How to Deal With Online Trolls

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Consulting with hundreds of churches through the years, sadly I have found that there's one common enemy some of the most effective churches in America share—online trolls. In these cases, at least one disgruntled ex-church member has decided to launch a Facebook page, Twitter feed and in some cases a blog with the express purpose of criticizing the church.

There are many reasons: Some are offended by the pastor, others don't like the church's teaching, a few feel they were taken advantage of, and still others are convinced they've uncovered secret wrongdoing within the church leadership.

There's no question that some pastors and churches do dumb things, a handful do the wrong things, and a few do illegal things. But the question is—whether it's true or not, is a social media platform or blog the place to air dirty laundry?

B.F. (Before Facebook), gossip was a similar option, but thankfully, most just left the particular church. In my case, through the years, there have been plenty of churches and pastors I disagreed with, but I didn't gossip or launch a Twitter campaign to complain. I made a decision to either pursue it with church leadership or just move on.

But maybe "moving on" is the problem for these critics. They just can't let go of the hurt or being offended. From being on the inside of many of these situations and having read the critical posts, I can say the vast majority aren't acting out of a biblical perspective, they're simply acting out. Because they feel they were wronged, they're lashing out at the church or the pastor. But in the same way I advise against online campaigns against Hollywood, the gay community or anyone else, I would say the same thing to people who launch online campaigns against churches: They make little to no impact and do nothing for the cause of Christ.

Besides, think for a minute: Someone who feels wronged by a local church or pastor and invests the incredible amount of time it takes to create a blog and fill it with criticism, or does the same with a social media platform—and keeps it going for months or years—probably has much bigger problems in their life.

So if you're a pastor or leader in a church who's undergoing this kind of online criticism, here are my suggestions:

1) Before you react, consider the source. There's a difference between the occasional online critic and a troll. Most pastors know these people because in many cases, they're ex-church members. So you may see a post—or even criticism—from a church member who has an innocent question that you can easily answer, which solves the problem. So know the difference.

2) If it's a troll, ignore it. I tracked one online troll who had positioned himself as a theology cop and had been ripping into a local pastor for months. He only had five Twitter followers (probably his family), so he had little to no impact.

3) Don't help him by responding. When you respond on a social media platform, you're sharing the troll with all your followers, so don't help promote him by responding.

4) If it gets highly offensive, ask your attorney for advice. There are cases where online criticism can evolve into defamation, and there are legal remedies. A good attorney will help know if and when to pull that trigger.

5) Finally, stop reading it. I know some pastors who dwell so much on the criticism that it derails their concentration. Eventually they become depressed and lose focus. Stop obsessing over the 3 percent who are critics, and start feeding the 97 percent who aren't. Particularly with social media platforms, trolls are easy to block.

We live in a culture of victimization. Some people have essentially discovered their identity in being a victim, so they're willing to invest a great deal in expressing their victimhood. So stop reading the criticism, and start leading the congregation. The dog may bark, but the train keeps rolling. Doctrine, theology and moral living are important, but there are legitimate ways of correction within a church. Becoming an online troll isn't one.

Phil Cooke is an internationally known writer and speaker with a Ph.D. in theology. Through his company, Cooke Pictures in Burbank, California, he has helped some of the largest nonprofit organizations and world leaders use the media to tell their story. This column originally appeared at philcooke.com.


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