Supporting Article

Deploying Appropriate Technology

The Vision

“What do you think of our choir?” the Inner Mongolia church leader yelled out while steering our motorcycle through the snow on a wintry night. Though muffled by the protective headgear in numbing minus twenty degrees Celsius, I told him the choir was fantastic (they sang in tune and harmony; their sense of rhythm would be the envy of many church choirs that I know, and their expressive voices and expressions brought people into a desire to worship).

Then he surprised me! He said, “We are making large quantities of cassette recordings of the choir and we are mailing them to many Christians in other provinces in China, so that we can minister to them individually and to their churches!” Here began my decade long journey observing the development of the church in China and their own vision of using appropriate technology to achieve their God given vision of reaching their neighbor and the unreached.

The church in China is deploying technology appropriately and using it effectively. Consider the following:

  • Already, in Hebei province, churches are recording gospel messages for the day when China is open to “radio broadcasting” from local counties.
  • Already, in Yunnan province, lilting Christian music and gospel messages echo through loud speakers in a setting of magnificent mountains and valleys.
  • Already, in certain market places, 300 to 1,000 hymns are entered into playback devices (called the “Hymn-master”) which may be linked to small stereo-boxes that are able to provide four-part harmony, both piano and organ music and other features that will help churches train their choirs and assist in worship.
  • Already, from Xinjiang to Fujian, various titles of Christian books have been published and circulated through desktop publishing and replication.

Church leaders in China are using appropriate technology in ministry. But a fast moving economy, with a certain latitude of openness from the government, is changing China’s vast landscape and the way technology must be deployed to reach all sectors of society. What are the economic and technological realities in China today? How can the church—and we who are assisting the church—engage in effective use, and in some cases limited use, of technology? This article addresses these questions.

The Economy and Technological Advances

Economic development and reform in China over the last twenty years have produced profound changes: the GNP has more than doubled and new markets have developed. People who tend to think of step-wise technological development in China are often shocked by her quantum technological leaps. The typical desktop computer is a Pentium III while an affordable laptop is minimally a Pentium II model. China is not a newcomer to today’s technology!

Foreign corporations are often excited by the market place in China. The oft quoted market figure of one billion people is not necessarily supportable due to the country’s poor transportation infrastructure; but, the reality of 600 million people as a market space is supportable. China has been awarded much direct foreign investment ($46 billion in 1998 with 80% coming from APEC countries),[1] especially in the hi-tech arena. In fact, much of China’s Internet infrastructure is newer and more advanced than what is in place in the U.S.

Of great benefit to China is the building of the Internet backbone and the implementation of wireless technology. The number of Internet users is growing rapidly. With 18 million users in 2000, the projected growth is 80 million users by 2003.[2] (In contrast, Japan currently has 23 million users and is projected to have 60 million by 2003.) According to the Yankee Group, many “third” world countries usually have at least two people per Internet account—and China is no different. Thus, the currently reported numbers are, in reality, already under-estimated.

The figures for mobile phone users are even more astounding. By the beginning of 2001, there will be 80 million mobile subscribers representing 6% of the population. Analysts project that by 2003 there will be an estimated 250 million mobile phone subscribers (19% of the population). Wireless phones will outnumber wired ones. In contrast, reaching the saturation point, North America is projected to have less than 200 million mobile phone users in 2003.

In terms of television viewers, China is a huge market of 1.1 billion. With 320 million television sets in homes,[3] the growth of this market will become saturated at about 400 million sets in 2003. Of greater interest is the number of households that have cable television—currently 80 million[4] (in the USA there are 77 million). Moreover, the daily viewing time of young adults in China is not very different from that of their US counterparts: 162 minutes versus 171 minutes respectively.[5]

With imminent accession to the WTO injected with fierce competition from abroad, China’s own market orientation will become more competitive. This is good news for users of technology, as Internet and mobile phone costs should decrease. However, which technologies should the church deploy? What will be their cost to the church, and will church leaders be able to use them effectively? WE shall explore these questions further.

Ministry Intersecting Technological Realities and Possibilities

With 60% of China’s population under the age of 24, marketers are drooling over the prospect of reaching the youth. MTV, which accesses 47 million households in China, is leading the charge by importing commercial pop culture and icons from Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Many returning overseas scholars are also importing Christian and Western secular democratic and scientific values that further shape this group of 630 million that represents the next generation. China is modernizing, changing and transforming at a speed that has little, or few, parallels in history.

Church leaders in China, and ministry leaders who would like to help strengthen the church in China, face new challenges. Some Western Christian organizations have already seized upon the availability of affordable cable and are using it to broadcast their programs into China. However, the time slots are awkward and the programs are in English. Radio programs go into China not only on airwaves, but via cassettes and CD-ROM.

In the West, a migration from VCRs to DVDs is occurring, but China never really had an installed base of VCRs. Rather, skipping a generation of technology, the society now has a huge, affordable and installed base of VCD players (videos on CDs which are less versatile than DVDs). If one were to climb to some of the most remote areas in Sichuan province, one would find “minority” villages with houses that have satellite dishes and televisions with 19 or 21 inch screens. Back in the city, the accepted size of a television screen among the younger generation is 29 inches. This combination of large screen size televisions and VCD players mixed with a changing society that grants private freedom of expression has launched a “content driven” VCD movement.

The Wenzhou church has seized this opportunity to put beautiful nature scenes with the sound and words of their choirs singing hymns on VCDs. This wave of supplying “content” soul ministering music and of enabling people at home to sing Christian songs has become a huge ministry. Similarly the Jesus film has been circulated throughout China using this same installed base of technology with many coming to know Christ. The voice-only version of the Jesus film has also been repackaged in VCD format. Likewise, children are enjoying the Super Book series on VCDs. Strategies such as these essentially put both “content” and “technology” transfer into the hands of the church leaders increasing their capacity to minister more effectively.

