How Safe Is Your Church From Character Assassination?

by Bobby Gilles

in Church Communications

New York in the wild west art by Kyle LaneThe internet is like the Wild Wild West to the tenth power, with bullets flying in every direction, young “gunslingers” looking to make a name for themselves by taking down a respected law man, and ladies of ill repute who are looking to do the same thing in another way.

It can be a scary place for pastors, church communications workers and other church leaders. You try your best to shepherd the souls God has entrusted to you, and the next thing you know a zealous, budding theologian fresh out of school is bashing you on social media or the pastor of a church down the street is calling you a heretic on his blog.

And you think, “The kid is on Facebook — who cares,” not knowing he has 2300 “friends” on Facebook, including half your deacons and three elders, who are now asking you what brought on this attack.

You also think, “That church down the street only has 20 people, mostly related to the pastor,” which is true, but the guy blogs better than he preaches and shepherds. His post about your alleged heresy picks up 500 hits the first day, including several even bigger bloggers who link to his post and offer their comments. Next thing you know, your name + the word “heretic” is trending on Twitter.

Okay, so it’s seldom that bad. But here are some easy, free things you can do to at least be aware of what people are saying about your ministry online, and some advice about how to handle it.

Photo of "The Morning Gossip" woodcut, by John J.A. Murphy “The Morning Gossip” woodcut, by John J.A. Murphy

Google Alerts

Did you know Google has a tool that will email you when someone mentions your name, your church’s name, or any other word or phrase that you specify? It’s free, and you can set up as many different name alerts as you want, in minutes.

I receive daily alerts for my Sojourn pastor, Daniel Montgomery, and for Sojourn Church, as well as a few other words.

One personal example of how Google Alerts came in handy: in 2008 I saw a blog post written by someone near Louisville, whom I didn’t know. The post criticized Sojourn members for dressing poorly for worship services. We were able to chat with him in the comments of his blog — not in a mean, bullying way, but simply to discuss what we believe about “dressing up.” I believe the blogger even appreciated the response.

Pay attention to Twitter and Facebook tags

I wrote before about the importance of paying attention to @ replies on Twitter, rather than just auto-broadcasting messages. Likewise, when someone tags you or your church on Facebook, read it! Things like Facebook tagging and Twitter @ replies make it easy for you to know what people are saying about you. All you have to do is pay attention.

Should You Respond? Sometimes Yes …

The LEO Weekly is Louisville’s major alternative newspaper. In April 2008 they ran a cover story on Sojourn Church entitled “Smells Like Holy Spirit,” with this subtitle:

they’re young, involved, and socially aware — and think being gay is a sin. How does Sojourn Church square its progressive image with some of its more regressive ideas?

It led to many discussions off-and-online. While we like the LEO and we love the right to free press here in the U.S., there were several points in the article we felt were misleading. More than that, some of the allegations from readers were incorrect (and some were absurd).

In this case we thought best to respond. Our Worship & Arts Pastor Mike Cosper wrote a response, which the LEO graciously printed. And various Sojourn members and even Christians and non-Christians throughout the city engaged in conversations on our behalf with those who spoke against the church.

It isn’t about “Who can shout louder” or sling the most dirt. It isn’t about being disrespectful. But the Bible does call us to contend for the faith. If people know what you believe and teach, and they want to speak against it, that’s their right. But if they incorrectly characterize your beliefs, you should be ready to respond.

Drawing of two people shouting into megaphones, used via Creative Commons license from Should I Always Respond? How Long Should I Let The Debate Rage?

The Bible commands us to avoid foolish questions, arguments that just cause strife, and angry quarrelers (Proverbs 20:23, 2 Timothy 2:23, for instance). We are not always supposed to respond. You need to pray for the wisdom to know when to engage and when to go about the business of the gospel.

In September 2010 Louisville’s largest daily newspaper, The Courier-Journal, ran a front page story entitled:

Sojourn Community Church balances 10 years of faith, arts, service

Reporter Peter Smith is a very good journalist, and he covered the story of Sojourn well. The Comments section on the web version of this article lit up with the responses of Christians (largely celebratory) and non-Christians. Some of the non-Christians took a “That’s good for them” approach while others were hateful.

I monitored the discussion throughout the day. While there were many comments, for the most part it was the same few people commenting over and over again. In particular, one woman kept insisting that proved we only had nine people on staff (we had 33) and that these nine people were “getting rich off of their gullible followers” (she was looking at our church budget and dividing by nine).

Several people pointed out she was wrong about our staff number. At the time, we listed campus staff workers on separate church campus websites. She was looking at’s “central staff” page and ignoring the clear notice that campus staffers were listed on campus pages. When confronted with this truth, she insisted that the campus staff were unpaid volunteers. This allegation was ridiculous, unsubstantiated, and of course wrong.

As Director of Communications, should I have responded? Should our pastor have responded? I advised “No,” and our Executive Pastor agreed. Here’s why:

  1. Her charge in particular was baseless, and had been proven baseless by other commenters. But it didn’t matter. This woman didn’t care about truth — she just wanted to fight.
  2. While hundreds of thousands of people read the article, very few were commenting. And the majority of those commenting on our article were people who seemed to comment regularly on articles, almost always in a negative, nasty fashion.
  3. Several people had provided adequate “defense” comments, and pointed readers back to our website and our free budget booklet PDF.
  4. We have a website, blog, social media, member meetings, weekly community group meetings, regular staff office hours and worship services every Sunday in which to preach the gospel and answer questions people may have.

The “nine staff members” controversy did spark one change — we stopped listing staff on various pages and began listing all Sojourn staff on one page, at I was happy to make this clear, beneficial change.

Don’t spend all your time in rabbit holes, answering foolish questions and arguing with hateful people who aren’t really listening to anything you say. Be aware of what people are saying about your church, but choose your battles.

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
— Matthew 10:16 (ESV)

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil,correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
— 2 Timothy 2:23-26

New York in the wild west art by Kyle Lane, used through Creative Commons license
“The Morning Gossip” woodcut (by John J.A. Murphy) photo by Thomas Shahan, used via Creative Commons license
Shoutout to Shoutput photo via Shoutput, used through Creative Commons license

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