5 Ways to Diligently Discern All the Good and Bad “Christian Advice”

There’s a ton of Christianese literature out there, and some of it’s bad, bad, bad advice.

In my best movie trailer voice: In a world of Christian bestsellers, blogs, podcasts, and instagrams with Bible verses on ocean wallpaper, who are all coincidentally on an “authentic relevant struggling faith journey,” one ESV-carrying Christian millennial rises above the handlettering and “I’m not like those Pharisees” YouTube channels to authentically struggle with discerning what’s theologically sound and really works in the mess of real life.

But seriously: witty snark and pretty prose in bite-sized blog posts (like this one) don’t ever mean credibility. We really do need to know what “works in the mess of real life.” And it’s not going to be stitched-up quotes and here’s-what-I-would-do sort of fluff that sounds ideal but doesn’t work down here in the dirt.

I don’t claim to know any better on this. In fact, please don’t trust me, because I will let you down and inevitably disappoint you. Bloggers are not your counselors, no matter how flowery and fluffy their words. And your favorite “Christian celebrity” with the million followers might not be as inspirational as his tweets and t-shirts in his Etsy store.

Christians are called to discern everything we read, especially from sources that claim they’re fellow Christians. Here are a few questions to consider when we run into any kind of advice.

1) Where is it coming from? Says who?

It’s easy to start a blog and start preaching way further than our lives have actually lived. So much of Christian advice is idealistic guess-work that hasn’t been field-tested or approved by experience, much less cited or researched. In fact, a lot of it’s packaged to get hits and go viral, instead of actually caring about the real person it claims to help.

This will sound mean, but a lot of the shrill imperatives we see in blogs and books are from well-intentioned, untested upstarts who vicariously uphold an image that isn’t really them, either to compensate for their own shortcomings or to grab those precious followers. I only know this because I started that way, and I regress easily. Social media, for all its benefits, has made pedestal preachers of us all. I’d much rather someone tell me how it really is, with candid humble honesty, instead of how it “should be,” and to learn from their mistakes rather than get imprisoned by an impossible parameter—a paremeter, by the way, which is hardly practiced by the ones preaching it.

A suggestion: Check their bio. This isn’t to judge them or to assign value, but to see what they’ve actually been through. This also doesn’t mean that “youth” can’t say wise things, or that only experienced elders have knowledge. But rather, it’s to ask: What makes this person credible in this particular subject? What have they seen and who have they been around? How have their experiences informed their faith? And certainly there are those who have hardly been through much but can still write wonderful things, beyond their years, and it’s worth celebrating the exceptionally rare gift of youthful wisdom.

2) Is it reactionary?

I love snark and sass, but some advice is just a childish temper tantrum that caters to pseudo-outrage and preaches to a choir in an ivory tower. I call it Popular Discontent: find something wrong, multiply the fear and anger, call out some names, and you’re instantly viral. Also include, “I’m not like them, we’re like us, I’m protecting you, and everything is terrible and evil and I miss the good old days and these young people don’t even know.” Hashtag: Get off my lawn.

Another thing is that contrary to the cool postmodern professor, Christianity always challenges you to think for yourself. Discernment also means investigating every voice and giving it a fair hearing, no matter how dissenting, unpopular, or critical. But a church steeped in reactionary backlash tends to say, “My way is better than theirs and it’s the only way,” which becomes an echo-chamber cult of self-congratulatory chest-bumps.

A suggestion: This one’s tricky, because we do need to call out things that are obviously harmful, and I definitely sympathize with people who have been extremely hurt and must react as loudly as possible. The problem is building an entire platform on what you’re against instead of what you’re for. We go too far the other way, and it’s not hard to find something wrong with everything. Cynicism is easy mode. And everyone can tell when someone is secretly barking at a bone to pick or beating a dead hobby-horse. It’s a constant “throwing them under-the-bus.” I have to catch myself on that all the time (and I’m trying my darn hardest to balance that here). If the tone is passive-aggressive instead of pro-active, I let myself out. It’s a balancing act to be fair and firm, which leads us to—

Continue reading “5 Ways to Diligently Discern All the Good and Bad “Christian Advice””