Some church leaders have become even bolder! They have used laptop computers fitted with “laptop overhead projectors” to zoom the Jesus film onto a large screen that accommodates a viewing audience of 1,000 people. Professionals, students and professors, church leaders. And theological teachers have used the FirstLIGHT2000 CD-ROM software as both follow-up material and training curriculum for those who are reached through the VCD media. An interesting sidelight of this wholesale “content and technology” transfer is that the same Jesus film, FirstLIGHT2000 or Super Book stories can be used overseas where the diaspora mainland Chinese are residing.

A visit to the Chinese simplified script Internet portals makes one aware that there are already many Christian sites with a growing number of websites of mainland Chinese origin. Church leaders in various cities from Beijing to Changsha to Urumqi have already used “instant messaging” to discuss Bible passages and to encourage one another. However, of real interest are the “Christian chat rooms.” Without doubt, these are monitored—and some people are outright political in their views. However, there are also genuine seekers. Questions like “Can a communist party member become a Christian?” pop up with regular frequency, and respondents have answered those seekers well.

The mobile phone market has an even larger market space than computer linkage to the Internet. Based on conservative estimates, the Chinese government believes many more people will have their first experience on the Internet through mobile phones rather than computers. With current pricing structures, the cost of a mobile phone is prohibitively high; however, this is now changing in a dramatic way. For about a decade, China has had world class manufacturing facilities that have won them market space for large appliances as well as smaller ones. Now, they are entering into the manufacture of mobile phones using their own brand names and competing directly against Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson. While a number of pressure points exist for both the manufacturers and the wireless providers, the bottom line is they want to and must succeed. The benefits accrue to the consumer in lower prices for both handset units and airtime charges.

Even more interesting is the progression of wireless providers into the next generation of technology with a mobile device that is constantly connected to the Internet. 6 While the current general user profile is to send data and communications tethered to a fixed line, with newer technology, using a faster put-through rate, it is conceivable to send data and communications in an untethered manner—the ultimate anytime, anywhere proposition. With this technology, there are some significant possibilities for using the mobile phone from anywhere including: off-site mentoring: various participants joining in web-based meetings that cross various time zones; Internet radio and broadcasting.

Which Changes and Legacies Are We Enabling?

Clearly, technology is seductive. The recent avalanche of the new economy “dot com” failures is instructive on the seduction of technology that tossed out all reasonable judgments and left prudence widowed. Inevitably, the West and its churches will introduce many forms of “must-have” technology into China, and certainly, the Chinese would like to take part in the “latest” technology. When assisting and enabling church ministries in China, we should carefully assess what the “appropriate” level of technology is. Can the users learn it and apply it? What are the on-going maintenance costs? Are plans made for the obsolescence of the technology? Who will pay for the upgrade or next round of purchases?

However, even more important than the answers to these questions is to understand that there are clearly at least hour very different markets in China: cities, villages, those over 25 who are church leaders, and those who are under 25 years of age. Ministries in China and those in the West must identify the context they are dealing with as well as the already installed base of technology. They also need to examine the migration paths taking place in the entire society at large. For example, is society moving towards DVDs or staying with VCDs?

Technology is not the final solution nor is it an ideal solution; it is merely a tool. Imagine what would happen if we replaced Sunday School teachers with VCDs (as some church leaders in China thought might be possible). What would happen to pedagogy? What would happen to “life on life” transfers? What would happen to the principle of modeling Christ to others?

Principles to Remember

Undoubtedly the deployment of various appropriate technologies is irrevocably fused in the ministry patterns of the church in China. Many church leaders highly welcome the use of technology that allows them to launch further visions and ministries in obedience to the Great Commission. The West, and her churches that are assisting the church in in China, will introduce additional technologies fueling greater iteration in the use of technologies for ministry. Measured against the clock-speed of this life, technology can, and is, making an impact in the mainland Chinese church, but, measured against eternity, it may just be a few nano-seconds, if that long.

We must not forget that technologies cannot replace some universal principles that extend across cultures and are especially applicable in China. I list a select few for your consideration in two categories: for those over 25 and those under 25.

Universal Principles for Those over 25

  1. Adult church planters, leaders, and learners are motivated and curious; they have preferred learning styles. To use “content dump” through VCDs negates the reality that adults are diverse and each one is unique.
  2. Adult church planters, leaders, and learners generally wish to develop critical thinkning and problem solving skills. This involves developing or enhancing their ability to listen, question, and work as a team.
  3. Introducing appropriate and affordable technologies tends to decrease fear and envy and will enhance adoption and usage.

Universal Principles for Those under 25

  1. Ministering to children requires modeling, time, energy, and great patience!
  2. Ministering to youth requires all of the above as well as affirmation in “self worth.”
  3. Ministering to young adults includes all of the above as well as challenges to their worldview and buttressing their Christian worldview.
  4. Provision of “content technology” can draw a technologically friendly audience away from the prevailing cultural worldview and attract them to wholesome content and a biblical worldview.

Finally, technology does not build the house of God; it only assists. “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” (Psalm 127:1)

Image credit: Got it Taped by Garry Knight via Flickr.
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Samuel Chiang

Rev. Samuel Chiang was born in Taiwan, grew up and worked in Canada, and graduated from Dallas Seminary. He has started several businesses including a foreign joint venture with a local government in China and also served as the Chief Operating Officer of TWR, an international media organization. He has …View Full Bio