Shatter the echo chamber

Why face-to-face interaction is more important than ever in spreading the Gospel

by

Published: November 9, 2017
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It is the 21st century. More and more of our lives is being taken over by the prolific use of internet-connected technology. While this is morally neutral, it can lead to all kinds of consequences—sometimes unintended. Researchers have pointed out that one of the obvious dangers of relying extensively on technology is that we tend to become lazy and self-centred, demanding instant gratification rather than being willing to wait patiently.1

Add to this the advent of ‘social media’. Social media use has exploded in the last decade or so, and one of the reasons that social media platforms have been so successful is their ability to capture people’s attention by feeding them content they know will be interesting to that person. They keep track of your past actions and preferences, and use this as a template on which to base future suggestions—creating a feedback loop that some have termed the ‘echo chamber’. Ironically, this echo chamber effect of social media means that, rather than making people more connected, it is tending to have the opposite effect: people are being cloistered into tight-knit groups of like-minded individuals who share similar worldviews, political beliefs, and so forth.2

In a narcissistic, hedonistic culture, people generally want to do things that make them feel good. But listening to people say things that you disagree with—indeed that even challenge the very core of your most deeply-cherished beliefs (your worldview)—is decidedly not a ‘feel-good’ experience. With social media, more and more of our interactions are moving from the real, physical plane to the digital world. But unlike the physical world, if you don’t like what someone is saying in the digital world, it is quite easy to silence them! You can simply ‘unfollow’ their feed and their voice will no longer be heard. I believe this is exactly what happens in the majority of cases online when people are exposed to content that upsets them or attacks their viewpoint.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) confirms exactly that. From their abstract:

Social media heavily changed the way we get informed and shape our opinions. Users’ polarization seems to dominate news consumption on Facebook. Through a massive analysis on 920 news outlets and 376 million users, we explore the anatomy of news consumption on Facebook on a global scale. We show that users tend to confine their attention on a limited set of pages, thus determining a sharp community structure among news outlets.3

The authors of the paper go on to conclude this:

Content consumption on Facebook is strongly affected by the tendency of users to limit their exposure to a few sites. Despite the wide availability of content and heterogeneous narratives, there is major segregation and growing polarization in online news consumption.4

As Christians and as creationists, we would be well-advised to take heed of this information. We are in the minority, but we are commanded to spread the Gospel (the ‘Great Commission’, Matthew 28:16-20). In the so-called ‘olden days’, this would primarily require a person to do what is, for many, unthinkable today: engage an unbeliever with a face-to-face discussion about Jesus, God and the Bible.

Today, however, many Christians are engaging in online attempts at evangelism. I myself could be included in that group; I have been engaging in online witnessing conversations going all the way back to my high school days (over a decade ago). I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that we Christians should not be doing online evangelism! After all, this article is being hosted on our website and of course I want it to be shared on social media.

Where I believe we are missing the mark, however, is when our evangelism is limited exclusively to online interactions. One person plants, another waters, but God gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7); nonetheless, I cannot think of very many, if any, times when I have engaged in online debate with atheists, evolutionists, cult members, etc. that the person has ended the conversation as a new convert. I suspect this is true of more than just my own experience. People just tend not to be won over after online debates. One big reason for this is the polarizing effect that the internet is having on people, as noted by the PNAS study; people who are energized and confident enough to engage in debates to promote their viewpoint are naturally the hardest to convince. They are now emotionally invested in being ‘right’ about the issue. That’s why the main benefit of doing any debate is not for the sake of the opponent but for those listening who may be more open-minded. Developing a personal, face-to-face rapport with somebody is a much more effective way to bring down their knee-jerk defences.

I can also personally attest to the sheer difficulty involved in getting someone who disagrees with creation to actually go to an article at creation.com and read it—even if that person is directly provided with a link. The well has been so poisoned against creationists at large (in the minds of the average skeptic), that they simply will not condescend to reading a creationist article for any reason.

Does this mean that websites like creation.com are a waste of time and resources? Absolutely not! But they must be used for the proper purpose. What do you think is more effective: a) sharing a creation.com article to everyone you know on facebook, or b) reading it yourself and talking about it face-to-face with an unbeliever? After all we have seen thus far, I hope the answer b) is the obvious choice, although these are by no means mutually exclusive .

Evangelism is, more often than not, a lengthy process of slowly answering objections and living out a consistent example, and that is a very hard thing to do remotely and impersonally. Not only that, but the local church must be present to play the vital role of discipleship once a person does become a new convert—that is just the beginning! Jesus instituted the Church for very good reasons, and too often Christians today are falling into the trap of thinking that online interactions and online sermons can substitute for real, physical church attendance.

