I believe that trust reflects the consistency of character that we have in Jesus. Building trust is pretty straightforward in person: you spend time with others, share meals, and ask questions about who they are and the life they’ve lived.
But online, suddenly the barriers go up.
It begins to take extra work to be trustworthy online. You often start relationships with strangers from a place of distrust instead of neutrality or goodwill, and you might often only see a glimpse of the daily lives of your friends through social media.
In addition, it’s harder to have the spiritual conversations that we want to have and ask questions that actually help us see others through a spiritual lens when all we see is one smiley-curated photo or a snarky meme on Instagram or Facebook.
But in the 10+ years I have done online ministry and built relationships online, I’ve never once regretted the decision to emulate the portrayal of Jesus as the great trust builder. No matter who He was with or whatever context He was in, this was always true.
So let’s start there. I’d like to tell you a story.
Avoiding Online Landmines
A few years ago, I became the unofficial chaplain for a gaming Discord server that I had joined (if you are unfamiliar with Discord, think of a group chat crossed with an online chatroom—for video game players).
I sought out this group because I wanted to find people who loved the same game as me. I wanted to chat all about the strategies we could use and even find some people to play with. The best part of being here was how much knowledge there was about the game. Every time I logged on, I always learned something new.
But this game had a reputation for attracting people who were immature or aggressive in-game. This was an important assumption because it set the tone of our chat. Everyone was a little bit guarded, lest they accidentally open the door for someone to say something rude to them.
Probably a hundred or so people were on the server, and twenty or thirty were active on the chat. So over time, it became easy to pick apart who was prone to different kinds of conversations (For example, John liked to rant about school in between rounds, and Frank always talked about wanting to get into a relationship but never being able to land a date. Yes, even great gamers have real-life problems).
Some of these guys were prolific ranters. So in response, others in the chat tried to stay polite or get out of the way if it seemed like one of these guys was about to pick an argument. No one wanted to get into a shouting match online, so they kept to only expressing their strong opinions about the game.
But after a few weeks, I noticed that being honest in the chat was met with indifference. Whenever someone shared something personal, people would simply react with some emojis and move on from the conversation. No one would ask any follow-up questions or do anything to push back when someone was frustrated about what was happening in their life.
I also noticed that everyone seemed to drop hints that their gaming behavior (whether they were polite, aggressive, or just acting like class clowns) had something to do with the things they would complain about.
An Internet Vocation
It would have been easy to write them off as internet jerks. But as I spent more time online, Jesus began to give me a glimpse that these people I chatted with in the evenings might want more than just a place to air their complaints.
I wanted to know more, so I started messaging people privately. I’d ask Frank about what things he was trying to help him find a date, send them a question or two, and close it with “Thanks for sharing.”
Over time, I got a little braver and started replying directly in the big chat. I expected them to ignore me or just give a short answer. Instead, each person started typing long paragraphs where they were more honest than they’d ever been.
People even started chiming in with, “I relate to that,” or other affirmations.
Eventually, we made a new chat group for some of the regular folk who shared, and we began to seek out ways to be more involved in each other’s lives. I even found a few openings to bring in faith.
John started sharing about how his relationship with his parents was strained whenever he stayed with them on break from school. Several of us were a little bit older than him, so we gave him some insight and ways to communicate how he was feeling.
Merek would talk about how difficult and soul-sucking his work was, and how much fun he had spending time with us. We started checking in on him during his work breaks, asking him what kind of work would fuel his soul. We got into a conversation about what it meant to take care of our soul in the first place, and I told him about what kind of prayer I did each morning and offered to pray for him too.
Let me clarify something. None of these people came to faith during our online interactions. But that time of walking with them opened the door to many spiritual conversations where I shared parts of my story and why I follow Jesus. For most of them, talking with me was the first time they’d had a positive interaction with a Christian who wasn’t looking for an argument or seeking to correct how they lived their lives.
Instead, I worked to be a bright spot—a light—in their life as I reflected Jesus’ accepting and wholesome love to them.
Establishing Trust Online
A Discord server can be a little bit more intimate than your Facebook feed or your Instagram stories. But no matter where you find yourself in community with others online, I want to highlight some of the habits that helped establish trust and opened the door to conversations about faith.
There’s this great resource called the Spiritual Conversation Curve that I like to use. It reminds all of us how growing someone’s posture toward faith in Jesus begins with vulnerable, human relationship. You check out more about the Spiritual Conversation Curve here. Or check out how the three main steps of the curve apply to my interactions with John, Frank, and Merek:
#1: Be proactive in gaining a hearing
At the beginning when I started sending messages, I sometimes took five or ten minutes to craft my questions carefully. When Frank shared about his dating woes, I took a moment to write out what I wanted to say on a notepad and tried to read it from his perspective. I realized I was making negative assumptions about him when I led with questions like, “Why do you want to date so badly?”
So I reworded my message to, “What are you hoping for in a relationship?” and, “Would you like some help writing your first message on the dating app?”
I tried to make sure that he could answer as much or as little as he wanted.
#2: Become a good interpreter
Over time, I saw my role as a translator of sorts. John had trouble understanding his emotions. They came up often without him realizing it. And when asked about them, he was just as surprised at his strong responses as we were (Eventually, he shared that his parents were not very good at expressing emotions either).
I pointed out that learning to master our emotions was more than just a task of self-control; it was also a spiritual task. I shared that I myself had to turn to spiritual teachers to help me in this process. It opened the door to sharing stories of how Jesus helped me manage my own emotions. I would share stories of Jesus and what I was learning from Him about controlling my anger or being more vulnerable.
#3: Create clarity about the spiritual journey
I never started conversations by saying, “As a Christian…” That more often than not leads to a defensive response and the end of a conversation. Instead, I would tell stories about Jesus in response to learning moments.
Merek in particular had a Christian background, and he would regularly send me his hot takes about different Jesus stories. I’d ask him things like, “Why is that so important to you?” Sometimes I asked if he wanted to spend more time reading that specific story with me.
Honoring All Relationships
It’s been a few years since I stopped playing that game, so I don’t keep up with everyone regularly anymore. But a few of those friendships moved from Discord to text and even some in-person meet-ups. I’m grateful and honored by their trust, and that they have given me a place in their life as their spiritual guide.
What about you? Where is Jesus showing you an opportunity to be a trust builder and follow in His footsteps? Can you think of a community, or a chat, or a few people that you interact with online regularly? What’s one way you can build trust with those folks?
May Jesus help you model light and love as you build friendships both on- and offline.