Supporting Article

Urban Public Space and New Media Ministry

Over the past decade, with the development of social media and mobile Internet access, “new media” has become familiar to all. Especially in China today, WeChat, with its integration of communication tools, social networks, payment options, and other functions—all working together as a whole—has become an indispensable tool in Chinese social life. Its high degree of penetration and extensive communication capabilities, coupled with strong media dissemination capacity, means that WeChat has become the most important platform for all media organizations.

The church is also involved with this new media. It has become the “battleground” for conflicts that vie for the hearts and minds of China’s people. There have been several different views and attitudes in churches about its use in ministry or evangelism. The first view is conservative with doubts about how little the new media can achieve—if anything—and a negative belief that it will probably do more harm than good, so it is not worth bothering about. The second view is neutral; the new media can be used for good or for bad depending on how one chooses to use it. The third view is dialectical—that media has its ups and downs. Its good cannot be used to deny its bad; neither can its bad be used to deny its good.

The use of new media has extended the spread of Christianity into the huge public space. In a sense, the media has illuminated the public nature of the church so that the church can enter the mainstream with the right of discourse and have broader influence. At the same time, a church’s internal issues—especially negative events—can easily be brought into the public space for discussion and attract social attention. So, the church must actively explore the right way to communicate with society at large in this new media era. Otherwise, the church’s right to discourse and influence in the public space will easily be lost as will its right of interpretation of its affairs, identity, ideas and belief. Worse still, heresy might slip in through a communication vacuum to affect, or even corrupt, the social perception and image of Christianity and thus, eventually, harden the soil for the preaching of the gospel. Pastors and elders need to learn how to act as the church’s public relations intermediary in the new media era; they also need to teach believers how to share their faith and witness in this public space of a pluralistic society.  

New media subverts the mass media elements and traditional media business models. With the continuous reduction of technological and cost thresholds, churches and believers can more easily start a so-called media ministry. Taking 2016’s most popular live-streaming posts as an example, what was achieved with the use of expensive equipment and satellite transmission by a large number of professionals is now possible with the use of a smart phone connected to 4G internet. With a little more investment, worship meetings at different church sites as well as other events can easily achieve live, interactive broadcasting. Without the help of professionals, the average person can learn to do this. Relevant online training courses are abundant, and most of them are free of charge. Compared with other platforms, new media has become the easiest one to use.

In the new media era of “everyone is media and everything is media,” everybody is a publisher of information and everyone is information at the same time. In the same way, as the Christ who we follow is God’s message embodied and also the only living way to access this message, we Christians are the media and the Christian church is the media. Such a transformed view helps us to see new media ministry in a way that leads us back to its biblical origin. Media is a natural attribute of the church, as well as its function. In a sense, the church is the largest news agency. New media is not a ministry working on its own, but it needs to be fully applied and integrated into every aspect of church ministry, including worship, fellowship, visiting, giving, and even church planting.

Through new media, each believer can be a missionary. With the popularity of social media, one’s circle of friends is more a reflection of one’s interests, hobbies, personality traits, and even quality of life. Each photo posted, each dynamic update, and even each forwarding and thumbs up depicts our lives and values. New media provides a “God’s perspective” for others to know us and for us to know ourselves.

New media has opened a broad space for Christians to share the gospel with their relatives, friends, classmates, and even strangers. Each Christian should treasure the opportunity to accept the calling of this era to live out the gospel message and influence other lives by his own life through new media. Wesley said, “This world is my pasture.” In the past, the pasture parish represented a spiritual commitment of a Christian and a church to the community. Today, our circle of friends is our pasture and evangelism should become a lifestyle.

Screenshot of an article via Good News Today:
“Don’t let your lifeline cell phone become a life crisis”
Note: New media is being used to warn about new media. 

At the same time, we need to see the challenges new media brings to the church and to Christian ministry. In China, for example, new media has turned a former lack of resources into the current surplus. However, the quality of much of the information published varies from source to source and some information comes from dubious sources making it difficult for the audience to be discerning. People’s reading time and ability is limited; eating too much junk food will destroy one’s appetite for a good meal. The new media has diluted the impact of credible media agencies. Also, a large number of emerging, self-medias skip the important professional proofreading and editing processes rendering it difficult to guarantee publishing quality. Directly facing his readership, a writer is more tempted to cater to his readers’ thinking when conventional royalties are being replaced by readers’ tipping. The new media has brought about a stratosphere effect with more emphasis placed on feeling rather than reflection, on position rather than facts. Also, writers’ different theological ideas and political views are being accessed through the new media with more ease which can lead to more disputes and confusion, eventually causing harm to our common faith.

These characteristics of new media reflect the epochal character of the fourth industrial revolution: a subversive change. The fourth industrial revolution has targeted mainly traditional, authoritative entities. Among them, the church was the first target. While holding fast to the faith and respecting tradition, we need to think and respond to various aspects of theology and ethics. Some traditional ideas, ways of thinking, and management models in churches and ministry must be changed and renewed. The most important strategy is to integrate. In particular, most Chinese churches are still at the peripheral position: they are misunderstood and discriminated against—and even hostilely persecuted in the social environment. Christian roots in Chinese society are still shallow and tender. Real, local forms of theology, thoughts, and arts are far from being shaped; excellent resources are still lacking. New media provides opportunities and possibilities for integration. Churches need to work with professional organizations, leaders, and believers and they need to coordinate with other churches to form a matrix so that the church can spread its influence effectively.

Translation by ChinaSource

Image credit: _MG_2617 by Philip McMaster via Flickr.
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Jerry An

Jerry An

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