By Patricia G. Duckworth, Associate Executive Minister, ABC-Northwest

Read Part 1

The first installment of this article last week laid out that the foundation of Christ-like communication, electronic or otherwise, is to be found in three key attitudes:  1) people are created in God’s image and have a spiritual dimension to them; 2) as spiritual beings, we are meant to be in relationship with God and with each other; 3) therefore, all forms of communication cannot help but have some spiritual dimension to them. Scripture is clear that our power of communication is to be used carefully and with others in mind. As we look at the peculiar nature of electronic communication and examine some best practices and boundaries to follow, the impetus is that together we will create an environment of ethical faith in our congregations. As we do so, we become people who reflect the love of Jesus in such a way that others are drawn to him.

The Nature of Electronic (non-video) Communication

While not meant to be a thorough evaluation of all things related to the electronic communication and media, allow me to name some of the realities of electronic communication, especially as it applies to the written or text forms.

  • It can be (and usually is) instant.  Messages are instantly sent and many times instantly viewed.  Before the era of emails and texts and the rest, a message had to be written out in some form and then delivered. The time it took to physically write out a letter or note, provided some time for reflection, even if small. If someone else typed out the letter in its final form, there would be an opportunity to review the letter before the author signed it. Except in the largest of cities, it also took some time for the delivery process. Before automated postal services, a letter could sometimes be retrieved before it was sent if there was a chance of heart or mind. However, in today’s “instant” world, once a person hits the “send” button, there is usually only a few second before the message is in the receiver’s box. It cannot be taken back or deleted by the sender.
  • It is "two-dimensional."   Text or written communication does not carry all, or even most, of the writer’s tone, body language, and attitude. It is easily open to misinterpretation, especially if the writer is hurried or upset or if the reader is having “a bad day.” What would be understood as funny in spoken language can easily appear cruel, hurtful, and “personal” in written form. The effects of written or text communication are often in the head and heart of the receiver. To ignore this fact leaves us as “senders” vulnerable to misunderstanding and to breaking a relationship. When the break happens, it can be very difficult to repair. That is because ...
  • It is "permanent."  Once we hit the “send” button, our message is “out there” forever. We can delete it from our devices, but there is no guarantee the receiver will. Even if he/she does delete it, in many cases is still “there” somewhere and can be retrieved. As the number of people receiving the message increases, the likelihood of the message being “permanent” increases. In fact, in certain sectors of business and government, once the communication is entered into the device (phone, computer, tablet) it is against the law to permanently remove it. 

Implications of Text Communication

There may be other realities of electronic text communication that come to your mind, but the implications of those listed above are clear:

  • If we send a potentially hurtful or clearly negative communication, it is nearly impossible to recall it; and there is almost no way to mitigate its effects before the receiver reads it.
  • Even if one is quick enough of mind and heart to call or “write” the recipient to clarify or apologize, the words can still be held forever by the recipient exactly as written. 
  • In a moment of hurt, the recipient can easily pass it along to someone else. It becomes “electronic or e-gossip.” And like gossip, it can be passed along in an edited form or out of context. Such editing usually makes the original message “worse” in its effects. 

By contrast, in the situation where there is a real time verbal disagreement, the effects can gradually fade with time and other more positive encounters. It can be remembered as an unpleasant past event and little more—unless one happens to have a photo- or audio-graphic memory. With grace extended and accepted, a break in a relationship can turn to evidence of God's reconciling work in our lives. However, written communication can be read and reread indefinitely, and the hurt can go on long after the event itself has ceased to be important. The damage done in electronic text can even color the inevitable mistakes we will make with each other in the future. Emails, texts and the like can promote the holding of a grudge and can make the offering of and acceptance of forgiveness much harder. We humans find it very easy to revisit our wounds and hurts. So we must use our written words even more carefully than our spoken ones.

The obvious question then is this: Should we as Christians avoid using the technology available to us?  Hopefully you are not thinking that is my conclusion or even a reasonable conclusion. What we need and must do is to use this communication capacity to reflect the love of Christ AND in our practices redeem it from the misuse and abuse it suffers.  n doing so, we will become both salt and light in this broken world (Matthew 5:13-16).

Part 3 of this series will address the best practices and boundaries for the use of electronic communication in all its forms.

Read Part 3