As churches across China closed their doors in late January due to the developing coronavirus epidemic, the distinctions between registered and unregistered churches dwindled. Both had to shift quickly to new formats, adjust to new platforms, and adapt to being the church without the benefit of physical gathering.
Of course, Italy soon followed, and US churches were not far behind. However, the challenge to China’s churches was especially profound and not just because they were the first. Rather, many of China’s churches have long held strong views about the internet and so-called new media.
Traditionally, two macro-level views have dominated Chinese Christians’ perspectives on new media: alienation (and its variant, dialecticism) and instrumentalism. The first of these, alienation, is the belief that the dangers of new technology outweigh the benefits, so it is better to avoid it altogether. Picture the early days of darkly lit internet cafes filled with young Chinese men playing video games all night long, and you get the idea of the kinds of dangers pious Christians might try to avoid. Similarly, dialecticism, a variant of alienation, sees the positive and negative influences as in constant tension, so that the only good option is to keep a safe distance.
Both alienation and dialecticism separate the church from current trends and development. Of course, few modern churches in China’s cities hold to extreme alienation, resisting all forms of technology, but the mentality is a stubborn one. The deep-seated mindset of avoiding danger has a tendency to persist, rearing its head with each new technological development.
By comparison, instrumentalism offers some nuance to such an extreme posture, believing that technology and media are tools (or instruments) that can be used for either good or bad, depending on the user. From this perspective, technology can be quite useful for good when used by Christians with good intentions. Churches with active WeChat1 channels and websites typically have this overarching mentality, appreciating the benefit that these tools can offer their congregations.
These two dominant views have never fallen along clear-cut lines. Rather, they crisscrossed the typical church divides of registered and unregistered, urban and rural, large and small. When all of China’s churches were suddenly shutting their doors and adjusting to non-gathered worship, legality, geography, and size were not the only factors that determined their individual experiences. The church’s willingness and adaptability to using new media for the work and mission of the church also played a significant role.
One Three-Self church in Xi’an is a good example of how these dynamics came together in the coronavirus age. Located in a relatively rural area, this Xi’an congregation is an aging one. Prior to this year, the church used very little media—church was a low-tech, in-person experience. Many in the congregation use so-called “old person mobile phones” (老人手机) which offer some modern functionality without access to the more advanced technology of social media apps like WeChat. Between the demographics of an older, more rural congregation and the established resistance to new media, this church had a hard time adapting to church online. When push came to shove, they found themselves defaulting to low-tech, traditional options like sending paper communications (such as a home liturgy), until they could get back to “normal” in person.
By contrast, one church in Dalian reported that they already had an active WeChat channel before the pandemic hit. Adjusting to church online still had its challenges, of course, but those challenges were tempered by the fact that they had legitimate, viable tools. Soon enough, their WeChat channel was populated by online worship with links to music and the pastor’s sermons. Even small groups were able to continue thanks to the quick move to Zoom. Furthermore, the church actually increased the number of meetings each week, providing opportunities to connect online almost every night. One brother even admitted, “I’ve learned more during these months of lockdown than in ten years of being a Christian!”
While both of these churches did what they could in a difficult moment, perhaps neither posture is actually ideal. Not engaging media and technology means Christ’s witness is absent from the digital world. However, seeing new media only as a tool to be used as a second or last resort (like when the coronavirus keeps you from gathering in person) means that the church will always be reactive rather than proactive in an age that is undeniably shaped by the internet, social media, and digital interconnectivity.
The mission of the church has always been proactive: it is a call to be and act as Christ’s witnesses in this world, to evangelize and make disciples, to build God’s kingdom here and now. Beyond alienation and instrumentalism there is another option: the church can be an active shaper (not just user) of new media as it embraces its calling to faithfulness in this unique era known as the digital age.
The digital age may seem highly developed and sophisticated, but new media actually challenges the church to return to the basics. New media is relational, experiential, public, and shared; so are the church’s fundamental tasks of discipleship and mission. Yet new media also offers the opportunity to fulfill these tasks in newly creative and flexible ways, challenging the divide between digital and physical, virtual and real. As Christians, we are familiar with the tension of such divides because we live in it constantly, holding out for the heavenly realities that we cannot quite yet touch, see, or feel.
The Chinese church got a taste of both this tension and opportunity during lockdown, but the lifting of lockdowns does not erase the key characteristics of this age. Opening church doors does not mean we should leave WeChat and Zoom in the dust. Rather, the church must glean from this season’s brief experiences to press more fully into the relevance and effectiveness of the church’s mission in the new media age.
As churches do this, the divides that once defined the church in China begin to blur. Registered and unregistered churches faced similar challenges in the early days of lockdown, and they face shared possibilities in shared spaces online now. In substantial ways, WeChat levels the playing field. For example, an average Chinese Christian who attends a registered church on Sunday likely subscribes to their church’s WeChat channel as well as to other channels providing Christian content. But once on WeChat, there is no clear distinction between registered and unregistered and no easy way to differentiate material along these lines.
The sheer volume of content available in the digital space changes the dynamics considerably. While a sister might previously have only heard messages from her own church, she now has content from a range of sources at her fingertips. Thus the church must cultivate critical thinking and discernment among believers, since information can no longer be managed or contained.
Similarly, social media has given today’s youth the opportunity to participate in and meaningfully contribute to conversations online. For those who want a voice, old models of quietly learning from the pastor are not going to work. In the digital age, learning is multi-directional, fragmented, and experiential, so discipleship should be as well. In practical terms, the youth are often better at running the church’s technology and social media outlets which gives them hands-on experience and opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way. This is truly integrated discipleship for the digital age—but it is also public, shared, and fragmented discipleship. The pastor and other vetted voices are no longer the only ones forming the disciple.
As registered churches have come out of lockdown in the second part of this year, the Lianghui2 has clearly defined the requirements for restarting, often running in-person inspections of the facilities before granting final approval. Likewise, when a new COVID-19 case is identified in an area, the Lianghui can require the church to close again at a moment’s notice, as has happened in several cities already. Unregistered churches do not have this kind of clarity or invitation to open, but in these post-coronavirus months, the two once again share their experience: neither truly knows when church might have to go back online, with little warning, for an unknown length of time.
The truth is, new media adds substantial value in implementing the church’s mission. As the months in lockdown have shown, the church’s geographic and numerical reach increases significantly when done online. Connections are multiplied as Christians interact on WeChat and Zoom multiple times a week rather than gathering only on Sundays. Thus, the fundamental tasks and mission of the church—evangelism and discipleship—are actually possible.
The characteristics of the digital age are clearly here for the long haul, even if we do not know whether another wave of coronavirus cases will close churches. Given these realities, it is time for the church in China to creatively embrace and shape new media to reflect the purpose and mission of the church—not simply instead of gathered church, but in addition to. In so doing, the lines between registered and unregistered might just continue to blur. But that is not what matters. What matters is that, whether digitally or physically, gathered or online, in every way Christ is preached. In that we can rejoice!
- WeChat is the most popular social app used in China.
- The closest English to Lianghui is probably “Two Committees” or “Two Organizations.” It is made up of the China Christian Council (CCC) and Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) each of which has incarnations at the local, provincial, and national levels. For further understanding see https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/the-lianghui-and-registered-churches/.
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource
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