Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.
Andrew MacDonald is associate director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute. He’s written here on conspiracy theories.
Few articles I’ve written have provoked the response as touching conspiracy theories in 2020. It is an odd mixture of those consumed by fury or derision at my apparent blindness and those derisive of my supposed attempt to generate clickbait.
This is part of the problem I tried to address in my latest article at USAToday on the growing influence of the conspiracy theory known as QAnon in evangelical churches.
In the article, I concluded that “we need pastors, leaders, and everyday Christians to address this conspiracy, and others like it, before others are fooled.” With this in mind, I wanted to address some pushback and offer some steps leaders can take.
The Problem of the Media
By far the most common criticism I get whenever I write about conspiracy theories is that Christians should be suspicious of mainstream media. Many have argued that they are often biased against Christians and conservatives, at times presenting distorted reporting.
I think this is fair criticism—to a point.
As I’ve argued many times, the state of reporting on religion—and particularly reporting on evangelicalism—is poor. Major outlets get obvious facts wrong that betray not only ignorance but laziness in not checking.
I also explained to Terry Mattingly that poor treatment from the mainstream media is, at least in part, to blame for why Christians don’t trust them—they have reasons not to.
It’s not hard to ask a pastor or seminary professor for help, but this is sometimes deemed not important. In the history of journalism, I’d wager that few terms have been as wrongly used as Calvinism. Yet the lesson is never learned.
More distressingly, some outlets seemingly take joy in magnifying outlier behavior as examples of evangelicals while ignoring the majority. This was evident in March, when despite the tens of thousands of churches that led the way on closing fast and focusing on serving their communities, media outlets focused on the few cases of attention seeking pastors. Or, more recently, with the misleading (and since changed) New York Times headline about churches being a major source of outbreaks.
In talking with other church leaders, it is beyond frustrating to serve faithfully only to see the loudest fringe voices receive the spotlight, or to see your community misrepresented. This wears on Christians and cultivates distrust of the media. After all, if they’re getting us wrong, what else are they misrepresenting?
Over time, this has eroded trust and obscured the work of quality religion journalists at just the time we need them most.
Going Too Far
Despite these failings, Christians go too far when they dismiss all mainstream journalism.
This is why in USAToday, I was critical of the 46% of self-identified evangelicals and 52% of evangelicals by belief who “strongly believe the mainstream media produces fake news.” While it can be tempting for evangelicals to use bias to dismiss criticism, “the fact that news agencies have biases is not synonymous with producing fake news.”
This mistake has only served to isolate us from criticism, whereby we invalidate any news article we find unfavorable.
In reality, there are good journalists in the mainstream media, particularly religion journalists, who strive to understand and report on evangelicalism in all fairness. I might not always agree with them, but I respect their integrity and desire to report honestly.
Instead, our goal should be a maturity to engage reporting with a critical eye rather than to shout bias upon seeing a logo.
We need to develop a track record of accepting hard truths that are well supported rather than if they support our political or cultural narrative. Most importantly, we need to resist our temptations to echo chambers—a temptation that is common to many other subcultures across the globe.
Stepping into our Technology Discipleship Gap
I voiced my frustration in Christians in the Age of Outrage that for how important online technology is to our world, pastors rarely engaged the topic. As a result, our dependence on technology far outpaces its prominence in our discipleship practices. Conspiracy theories like QAnon gaining traction in our churches is merely one more rotten fruit of thisgap in our discipleship.
In my USAToday piece, I attempted to step into this gap by challenging Christians to “address the QAnon’ers in our midst.” Many dismissed the problem as fearmongering while others believed I’d slandered QAnon.
But most Christians are looking for help and frustrated at the silence from their leaders. They’ve struggled with family members, friends, and even church staff or volunteers promoting conspiracies. Unsure how to respond, often it goes unchallenged and relationships slowly dissolve.
Pastors and church leaders need to see this as the discipleship failure it is. Our silence, casual dismissal, or even tacit approval of destructive online behavior is corrosive to the spiritual health of our churches.
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Source: Christianity Today