Jerry An has worked in media ministry since 2001 and now serves as the Chinese Team Leader at ReFrame Ministries, a Chinese language ministry that has become a pioneer, think tank, and partner in new media ministry.
There is no doubt that China’s New Era (2012–present) is also the era of new media. In December 2012, I convened a conference with more than thirty participants from seventeen Christian media organizations and publishers, with individuals and church representatives coming from both China and overseas. At that time, it was still possible to host the conference in Beijing.
I recently looked back over my notes from that meeting. This is what the last paragraph says: “The next ten years will be the last important window for missions to China, a golden moment for new media ministry.”
I was not trying to be prophetic. I did not foresee the harsh situation we would face today, but I simply felt the urgency of the great opportunity that new media brought to China missions. Ever since, I have been focused on the development, promotion, and study of new media ministry.
The Game Changer
Since the beginning of its reform and opening, China has never allowed the establishment of any Christian media, whether it be radio, television, newspapers, or magazines. Publishing, as an exception, has had a little space, but only under a pretext, like academic research or family counseling. For example, in 2010 I published a book in China that puts the stories of Joseph, Moses, and David in a contemporary context. It is classified as an inspirational book for young people.
However, beginning with Weibo (a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter), social media has changed the game of mass communication. People are able to publish what they see and what they think without being vetted first, and that brings about a degree of freedom of speech to the Chinese. Moreover, it has created great space and opportunities for Christian evangelism.
In a 2015 survey of Christian content on Weibo, I summarized four main reasons why Chinese people do not believe in Christianity and offered suggestions for content creation on new media. I also proposed the concept of Christian public communication, advocating that “in various social environments and public contexts, we should accurately understand the scale of restrictions, find ways to accommodate, and earnestly respond to the felt needs of society.”
The Crisis behind the Prosperity
The rise of WeChat in 2013 brought Christian media into a golden age of unprecedented prosperity. However, behind the prosperity a huge crisis loomed. We completed a large data analysis in 2017 which found that among the top five “Christian” WeChat accounts according to readership, four of them were operated by the same troll farm.1 The readership of these five accounts exceeded the combined readership of the following 95 accounts, but the content they disseminated was full of false information and serious deviations from biblical truth. As the saying goes, “bad money drives out good.”
In 2018, we conducted an in-depth study of the content of certain WeChat public accounts with a clearer orthodox faith background. We found that besides the need to improve on certain technical aspects, such as formatting and design, the more important issue was that the content still generally lacked concern for public life and issues. It did not have the sensitivity or capacity to dialogue with the world. In other words, in this New Era, public theology is urgently needed by the Chinese church.2
The global pandemic of 2020 drove almost all churches online, and new media ministry received unprecedented attention. In less than eight months, I organized and attended over a hundred lectures and webinars, and in June of that year we published the anthology Pause or Fast-Forward: The Church, New Media, and the 2020 Pandemic.3 All of these efforts were intended to help churches understand that the online-merge-offline (OMO) lifestyle is the trend for both technological and social development; the pandemic only served as an accelerator. Both as the church and in our evangelism, we must seriously consider and actively respond to this OMO development.
The Need for Public Theology
The second half of 2020 reminded us of the urgent need for a robust public theology in China. As the US presidential election approached, conspiracy theories and fake news of all kinds emerged, starting in the US.4 However, soon hate-filled comments flooded social media platforms inside the Great Firewall as well as outside; WeChat saw the same kind of controversy and division as Facebook. This US event had a ripple effect through North American Chinese churches and right into the church in mainland China. Unfortunately, numerous Christians, church leaders, and media organizations, both inside China and outside, consciously or unconsciously, contributed to the spread of vicious and divisive statements, and some even put their political stance above their faith. All of this led to division among brothers and sisters, and a distorted witness before the watching world. Worst of all, some Christian YouTubers and influencers, who know how to generate substantial web traffic, made sensational and extreme statements that spread conspiracies they did not even believe. The “good money” was overtaken by “bad money” with the Chinese church’s presence on social media looking little different from the US church in this way.
