It came as a text from a very close friend: “Did you know Mike Pence is part of a global human trafficking ring?”
I didn’t really even know where to begin. I know people who have worked closely with the former vice president and repeatedly vouch for his character and integrity. What’s more, if a conservative vice president was leading this vast global criminal enterprise, certainly media outlets, especially hostile ones, would have reported it.
There have always been conspiracy theories in human history because human history is full of conspiracy and evil. Sin has marbled its way so thoroughly into the human heart, every generation sees brokenness and evil makes its way into the highest reaches of power.
And yet, so many theories — ideas of secret knowledge — are often just fantasies that appeal to our deepest fears and strongest biases.
Yet these are theories even many Christians are prone to believe as Lifeway Research recently found. In this study, nearly half (49%) of the pastors surveyed indicated they have heard members repeating conspiracy theories.
So how do faithful pastors and gospel-centered churches combat this flood of untruth, especially in an era where trust of institutions is at such a deficit and dishonest information fills our timelines and invades our minds?
1. Preach what the Bible says about renewing our minds.
Growing up, the refrain “garbage in/garbage out” was on repeat at home and church. My parents rightly warned me against the influence of pop culture and Hollywood. At times this approach can be legalistic, making us unable to appreciate art and culture and ways they can point us to God.
However, with some modifications, I’ve largely tried to help my kids navigate the world in a similar way. I hope they have the discernment to choose between what is good and what is not so good.
And yet I wonder if we need to apply this standard to the political content and news we consume. I wonder if we’ve reckoned with our daily intake of news and information that cascades down our timelines and invades our silence, moving us into ever-shrinking bubbles of conformity.
Just as we need to be discerning with our pop culture intake, so we need to be discerning with our political intake, especially when it comes from our own deeply held perspective.
What goes in our minds becomes and forms who we are. And just because someone agrees with us politically doesn’t mean their approach and their opinions are sacred. It doesn’t mean we should uncritically imbibe everything from “our side.”
Pastors can help combat conspiracy theories by simply preaching what the Bible says about renewing our minds (Rom. 12:2) and taking every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5). We should urge our people to build good habits and spiritual disciplines.
2. Remain intensely relational.
I’ve found that very few people have been disentangled from believing conspiracy theories by my arguing facts or sending them a list of links from reputable sources.
Instead, I’ve found the most effect by engaging in a personal way. If we build up friendship capital, we can draw on that to ask questions of the conspiracy-obsessed. We can pose questions like: Should we be focusing on this? Is this an important focus for a Christian? How does this impact our Christian witness?
I’ve even shared with a few friends: “I think you’ve gotten a little too deep here. I’m worried about you. You’re scaring me a bit here.”
Whether this is in a friend relationship or a pastoral situation, staying engaged and continuing the conversation is key. Pick up the phone. Take them out to lunch. Stay in their lives. This is just good pastoral practice. Ivory tower pronouncements won’t cut it.
3. Make sure your own leadership is worthy of trust.
Conspiracy theories have always existed, but belief in them rises when trust in leadership falls. And today many people are rightly feeling let down by the leadership they see. In the past few decades, every major institution in American life has seemingly failed us: the church, the academy, sports teams, government, business, etc.
You enter your leadership already at a deficit. People already are predisposed not to trust the pastor and anyone in a position of power. So how you use your authority will go a long way toward building trust.
This means we need to show transparency in our decisions, especially the difficult ones. We need to be people of our word and people who can be trusted. What’s more, people need to see us. Pastors who are in the lives of their people, present, available, down to earth will be trusted more than those who are aloof and only heard from on Sundays.
Genuine shepherding earns leadership capital, but a smug, condescending approach only furthers the divides between leadership and laity. You can’t and won’t stamp out every rumor or conspiracy, but you can go a long way toward building a culture of trust that keeps untruth from spreading.
4. Help people see a better way to do politics.
There seem to be two competing models for how churches should engage politics. One is a kind of disengagement based on the fear of getting it wrong. And the other is a kind of obsessed, all-in endorsement of candidates or parties. But pastors and other church leaders have the opportunity to show a better way.
The truth is that Christians can’t avoid politics. The gospel message itself is inherently political, declaring that there is another King and another kingdom not of this world. The gospel demands behavior and a concern for our neighbor that, at some level, means the people of God must act.
This is especially true in a representative republic, which at some level means leveraging our voices and our votes. So pastors should apply the Scripture to contemporary issues in a way that helps their people think critically. We can do this without becoming pundits.
Ultimately, our people need to understand how to see politics and government as important instruments for human flourishing, but not ultimate in the way many replace religious fervor with political fervor.
Our temptations toward conspiracy and untruth flow from an unhealthy obsession with politics. Pastors can teach political theology but also model it in the way they personally interact, both online and in the conversations they have.
5. Remember this is spiritual warfare.
For many who are caught in alternative theories and ideas, it’s more than just falling down an internet rabbit hole. In many cases, the enemy of our souls has got a grip on the minds and souls of our brothers and sisters in such a way as to detract from their duty to live on mission for God.
The enemy would love to see God’s people chasing abstract and far-fetched untruths, rather than sharing the good news of the gospel with their neighbors. This is why this fight for truth will not be won solely by leadership and by sharing good information and by preaching, but through prayer.
Paul reminded us that our fight is ultimately not with those caught up in lies, but with the Father of lies: “Since the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments” (2 Cor. 10:4).
I’ve started praying for family and friends ensnared by conspiracy theories. We cannot win with simply human means, with fleshly arguments, with intellectual rhetoric. We win by placing our hope and our confidence in the Spirit of God who regenerates the hearts and souls of men and women.
This post originally appeared at Lifeway Research.
Published February 26, 2021