A while back, I received several emailed copies of a chain-letter from several friends, church members, even pastors.
I’ve been in pastoral ministry for thirty-five years. From the very beginning, chain-letters have been a serious problem to the effectiveness of the Church’s witness in the world. They used to be on paper. Now they’re email, or on FaceBook, or … who knows what’s next?
In the old days, it was the repeatedly received mimeographed, xeroxed, copy-of-a-copy letter on paper, bearing an urgent concern about saving religious broadcasting from Madalyn Murry O’Hair’s non-existent attempt to ban it. It spread at the speed of snail-mail. It did damage. Even in the pre-WWW days, the Federal Communications Commission had to hire staff members simply to respond to the counter-petitions and irate phone calls from concerned, gullible Christians. And it made Christians as a whole seem stupid. (And I received that very chain-letter, updated slightly, within the past 10 years, in email.)
With the growth of the internet, the speed of the spread of chain-letters has simply exploded. No more postage costs, no time delay between send and re-send. Whoosh! “See how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” was James’ exclamation about the spread of gossip and rumors by word-of-mouth. James had no idea how bad it could become, once we got the internet!
The recent email was partly true, partly lies, and a decade old (so that even the true parts were seriously misleading). It is still out there doing harm. Well-meaning people forward things without reading them fully and checking the factuality of the whole thing.
I believe this: if we wish to be effective Christian witnesses in the world, we will need to be “wise as serpents,” not just “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In the “World Wild Web,” this means we should have a healthy caution. We should check out what we read before we even begin to believe it, and we definitely should investigate it before we forward it to others.
It can be harmful to spread stories that are false – or (sometimes more damaging) partly false. It can make people angry (as this email was designed to do by its original compiler, back in 2006).
It can be harmful to others, and to those of us who spread the stories.
It can be harmful to Christ’s church. Like the kid who cried “Wolf!” too often, Christians will be ignored when we tell the truth, if we get a reputation for passing untrustworthy information. When Christians spread falsehood, we damage not only our own Christian witness, but that of all Christians.
I have three simple requests for you who are my church members and my friends (those of you who don’t know me, and especially if I’m not in your email list, you can take it or leave it as you see fit):
- Please, please, when you receive an email that suggests you pass it on, check it out before you believe it. Asking you to pass an email on to your email list or your friends is a BIG RED FLAG, whether it’s about news or religion or the supposedly latest computer virus. CHECK IT OUT BEFORE YOU BELIEVE IT. EVERY TIME. How do you check it out? My first source is often the http://www.snopes.com website. (By the way, if the chain-mail says “It’s true: I checked it out on Snopes.com,” that’s also a big red flag. CHECK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF.) If it’s about a supposed computer virus, I check it out at my anti-virus software’s website, too. I can also do a Bing or Google search for a couple key terms in the questionable chain letter. Sometimes a check of the news will help. It does damage to you, to automatically believe what is not true.
- ESPECIALLY, please, please, please, CHECK IT OUT BEFORE YOU DECIDE TO PASS A CHAIN-EMAIL ON, EVERY TIME. Even if you choose to believe without checking, you do not want to harm your effectiveness and public trustworthiness, and you have a responsibility not to harm the effectiveness & public trustworthiness of the rest of the Church. It does damage to your friends, and to your relationship to them, to pass on to them what is not true.
- It’s a good idea to learn to use “BCC” to send bulk emails. That way, your recipients’ email addresses aren’t forwarded all over the internet to people they don’t know. It keeps them safer from spammers and hackers, and the accidental responder to the email who hits “reply to all.” You harm your friends, if your email to them – and to all – spreads their email address to people with whom they did not choose to share it.
These are common sense, common courtesy, and grounded in the Gospel.