This phenomenon reflects the Chinese church’s long-standing lack of sufficient understanding of media communication and new media. Even when the active use of new media is promoted within the church, the focus is usually only on the benefits and opportunities, ignoring the potential downsides and temptations involved. Not enough attention has been given to communication ethics and the nuances of public theology. Public theology is often highly sensitive, involving controversial topics that many churches and Christians choose to avoid discussing altogether. Those who do respond tend to do so in a fairly aggressive and radical way. There are relatively few resources available for developing a healthy framework for media communication and ethics, especially in Chinese. Furthermore, a truly Chinese public theology needs to be more contextualized, not simply taken from the Western world. The Chinese church has a long way to go in developing a healthy, holistic, and indigenous public theology.
Persecution Leads to Breakthrough
In May 2021, the Chinese government began a thorough purge of Christian content on WeChat public accounts,5 and in March 2022 they began enforcing extremely stringent regulations.6 Properly speaking, these efforts were not specifically aimed against Christianity; they were the result of the overall tightening of freedom of expression in the New Era. Furthermore, over the past decade, religious content (including Christian content) has been purged and removed from all sorts of media platforms, from e-magazines to podcasts such as Ximalaya and Lizhi.7 WeChat was certainly not the first, but simply the most recent target, although it has been the largest. In terms of book publishing, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain Chinese ISBNs,8 and now it is almost impossible. Even books with all the appropriate legal permissions have been removed from shelves, and WeChat has begun deleting articles published long ago that have not been viewed in years. So, while this is the era of the rise and prosperity of new media, it is also the era of a sort of cat-and-mouse game with the government.
There is no doubt that the current harsh and seemingly all-consuming censorship is a huge blow to new media evangelism. Early on in this period, I found myself depressed and confused. But I also knew that in terms of new media development, the influence of WeChat has been declining year by year, particularly with the rise of short videos such as Douyin (China’s TikTok) in 2017. As a new media-focused ministry, business transformation is inevitable. We attempted to incorporate short videos into our work but found that it was not suitable for our mainly literature-based editor team; we found ourselves in a bottleneck. Thus, external persecution can be a convenient excuse, but it does not really get at the root of our own growth problems.
An Opportunity in a Crisis
Gratefully, over the past year or so, the future direction of our ministry has become clearer: we are becoming a new media-oriented publishing ministry and a publishing-oriented new media ministry. We will apply the experience we have accumulated through a decade of new media ministry to publishing—providing fast, in-depth, and practical spiritual resources to the global Chinese church in a variety of formats, including electronic, physical, and audio. We will focus on responding to real-life issues and exploring a healthy and holistic public theology. We will also continue to focus on technology development, new media communication, art, and other related fields, making every effort to promote indigenous content creation and internet mission.
Just before the US Thanksgiving holiday in 2022, we held an online gathering to celebrate the publication of a collection of testimonies from Peking University graduates. The event was actually a new media crusade. Our Zoom room quickly maxed out at the 500-person limit, but then someone activated a livestream on WeChat, with some 1,400 people watching live on that platform. The event also had over 5,000 replays within a week, mainly in China. This was a great encouragement to us and proved once again the “game changing” nature of new media.
Over the past few years, we have also been glad to see many Christians starting to be more influential on Douyin, sharing Christian values and expressing their beliefs in ways that are not overtly religious. This is also true on other social media platforms and in publishing. So, there are still ways the church can continue to engage in the cat-and-mouse game at hand as we engage with an ever-changing media landscape. I believe that doing so will help Chinese Christians learn how to publicly express our faith, and begin to explore, practice, and develop a public theology. Of course, there is much work to be done: with China’s strong cultural identity, long history, and 1.4 billion people, much effort is needed to prepare the soil and share the gospel effectively in contextually appropriate and indigenous ways.
The Next Ten Years
Today, ten years in, and in the immediate wake of the 20th National Congress, the White Paper Movement,9 and the elimination of the zero-COVID policies, China’s New Era has entered a new decade. For China-related missions, we will likely see two major trends continue to develop. First, more Chinese people are emigrating overseas which opens up opportunities for evangelism among the diaspora.10 Second, for the greater part of the Chinese population that stays in China, in the face of continuous economic restructuring and increasingly stringent social control, there will be more desire for freedom and more reflection on the meaning of life. Among both groups, the need for evangelism, pastoral care, and public theology has never been more urgent or enormous than it is today. Once again, I am not trying to be prophetic, but in all these aspects, I recognize that new media—a true game changer—will continue to play an active and even more important role in the next ten years of the New Era.
- Similarly, research has shown that in 2019, nineteen out of the top twenty “Christian” Facebook pages in the US were run by troll farms. The implications are similar. See Tyler Huckabee, “In 2019, Almost All of Facebook’s Top Christian Pages Were Run by Foreign Troll Farms,” Relevant Magazine, September 28, 2021, accessed February 13, 2023, https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/tech-gaming/almost-all-of-facebooks-top-christian-pages-are-run-by-foreign-troll-farms/.
- Read more about the 2017 and 2018 findings in Jerry An, “Here’s What Thousands of Christian WeChat Accounts Reveal about Chinese Internet Evangelism,” Christianity Today, May 13, 2022, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/may-web-only/wechat-public-accounts-chinese-evangelism-censorship.html.
- This e-book《暂停还是快进》is available in Chinese only at https://ebook.endao.co/book-619#.
- Interestingly, a dominant source of such conspiracy theories surrounding the US election was the Epoch Times, a newspaper company based in New York and affiliated with the Chinese religious movement Falun Gong. The nature of new media is that it transcends geographic boundaries. For more on the role of the Epoch Times, see Kevin Rouse, “How the Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine,” New York Times, October 24, 2020, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/24/technology/epoch-times-influence-falun-gong.html.
- Read about ReFrame’s experience with this purge in Jerry An and Heather Haveman, “New Media, New Direction,” ChinaSource Blog, December 27, 2021, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/new-media-new-direction/.
- For an overview of all the major national-level changes in laws and regulations in China that have impacted Christians and the church during the New Era, including the March 2022 changes, see the ChinaSource summary, “A Reader’s Guide to Laws and Regulations of the New Era,” ChinaSource Quarterly 24, no. 4, (2022), accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/a-readers-guide-to-laws-and-regulations-of-the-new-era/.
- Ximalaya 喜马拉雅 (www.ximalaya.com), started in 2012 in Shanghai, is China’s largest online audio-streaming platform. Founded two years earlier in Guangzhou, Lizhi 荔枝 (www.lizhi.fm) is China’s second largest podcasting and audio app.
- The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) system is used by mainland China, but unlike other markets, acquiring an ISBN for a specific book requires a domestic publishing house and a review of the manuscript. The manuscript review process allows for significant censorship of the content that gets approved. Books with ISBNs secured in other countries, including the US, are not permitted in the mainland Chinese market.
- For a brief background on this movement, see Billy Perrigo, “Why a Blank Sheet of Paper Became a Protest Symbol in China,” Time, December 1, 2022, accessed January 31, 2023,https://time.com/6238050/china-protests-censorship-urumqi-a4/.
- Throughout 2022, Chinese social media saw a surge in posts related to “run philosophy,” a way of talking about emigrating. Although emigration was difficult, many still found ways out. (See, for example, Vincent Ni, “‘Run Philosophy’: The Chinese Citizens Seeking to Leave amid Covid Uncertainty,” The Guardian, July 20, 2022, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/20/run-philosophy-the-chinese-citizens-seeking-to-leave-amid-covid-uncertainty.) Now in early 2023, as China’s borders begin to open up in the post-zero-COVID season, many who have tried to leave may finally have the opportunity.
Pastor Jerry An has worked in media ministry since 2001, and now serves as the Chinese Team Leader at ReFrame Ministries (formerly Back to God Ministries International). Under his vision and leadership, the Chinese language ministry of ReFrame has become a pioneer, think tank, and partner in new media ministry. Pastor …View Full Bio