes content for UBA's blog, website, UBA Voices newsletter, and social media outlets.