Karl Barth famously said, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
Today, his audience would likely respond, “The Washington Times or The Washington Post?”
For pastors today, our audience often seems more concerned with the logo on the screen than with the truth content of news.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus and, sadly, his nihilistic philosophy pervades our churches today.
I am not the first to observe that we are facing more than one pandemic.
COVID-19 is the most obvious, but perhaps equally as deadly to human life and flourishing is the misinformation pandemic that rages, seemingly more in Christian communities than secular ones.
Several weeks after the whole world shut down, I received an email from a trusted and beloved church member.
This member compared my acceptance of masking and social distancing to the “foolish rabbis who loaded their people onto trains bound for Nazi camps.” But this person assured me that it was not my fault because “your entire generation has been dumbed down.”
That was just one wound inflicted by the misinformation pandemic; it would not be my last, and I am not alone. Everyone I know in ministry work has experienced similar hurt or bullying.
The temptation is to shy away, to simply talk about “spiritual things” and to rest in the comfortable places of agreement. But those areas are shrinking, as the tribal nature of our world encroaches on even the most basic ways of loving our neighbors.
We all have stories that highlight the urgent need in pastoral work to help people evaluate and understand information and disinformation. This has often been avoided because it’s hard and uncomfortable, and often people will say it’s outside the purview of the minister.
That is simply not true. Christian discipleship is meant to be a whole life, not confined to Sundays or to whatever realms deemed to be “spiritual.”
We are in a misinformation pandemic, but misinformation is merely a symptom. The underlying disease is the complete individualization of truth.
Barth likely didn’t envision a time when each person would have a highly individualized echo chamber perfectly attuned not to tell the truth but to reflect back the worst of a person’s beliefs.
Many “news” sources today are filled with more opinion than fact, as they are designed to keep us tuned in and outraged to bring in ad revenue.
The answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” is now whatever algorithms and previous biases decide.
There is a multitude of misinformation about inoculation, but what is the inoculation for misinformation?
I want to suggest that the inoculation for this pandemic is community.
Acts 17 describes a group called the Bereans who searched the scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. Now in Paul’s time, individuals did not possess their own Bibles the way we do, so they would have examined their sacred texts together.
We need to take that same approach today, recognizing that we need each other and trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide our community in its search for truth (John 16:13).
A society soaked in misinformation calls for Christians who inoculate one another against misinformation. What could it look like to begin this inoculation? Here are three suggestions:
- Pause and collaborate.
Individualized truth relies on each of us formulating our “truth” isolated and alone based upon our gut reaction. We seldom need to formulate our opinions in that way. Pause allows us to evaluate together.
- Empower local experts.
We’ve practiced trusting “news” logos rather than discerning whether what is said is fact or opinion, true or false.
Church leaders must challenge resident scientists, doctors, astronauts, farmers and others to share their hard-earned insight and knowledge with the church.
- Recognize that comfort is deceptive.
We all feel better when people tell us we’re brilliant and right all the time, but none of us really is.
Church does not exist to do that. It exists to empower us to serve Jesus and his kingdom, his mission in the world. The information we believe and disbelieve is relevant to that.
Helping people learn to do this will not lead to full agreement all the time about all things. But it will lead to healthier communities that empower the saints to seek truth rather than confirmation.
Jesus charged his followers to be “wise as serpents, but innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Sadly, we have often been “wise as doves, but innocent as serpents” when it comes to the misinformation pandemic.
Church leaders must lead the way in rejecting the isolated, individualized views of the truth in our communities. Let us embrace the way of the Bereans, evaluating truth in community.
Lead pastor at Christian Fellowship Church in Columbus, Ohio, with 18 years in pastoral ministry. He loves the church, and is always seeking to understand and serve it better