On January 2, 1921, exactly two months after becoming the world’s first commercial broadcaster, pioneer radio station KDKA scored another first by airing the worship service of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thus began the era of religious broadcasting, and with it, the potential of reaching people anywhere in the world with the gospel message—provided they had access to a radio.
As it happened, radio became one of the primary means by which people in China could hear the gospel and by which messengers of the gospel in China could receive instruction and training. However, two prerequisites needed to be fulfilled before radio could assume such an important role. Radios needed to become popularly available, and the Chinese language needed to be unified in one dialect that could be used across the provinces. When both of these prerequisites were met under Mao, radio more than realized its potential, becoming a lifeline for believers that were cut off both from outside contact and from one another.
Eighty years after Calvary Episcopal’s maiden voyage onto the airwaves, the Internet holds forth a promise similar to that of radio. The added attraction is that now the message is bound neither by the limitations of time (web pages can be accessed any time day or night) nor spoken language (translation into a relatively small common written language makes the message accessible to most of the literate world). Add to this the ability to communicate across time zones from anywhere to anywhere in the world, and one begins to see the potential for people to not only receive the message but also dynamically interact with others about its meaning—provided they have access to a computer linked to cyberspace.
Herein lies the gap between information technology’s enormous potential as a tool for communicating the gospel and its application in China today. Like so many things in China (the consumer automobile market, for example), the potential is mindboggling, but a quick reality check reminds one that realizing this potential may be many years away.
Optimistic estimates put the number of China’s Internet users by the end of 2001 at more than 40 million. However, most of these are still concentrated in a few major cities. Although fiber optic cables and cellular transmission towers draw more Chinese closer together on a daily basis, vast regions of populous rural China remain outside the reach of China’s expanding communications web.
This is not to minimize the unprecedented technological revolution taking place in China, but merely to suggest that the vision of 1.3 billion Chinese connected in cyberspace may be further away than the staggering statistics would seem to imply. While this compelling vision provides powerful inspiration as we move toward the future, may our fascination with the vision not keep us from the very real opportunities along the way.
Image credit: Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio