In preparing to write this article, I looked back at some of the other articles we’ve published on the topic of missions and technology, specifically internet technology. How has technology changed? Is how we think and talk about technology and missions changed? Are the answers to our questions the same, or have they changed as well?
The first time we looked at this topic was in the December 2000 ChinaSource Quarterly (our only publication at the time) in an issue titled “Telecommunications and Technology.” To get a bit of perspective, let’s consider the state of technology at the time. Internet connectivity was not yet universal and was still slow. Do you remember dial-up? Laptops were still considered a luxury and the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. Mobile phones were just phones. There were no smart phones.
Using technology in missions often meant shortwave radio broadcasts, copying and distributing cassette recordings, and engaging in spiritual conversations in online chat rooms. There were conversations about security and making sure that technological platforms were used in culturally appropriate ways. There were hopes that the internet would take off and become a powerful platform for evangelism and missions, but there was also caution against being overly optimistic about the reach and speed that internet technology would develop. In the end, I think the reach and speed actually outpaced what even the most optimistic observers at that time imagined.
This issue is an important update to the issue we published 23 years ago. It offers a historical overview of the role of technology in the spread of the gospel as well as an overview of current practices and platforms that are being used specifically in the Chinese speaking world.
Here are some key observations I had in reading this issue:
There is such a thing as a global digital culture. Just as we seek to learn the language and customs of any culture and for ways to share the gospel in culturally relevant ways, we need to be willing to do the same with this global digital culture. This will require a commitment to innovation.
Every age of human society has had its breakthrough technological advancements that provided new platforms for gospel proclamation. The printing press, the transistor radio, television, the internet, and now artificial intelligence come to mind. In each case, the new technology was met with skepticism. Unhealthy, or even criminal, things can be printed or transmitted, or shared with the world at large. That’s true, but in every case, there were, and continue to be, innovative Christians who looked for ways to use these new platforms for evangelism and discipleship.
There are some very creative people doing very creative things in the digital space. These range from online discussion groups to the growth of online seminaries and other theological training platforms, to the establishment of “micro-communities” that are formed to reach out to the highly mobile generation of Chinese students and young people.
Digital evangelism is challenging. Sean Cheng, who was at one time labeled by a Party journal article as “the most dangerous internet evangelist” reminds us that one has to have a true calling to become involved, and not every Christian is called to do internet evangelism and apologetics.”
The challenges of digital engagement with people inside China are real. Sensitive words may trigger blocking. The so-called Great Firewall is formidable, and many can’t access material posted online outside China without a virtual private network (VPN). Many involved in evangelism are involved in a constant cat-and-mouse game with China’s censorship regime. Their site is blocked; they open another one. That one is blocked, and they move yet again. On and on it goes.
Despite all the regulations and restrictions that the Chinese government puts in place to limit religious content on the internet, digital evangelism is alive and well and bearing fruit. The articles in this issue focus on what God is doing through digital engagement, not on what the Chinese government tries to prevent.
I also learned what a “hackathon” is, and you will too. Hint: it’s NOT gathering together a group of Christian young people to figure out how to break into someone’s computer. It is an event that brings digital professionals together to use their skills to come up with solutions and new innovations.
Finally, even though technologies change, the opportunities and concerns do not. Christians are, and should be, continuing to grapple with how to appropriately harness new technologies for the spread of the gospel.
I hope you will be as blessed, encouraged, and challenged by reading this issue as I was.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio