I think a wise course of action would be to teach the value of listening as an activity that extends into the virtual world. As a long time lurker and occasional commenter, I cannot help but notice that Christian debates most often get out of hand quite quickly when one or both parties refuse to listen to each other in favor of replying to a comment with a long unhelpful and irrelevant post. In the real world, we listen for vocal cues about how one feels about something they are saying, but we also use body language and facial expression to help decide how diplomatic our response will be.
No such aid exists on the internet. Sarcasm and satire as well as fact and emotionally charged commentary are all just letters on a screen. I think it takes practice to be able to sort out which bloggers are likely to be open to being challenged and which bloggers see challenges as an affront to their beliefs, especially in matters of faith. My mentor tends to warn me time and again that some Christians are just inflexible in that regard, but since I can’t tell until after the debate begins, it can take some time before I realize I’m in too deep in a conversation that neither side will win. I hope that after my most recent experience I will be able to create a filter to remind myself to check whether a person is open minded or closed minded before I comment – I should make a habit to look before I leap in with my thought or comment, so to speak.
The thing is, I do my best to read their comments and respond directly to their point or I try to draw out a related idea that’s a natural consequence of what is implied or stated in the post that they might not have considered. But when the response to my comments has very little to do with what I said, I can’t help but feel like what I just said doesn’t matter. So to figure out where the problem lies – I turned to the one thing that both sides ought to agree on the Bible.
4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. – 1 John 4:4-6
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, – James 1:19
To answer before listening— that is folly and shame. – Proverbs (Lots of them are on the importance of listening.)
Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it. – Proverbs (Lots of them emphasize that listening is wise.)
let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance— – Proverbs (Conversely, not listening is foolish.)
There’s also no shortage of idioms that Christians should avoid exemplifying if it all possible. Because if talking to a Christian is like talking to a brick wall, goes in one ear and out the other, and falls on deaf ears, then ultimately they have put up a stumbling block before others.
Generally, what is inappropriate in the real world is also rude in the virtual world. Listening, paying attention, and staying on topic, shows your opponent that even if you don’t agree with their perspective you do respect them.