Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Bible Study Troll

Where there is open participation, there will be trolls.

I don’t mean the fairy tale creatures that live under bridges. “Troll” is slang for someone inclined to stir up Internet drama by starting arguments or upsetting people by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages. The disruption may be very calculated or completely unintentional: Howard Fosdick says, “Motivations differ but the results are the same”.

Troll-types didn’t originate with the Web and they don’t restrict themselves to it. Trolls have been around as long as there have been opportunities to get attention. The Internet Troll has a genial cousin I call the “Bible Study Troll”. He’s not malicious and he doesn’t mean to be inflammatory, but his contributions are just as likely to lead to drama and discord as those of his better-known relative.

A Good But Risky Idea

Many churches maintain at least one forum in which a certain amount of open participation is possible, be it a weekly Bible study, youth group, College and Careers, home-based cell group or Alpha-type class. This is a good thing. It is a practice derived from the principle that each believer has been given a spiritual gift for the benefit of the other members of the Body of Christ, and that the church is the primary place where these gifts are to be used. Some such participatory gatherings are recognized as “church meetings”, others are not, but the idea behind them is essentially a biblical one.

All the same, an open study with unmanaged trolls present can quickly deteriorate into chaos.

Signs of Trolls in the House

Every church I have ever attended has had a troll or two. Some churches managed them. Some let them roam free and wreak havoc. Some possible signs of their presence:
  • If your Bible study is twice as well attended when you schedule a speaker than when you have an open meeting, you may have trolls. Trolls drive people away.
  • If the same people participate week after week and nobody else has anything to say, you may have trolls. The presence of trolls tends to discourage participation.
  • If you go away frustrated that you have just discussed a subject for 45 minutes and nobody addressed any of the major points of the passage you were studying, it may just be that your group lacks gifted teachers … or you may have trolls. Trolls disrupt progress of any sort.
The Troll in Action

What does a troll look like in a Bible Study setting? His participation is regular, lengthy, unrelated to the subject at hand and often personal. If we accept Howard Fosdick’s assertion that it is the disruptive effect on the group discussion rather than the underlying intent that matters, a troll may look very much like you or me:
  • If I feel compelled to participate one or more times in every single discussion, I may be developing trollish tendencies.
  • If the Bible Study leader has to change topics after I’ve finished speaking my piece, I may have just been trolling.
  • If I am asked to clarify what I just said and can’t remember, I may be a troll.
  • If what I have said frequently requires public correction immediately after I say it, I am almost surely a troll.
  • If I finish making a point and go right on to make another and another rather than allowing others to respond, I may be trolling.
  • If nobody can tell when I’m finished my point because there isn’t one, I may be hollering from under the metaphorical bridge.
  • If I start to share a thought and notice everyone is looking nervous or averting their eyes, chances are I have developed a reputation for trolling.
  • If I always have to have the final word in every study, I may be leaning toward trollism.
  • If I contribute more personal anecdotes than relevant scripture, I may be trolling.
The defining feature of Bible Study Trolling is that it becomes primarily about the troll rather than the study. Managing his behavior, putting out the fires he has started, correcting his doctrinal mistakes and smoothing over the feathers he has ruffled become the theme of the night’s gathering. The intended topic usually goes out the window.

Some Caveats

Now, to be fair, not everyone who offers something personal or less than profitable from time to time is a troll. New Christians experience a learning curve that may be lengthy in some cases, and deserve the benefit of the doubt as they try to figure out what’s appropriate. And even mature Christians can have a bad day here and there and say things that are not typical of them.

What makes a troll a troll is that despite a number of years in the Christian faith, he cannot seem to move on to maturity. Being heard is more important to him than listening. He remains only minimally aware of the needs of others in the room.

Defeating the Purpose

Most Christians are famously tolerant. Not only do we put up with trolling, we often make excuses for it. But the primary purpose of the church is not to give me an opportunity to express my feelings or vent my personal opinions. We gather for the glory of God and to build one another up in our faith.

Perhaps this is why the Lord and the apostles spend what might seem an inordinate amount of time encouraging the believers to prioritize the needs of the other guy (or girl).
  • Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” If I love my brother and can see that he may have something to say, why not let him speak first?
  • If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” If we apply this verse not only to acts of service, but to ministering to “one another” with the word of God, the implication is that I need to allow my fellow believers opportunity to minister to me just as, ideally, I would minister to them. That may mean more listening and less holding the floor.
  • Be filled with the Spirit … submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” One of the ways I can “submit” to you out of reverence for Christ is to make it a priority to hear what you have to say and to encourage you to share your thoughts.
When we prioritize our own needs and the exercise of our own gift, we defeat the purpose of gathering and thwart the work of the Holy Spirit in teaching us to submit and serve.

Managing My Inner Troll

We all have a little troll in us, I think. I know I do. I make some of the above observations in the hope that each of us will examine ourselves for trollish tendencies and become ruthless in rooting out those behaviours we may have developed that originate in selfishness rather than love.

1 Corinthians 14 makes it clear that when believers gather, we have to get used to giving up the floor:
“If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.”
“Well, sure,” you may say, “but that passage has to do with prophetic revelation, not a bunch of people giving their opinions in a Bible Study. Of course I would be quiet if I knew the other person was speaking the words of God.”

Precisely. We don’t have prophets among us in the same sense today. But men still speak for God. And the Corinthians encountered exactly the same problem we do identifying those who really do speak for him. Bear in mind that when Paul gave this instruction to the Corinthians, there was no glorious penumbra that surrounded a prophet and indicated he was about to say something special. After Pentecost, no tongues of fire appeared above the heads of those God was using.

Everyone who spoke for God looked exactly like everyone else. First century or today, it’s impossible to know whether someone is speaking for God … until after you hear him speak. Thus surrendering the floor to our fellow members of the Body of Christ is a habit all those of us who teach need to learn.

In Corinth, assuming they took the apostle’s instructions to heart and obeyed them, men learned to submit to one another. They learned to stop talking even if they hadn’t finished to their own satisfaction. They learned to listen and evaluate instead of blathering on ad infinitum.

They managed their own “inner trolls”, if you like.

Cleaning Under the Bridge

The good news is that most Christian trolls are actually manageable. But they will rarely manage themselves without some form of intervention.

This means that Bible Studies need leadership. Not tyrannical, domineering leadership, but gentle shepherd guidance.

Finding a balance in leadership between authoritarianism and passivity is not easy. It does not require a particular personality type so much as it requires developed character and a sense of conferred responsibility that cannot be abdicated. It requires a sense of the big-picture needs of the church, and a willingness not to allow the purpose of gathering to be co-opted by someone’s personal agenda or poor judgment.

As unpleasant as it may feel, if you are responsible for a participatory study, you have to manage the trolls who refuse to manage themselves. That may mean gently interrupting them and cutting them off when it is clear they are going nowhere. It may mean asking them to cut to the chase, or inquiring how what they are saying relates to the topic or passage being studied.

It may mean taking them aside and asking them not to participate quite so often, or maybe not to participate at all. Being sound in the faith requires the occasional sharp rebuke.

Not everybody can handle that. But the alternative is that a gathering devoted to the glory of God and the building up of each member of the Body of Christ instead becomes devoted to self-will and ego stroking of man.

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