CMI’s primary ministry role is to equip the Church—while we of course seek to reach unbelievers directly whenever possible, the fact remains that most unbelievers are not going to read our articles or watch our videos. The ‘echo chamber’ effect is illustrated in the fact that, when I write a CMI article, the vast majority of comments I get are positive. That means that most people who read them are already creationist Christians, and I am, in effect, “preaching to the choir”. One of the main ways CMI seeks to equip the Church is by conducting events at local congregations all across the world without charging fees. I have written more than once on the topic of evangelism, as this is perhaps our most important Christian duty. If you have not had a CMI event at your church, I encourage you to talk to your pastor about it and direct them to our events page for more information. We at CMI are depending upon you Christian readers to take this information and spread it further. The Bible calls us to be wise as serpents but innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). Therefore, we should be shrewd about how we go about achieving our Christian goals. If you want to reach people, you have to shatter their personal digital ‘echo chamber’ by talking to them face to face! They cannot unsubscribe from your feed when you are standing right there in front of them.

References and notes

  1. Me, me me! America’s ‘Narcissism Epidemic’, today.com, 20 April 2009. Return to text.
  2. Saxena, R., The social media “echo chamber” is real, arstechnica.com, 13 March 2017. Return to text.
  3. Schmidt, A.L. et al., Anatomy of news consumption on Facebook, PNAS 114(12): 3035–3039, March 2017 | doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1617052114. Return to text.
  4. Cited in ref. 3. Return to text.
Me, me me! America’s ‘Narcissism Epidemic’, today.com, 20 April 2009.
Saxena, R., The social media “echo chamber” is real, arstechnica.com, 13 March 2017.
Schmidt, A.L. et al., Anatomy of news consumption on Facebook, PNAS 114(12): 3035–3039, March 2017 | doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1617052114.
Cited in ref. 3.

