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The world of email, blogs, and other electronic forums have complicated and magnified the potential for rumor, insinuation, and false reports. Sometimes church leaders get drawn into wars of online words, and before they know it, they've inadvertently done more harm than good.

One of the most dramatic cases of this began with a negative Google review of a church in the Pacific Northwest. A former member of that church posted:

"Although this church touts itself 'Garringberg Grace Community,' I found very little 'grace' there. This is a legalistic church where if you don't do things their way (the 'only' way), you will have challenges. Garringberg Grace shuns former members/attendees without giving an explanation. You will be fine in this church if you never question the elders or pastor. If you do not believe, worship, and evangelize 'their way,' they will let you know you are not a true Christian. Be wary of churches that proclaim they are one of the few remaining churches that preach the Word. Do not be deceived."

Other church members tried to rebut the negative Google reviews with positive reviews. One example: "Many churches today are entertaining goats instead of feeding sheep. Churches should be preaching repentance and faith (Acts 20:21). Garringberg Grace holds fast the faithful Word, that we may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict (Titus 1:9). Our pastor preaches the gospel and faithfully upholds the Word of God. My wife and I have been blessed by over ten years of his preaching and guidance. Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed (Rom. 13:11)."

As often happens in open online forums, the vocabulary got nastier and more mean-spirited. Anonymous posts began appearing: "Garbage church. No interest in teaching the word of God. The pastor just wants to mindrape the members for personal gratification."

Eventually the pastor and the church elders waded in: "To Whom It May Concern: Almost a year ago the woman who wrote the review and her husband were biblically put out of Garringberg Grace Community with a group of families and individuals that were engaged in ongoing divisive slander. After attending many churches and leaving them in a similar manner, the group has now splintered. Many of those in this fractious group no longer attend church at all. It is sad to see that she remains steadfast in her destructive behavior. For obvious reasons we exhort you to heed the following Scriptures: Prov. 6:16-19, 28. Rom. 16:17-18. Titus 3:9-11. It is our prayer that there will be no more wood thrown upon the fire of contentiousness, strife, and discord. If you have any questions, please contact the pastor and elders."

When the negative reviews continued, eventually the church's leaders appealed to Google to remove what they considered the most offensive comments. And, indeed, Google did remove some, including the one that started ...

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Marshall Shelley is editor of Leadership Journal and an editorial vice-president of Christianity Today.

Related Topics:AngerConflictConfrontationCriticismEmotions
From Issue:e-ministry, Summer 2013 | Posted: July 17, 2013

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Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments

Marshall Shelley

August 23, 2013  8:42am

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Andy, you'll be glad to know the church name WAS changed. The only actual name in the piece is Angie Ward. The others were disguised. And David, you've stated the problem really well. The parallel online universe is impossible to control, at least so far. That means it's more important than ever to walk humbly and with integrity, keep short accounts, speak the truth with love, and be willing to suffer for righteousness sake. That doesn't solve the problem, I know. But as best I can tell, that's our calling.

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andy hines

August 06, 2013  6:30pm

very difficult article for me to deal with. Not sure I would have used the church name, but that's water over the damn. As i read this I thought "why doesn't someone step in and stop this before it blew up into a legal hassel? No wonder the church seems impotent in the face of modern culture. How sad!

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David Chapman

August 06, 2013  2:33pm

After reading this, I'm not sure if I should post a comment, or if it would be better to contact the author by phone! :) Actually, this article was thoughtful and insightful, as always. The emphasis was put, correctly, on OUR responsibility to choose our words wisely, and the limits of electronic communication. But there is another question that remains unanswered: what to do about vicious and inaccurate online attacks. Saying nothing may be the best idea we can come up with, but it is still not much of a solution. As long as society sees angry, anonymous online comments as a perfectly valid source of truth, we are all in trouble. We need good leaders, not only in the local church but also in business and government. The culture of mistrust and denigration which is flourishing online will only serve to keep good people out of leadership roles. Thoughtful people need to decide what to believe and what to ignore. WE are responsible to educate those in our churches about this.

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