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Fake news, gossip and ‘Just want my church back!’

George BullardEditor’s note: This column is the last for George Bullard as a columnist for Baptist News Global. Due to his responsibilities in other areas, he has asked to be released from this task and of course we’ve agreed, though with regret. We wish him well as he serves the church in other productive ways.

Posting “fake news” is an action that impacted the 2016 presidential election season. So much fake news appeared on news sites, websites, social media and through direct messages that it clouded true and accurate news.

A representative of one mainstream news agency said there was so much fake news clogging the communication channels during the election that they could not keep up with fact checking and clarifying for the public what was true and what was not.

Just in case you are not familiar with the term “fake news,” it is the deliberate attempt to publish disinformation with the hope people will spread the false information through social media, word-of-mouth and other forms of communication. The desired result is that people will believe the fake news is truth, pass it on as truth, react to it as truth, and take actions — such as voting — based on the belief it is truth.

Fake news is different from news satire which is parody that creates a humorist situation, pokes fun at people, and helps the hearer think about the news and the truth in deeper or more diverse ways. News satire uses irony which is the use of words that convey the opposite of the real meaning. Satire is for humor and provocation, and not to be represented as truth. Fake news seeks to claim it is truth, not irony.

Gossip is a form of fake news. It communicates and circulates in oral, written and digital form what are at best half-truths and at worst lies about people and situations. In other forms, it exposes private information about persons which was not originally communicated for public hearing.

A recent segment of the new television series Bull used gossip to alter the perspective of a jury in a trial in a small town in New England. Dr. Bull and his staff intentionally put out a fake story with the intention of communicating gossip throughout the community so the opinion of a jury would be changed. It worked, and the accused was found innocent.

This use of gossip in a tight social network shows the power of gossip and other forms of fake news.

Congregations are a similar type of tight social network. Good, bad, helpful and harmful information can spread rapidly throughout congregations. During the 1970s I was pastor of an inner-city church in Louisville, Ky. This was before voice mail, email, and social media. When I needed to quickly get word out to my congregation and the community, or to correct disinformation, I would call one person.

Irene Featheringill was a member of the church all her adult life, and the church secretary for more than 20 years. She knew the heads of the grapevines in the congregation and the community. If there had been a death, or we needed prayer for a crisis within our fellowship, I would simply connect with Irene, tell her the true information, and then say, “Our people need to know about this.” That was all I had to do. She took it from there.

The world of communication is more complicated now.

In a recent conversation with friends who are members of another church in our state, they told me about the current conflict in their congregation. It had escalated to the point an outside person was brought in to moderate a business meeting.

In dialogue sessions, prayer meetings, and the business meeting itself they heard so much disinformation that they wondered where it all originated. Throughout their small town the grapevines were active with gossip and fake news about the pastor and the bad direction in which he was leading the church.

The truth is the pastor sought to lead the church in innovative ways. The full weight of the innovations caused people to realize the church was changing from what it had formerly been. Two other churches of the same denomination in this small town were having similar conflict. All of this was occurring during the recent contentious presidential election. We know from history that contentious elections make their way into the life and ministry of congregations.

During the season of conflict an oft repeated refrain was “I just want my church back!” This phrase raises a red flag in many situations. Yes, at times a congregation is led in a bad direction, so it is human to want back the church previously known. If this is the truth, then fine. It should be addressed. If this is truth based on fake news and gossip, it may represent a desire by loud voices to control the congregation — to take the reins of control away from God and reimage the congregation as a cultural enclave rather than a Christ-centered, faith-based community.

“I just want my church back!” can mean congregants have forgotten churches belong to our Triune God and not to ourselves. A congregation is led forward by God’s empowering vision and not back to a culturally comfortable place.

Congregations should remember the admonition of Henry David Thoreau, “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”

Our Triune God encourages us through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi in this manner: “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13b-14 NASB).

Truth makes us free. Fake news expressed as gossip to manipulate decisions and directions imprisons us. Unleash God’s church to be free to move forward into the future.