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Readers’ comments
S. S., Australia, 15 November 2017
To quote you: "...the vast majority of comments I get are positive. That means that most people who read them are already creationist Christians, and I am, in effect, 'preaching to the choir'...." Ironically one reason the comments are mostly "positive" in your own "echo chamber" is my experience of CMI's policy of truncating/terminating prematurely thoughtful comments that CMI judges as "negative" or "outside CMI's focus". Hence the 'difficulty' of getting some-one to 'actually read links' cuts both ways, doesn't it? eg., the ongoing relevance, or not, of the Creation Week's seventh day rest principle... whilst CMI is very pedantic about the other six days relevance. Sadly evasive, really!
Paul Price responds
You're confusing things. Being able to post whatever comment you like on an article is quite a different matter from the echo chamber I am talking about, which deals with getting people to actually read the articles in the first place. You are incorrect when you imply that most of our comments are positive because we simply censor all the negative ones. We consider any relevant, thoughtful and civil comments as acceptable, even if they are negative. It's clear you are bent on pushing a denominational issue (sabbatarianism) that we, as a non-denominational ministry, simply do not allow ourselves to get pulled into. It is also clear you have been told this before. ;)
James T., United States, 16 November 2017
Social media can (in my opinion)be both a big blessing and the most toxic thing on the planet.I would have never found out this website or any Christian website out there if it wasn't for social media.Even though it was one of the reasons i did become a bit agnostic when it came to God.After a bit of soul searching,i've been blessed by finding this website through a youtuber and thanking both the person and you guys for help,bringing me back to Jesus and Christianity.
Gian Carlo B., Puerto Rico, 16 November 2017
What social medias like FaceBook needs is actual diversity of thought. Something that you don’t necessarily have to agree with their narrative but not be persecuted nor slandered for disagreeing. Like a respectable discussion. CMI has this whilst also being critical between genuine skeptics in asking questions or objecting versus outright insults or extreme levels of ad hominem and no arguments. Like what JP Holding does in his YouTube channels.
Bill P., United States, 16 November 2017
I'm an old man, I have learned to use the internet enough to do what I love best, to study and meditate on The Word of God. Also in the past several yrs w/so many area churches setting aside The True Word of God through the internet I have been able to search out the FEW teachers we have left that still teach God's Word Truthfully. Like many others I've noticed, because of the internet, cellphones, etc. that people have lost the ability to talk to each other face to face, sadly even in my own family. Sometimes I make a joke, (a serious joke) about how if the system ever crashed all over the country that many people would be walking the streets looking like zombies, not knowing what to do because their cellphones do not work. I understand that these modern devices have a good use, BUT I've also seen enough to know that it also destroys people's ability to express themselves to one another face to face, heart to heart. There is nothing on this earth I want more than to talk to The Lord face to face, heart to heart, or even to do the same w/those who love The Lord as I do. I trust I will and all others who love Him will see Him soon and we won't need the internet anymore. Your site is one of the very few I enjoy using when studying The Word of and The Ways of my Savior Christ Jesus.
Paul Price responds
Thanks for your kind and thoughtful remarks.
Dr. William D., United States, 16 November 2017
Thank you for this fine article. The old: "me and my four and no more" statement is still in place in the minds of many in our churches today. The results can be seen in the way churches have indeed become so "in-grown" and follow the old political method of if you cannot refute the message, attack the messenger, and if you cannot attack (label) the messenger, create confusion by bringing up side issues and running down rabbit trails. Oh how un-teachable we have become in our self-righteousness. Thank you again for this and you on-going ministry before the Lord.
Terry W., Canada, 17 November 2017
"But unlike the physical world, if you don’t like what someone is saying in the digital world, it is quite easy to silence them! ... I believe this is exactly what happens in the majority of cases online when people are exposed to content that upsets them or attacks their viewpoint." Not all is lost here. One of these groups is called "Politically Incorrect" on 4chan, a website I can't get to work properly in my browser, and probably wouldn't hang out at if I could. On 2017 October 31, they came up with a brilliant idea to break the same echo chamber we creationists have the most difficulty with: liberalist universities in North America and Europe. The same idea was also conceived to expose modern twenty-first century racism. That idea was to print or write simple fliers specifically on white paper, "It's okay to be white" and tape them to windows and bulletin boards at universities all over the world. Predictably enough, all hell broke loose. Are they the good guys? Not exactly: they rally around this frog stolen from Matt Furie's comic "Boy's Club", and, as misappropriated, descended from the ancient Egyptian god Kek, who probably got a lot of questions on his Twitter feed 'round about Exodus 8:6. "...we tend to become lazy and self-centred, demanding instant gratification rather than being willing to wait patiently." This describes the most popular modern computer games, the latest of which is being investigated by the Belgian Chancellor's Commission as to whether it constitutes illegal gaming. Critics SidAlpha and ArsonBunny described it as a "skinner box", reading from the synonymous "operant conditioning chamber" Wikipedia page. That's something for lab animals. See Matthew 10:31/Luke 12:7 (ref: [link deleted per feedback rules]OzBsZqvHiU&t=8m30s )
Peter W., Japan, 20 November 2017
Paul Price writes: 'If you want to reach people, you have to shatter their personal digital ‘echo chamber’ by talking to them face to face! They cannot unsubscribe from your feed when you are standing right there in front of them.' Precisely. Which would logically lead to standing on the street, talking face to face with mis-informed and unbelieving strangers, proclaiming the gospel in a kind way. This is NOT what the church is designed for, nor should it be. Church is for worship and the edification of the saints. Men of God, get out there, and use your voice for the Lord, while you still can.
Paul Price responds
Thanks, Peter. I certainly encourage and appreciate street preaching, but it is not what I am primarily calling on people to do in this article. Street preaching these days, I would argue, is not as effective as it might once have been, for several reasons: 1) Smartphones, mp3 players and earphones mean that most people walking on the street are too distracted and/or unable to hear a street preacher. 2) Modern western lifestyles are too rushed and compartmentalized for people to be willing (I speak in generalizations) to sit/stand and listen to and consider the words of a street preacher. People are always in a hurry. 3) Modern western society has developed a closed-off attitude to someone standing and yelling at people in the street about what they should believe. In most cases it seems to annoy and irritate people and stir them up into wanting to pick a fight much more than it stirs them to repentance. The 'well is poisoned'. 4) Unbelievers/skeptics have so many unanswered questions and misgivings about the Bible that it will take a lot more than the minimal time a street preacher has to give in order to actually open them to the Gospel. We have to do what Francis Schaeffer called pre-evangelism first. 5)Street preaching takes a certain type of individual with a certain type of personality- not all Christians are cut out for it. What I think can be more accessible and more effective is also much less extravagant: I am calling on believers to have gospel conversations with people they know who aren't believers. I am calling on Christians to "eat with sinners" and be in the world (without being of the world). We have to forge relationships with people and live out a consistent Christian witness. This is the only way to break through the Echo Chamber. With that said, please understand that I am not demeaning the act of street preaching or street evangelism in any way, and for those (presumably such as yourself) who are gifted in that way I highly encourage them to do it now more than ever. We need all the gifts of the Kingdom to be used in full force. The fate of our society rests on our ability to be salt and light!