As a college student with no formal biblical training of any kind, I feel slightly uncomfortable addressing this kind of sin issue with any presumption of authority. However, as a college student with no formal biblical training of any kind, and particularly as a young millennial Christian in Southern California, this is one sin issue that I personally observe, encounter, and wrestle with all the time. Maybe it’s because of the prevalence of social media or the cultural influence from my Asian parents, but for whatever reason, I see gossip everywhere, especially within myself. And I also see it going unaddressed, or at least unchallenged, in proportion to how much it affects our church culture. Gossip is uniquely toxic because it builds culture and gets embedded into the very structures of our churches and communities, and I hope that churches and Christians can be encouraged to attack it in effective ways.
why is gossip so prevalent - gossip/knowledge as social currency
Our millennial generation values exclusivity. We love being part of the “in group,” and therefore, we love being “in the know.” We like the idea of getting invited to things that not everyone else is invited to or being a part of a group or club that has certain requirements for membership. Knowing things about what is going on in the community around us is just another way for us to affirm that we are “in,” that we are “known,” that we are “loved.”
Pastor Stephen Witmer outlines in this Desiring God article why gossip is so tempting. He says, “at its core, gossip is really about me” — it says that I am interesting, I am powerful, I am indispensable, I am righteous. It is this idea of self-satisfaction through gossip that is particularly appealing and exacerbated in our Asian-American Christian context. As an extension of that, Asian-American communities tend to use knowledge as a sort of social currency. Just like the ‘likes’ on an Instagram or Facebook post boost our reputations and give us more “social capital,” knowledge and secrets do the same thing. The more”‘secrets” I know about the members of my church, the more I feel like I have a place in my church. This offers a dangerous incentive to share secrets and to gossip.
I see this in my personal life too. Even though I honestly don’t know much about person X and her life, I find I gain this really weird desire — instinct almost — to learn what she did last Friday night with so-and-so when I hear person Y talking about her. It’s not because I genuinely want to know about person X: I just want to be in the know.
The more secrets you have and the more information you know — even about people you barely interact with! — the more social capital you have and the more affirmed you feel about your place in the community. This is one reason why it’s so frustratingly hard to stop gossiping — it’s become a way for us to validate our places in our communities, a way to feel like we belong.
why is gossip so toxic - gossip builds culture, gets embedded into our social structures
There are a number of biblical reasons why gossiping is so destructive (2 Corinthians 12:20, Ephesians 4:29, James 1:26, James 4:11, Proverbs 16:28), but I want to highlight one way that gossip affects the church that I’ve seen through personal observation — it builds culture. It often doesn’t feel all that bad to be sharing secrets, especially with trusted friends. On a macro-level, however, gossip fundamentally shapes the social structure of our churches.
Gossip on a structural level sets a precedent for how we view and interact with one another, how we view and interact with the church, and ultimately, how we view and interact with God. Gossip makes us see other people more for what they can give us rather than for who they are. It turns confidential secrets and sins into commodities that are used to make ourselves feel better. It dehumanizes our brothers and sisters into avenues through which we can receive self-affirmation.
I personally see this culture manifesting in a number of ways. I see it when people feel like they can’t share their struggles or sins or in that personal hesitation to be open with a small group in fear that the members will spread their stories to other people. I see it when people have to protect themselves from the consequences of gossip or be driven away from the church because of it.
Ultimately, gossip creates communities filled with self-absorbed people who view others and their struggles through self-centered lenses. This obstructs the ways in which God can work in our interpersonal relationships — through sharing our sins, sharing our struggles, in confiding in one another, in encouraging each other — and these are all stunted or killed by a culture of gossip. If our churches are founded this type of social structure, it eventually impedes discipleship.
There are a ton of resources and articles already written on how to combat gossip in our churches:
- How to Shut Down Gossip
- How to Stop Church Killing Gossip
- The Sin of Listening to Gossip
- Six Questions to Diagnose Subtle Gossip
These articles all contain great tips to combat the personal and individual sin of gossip. But I want to stress the importance of understanding how we as members of churches are culture-setters, and how we set culture both as perpetuators of gossip and as victims of gossip.
As perpetuators of gossip, we really have to learn how to see others the way God sees them. If we saw everyone as a person created in the image of God, then we would be less inclined to treat knowledge about his or her story so lightly. Also, as culture-setters, we must learn how to take responsibility for the sins of our church culture, not just our individual sins. By taking part in affirming a culture of gossip, we are also affirming every negative experience every victim of gossip has experienced.
As victims of gossip, we have to learn how to see ourselves the way God sees us. My college pastor shared a helpful illustration about this using the metaphor of a track-and-field race. As we’re living life and running our race, we often feel as though there is an audience around us, watching and commenting from the stands. But at a certain point, we have to learn to drown out the unimportant voices if we want to focus on winning the race. We have to learn how to listen to only the people who matter — our coaches, our teammates — and trust their voices. If we learn to refocus our attention to the people who matter, such as our pastors, our small group members, our trusted friends, and God, who we know are actually for us and have our best interests in mind, then it is much easier to combat a gossip-saturated culture.
Ultimately, God’s opinion is the only one that truly matters (Isaiah 40:8), and through the gospel of Christ, we can be assured of so many reassuring and wonderful truths about our identity in Him (Romans 8:31-39). When we focus our attention on the one voice that matters, we begin to be able to take our eyes off of ourselves, and see ourselves and others how God sees them and ourselves — not as a means of bringing selfish affirmation, but as a means of giving selfless love. The good thing about culture is that, no matter how toxic, it can be changed. But it starts with each of us, as individuals, making conscious decisions to be active shapers of the culture rather than a passive participants.
Esther Yu is a 4th year student at UCLA and attends Gospel Life Mission Church.