A veteran internet missionary reflects on both the past and present spreading of the gospel among Chinese internet users.
I have been active in digital evangelism on the Chinese internet since 1995. Because of this long history, some Chinese friends call me an internet writer “on the gu hui level.” Gu hui is Chinese for ashes, but in this context, it means that I am a “dinosaur fossil” on Chinese cyberspace. In 2010, in an official Chinese Communist Youth League journal article, the author listed me as one of the most dangerous internet missionaries to whom Chinese youth should be alerted.1 For me, however, my personal experience of Chinese Christian internet mission has always made me marvel at the leading of God behind it.
The history of Chinese digital evangelism dates back to the mid-1990s when the Chinese internet began. Some of us may still remember the sound of a phone line dial-up and blinking letters on a 386 PC. Around that time, the Chinese language world started to have its first generation of BBSes (bulletin-board sites) which were primitive online forums. Even in that dinosaur age, there were already Christians doing apologetics and sharing the gospel on China’s internet.2 I was one of the earliest ones.
Then came the World Wide Web, and at the end of the 1990s we saw many WWW-style Chinese online forums. Christians, including myself, were active on those platforms dialoging with intellectuals in China about the Christian faith. Many influential intellectuals in China, who later became Christians (e.g., Wang Yi),3 were involved in such dialogs.
In the 2000s, blogs, Douban, and Weibo became popular in China, and Chinese Christians again quickly took them up for evangelistic purposes. Next, WeChat (Wei Xin) became the big deal and top app. I personally believe that there was a golden window of 10 or 15 years using WeChat for evangelism in the 2000s and 2010s. The majority of significant Chinese Christian media, for example, had WeChat gong gong hao or public accounts. One Christian article from those public accounts could get thousands of reads, even reaching 10 wan jia—more than 100,000 reads—thus “breaking the meter.”
I joined Overseas Campus Ministries (oc.org), a Chinese Christian media ministry, in 2011 to lead their internet ministry. A WeChat public account was our number one platform, and we established Christian blogger “circles” in China. Our evangelistic WeChat account reached more than 70,000 subscribers before it was totally deleted, and everything evaporated overnight before the COVID-19 pandemic. For personal evangelism, I also joined Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of Quora, and answered nearly 300 Christian faith-related questions. Many of my answers got high numbers of reads, and some got a lot of likes by non-Christians.
For Chinese online evangelism, 2018 was the important dividing line. In that year, the Chinese government announced a new set of regulations on “religious content on the internet.” A number of influential Christian websites and WeChat public accounts were blocked. My own Zhihu account was blocked and all my answers on that platform were completely deleted overnight. (I regret not having saved all the answers on my computer.) Later that year, many house churches in Chinese cities were banned from gathering for worship.
Many Christian netizens feared that the implementation of the new regulations would make evangelism impossible on the Chinese internet, especially on WeChat. On March 1, 2022, the new regulations officially went into effect. Would it stop evangelism on China’s internet?
When Christianity Today asked a group of Chinese internet mission leaders if the new regulations would do that, they actually said “no.”4 Basically, it just gave the Chinese government and platforms like WeChat and Zhihu more legal reasons to censor Christian content—but they had been doing that since before the new regulations.
Today, many Chinese Christians are still using WeChat to share biblical content and evangelistic articles—at least links if not full texts. Some use coded words and pinyin initial abbreviations in text to get around the censorship (e.g., “JH” for church and “JDT” for Christians). Chinese Christians organize and share information about Christian webinars, online sermons, recordings, and videos. Many overseas Chinese churches and fellowships still have active WeChat groups for Bible study, daily Bible reading, devotionals, and so on.
However, we do need to be careful to avoid the min gan ci, or “sensitive words.” Of course, we know better than to use WeChat to share confidential information such as financial data about our churches or Christian organizations. There truly is a backdoor leading directly to the public security authorities.
At the same time, it is also true that after 2018 many additional Chinese ministries’ public accounts on WeChat were deleted or seriously restricted. Many felt they were forced to have a reluctant exodus from WeChat. Many ministries based outside China decided to give up WeChat and move their content to platforms outside the Great Firewall. I personally use many of these tools (such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Instagram, and so on) for evangelistic purposes (but I would avoid using TikTok). In 2021, I hosted a Clubhouse “room” that I called “Venting about Christianity” and intentionally invited several Chinese pastors and church leaders to join me in the room to listen to what others were complaining about Christians and Christianity and to respond with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Today, for my Chinese language work at Christianity Today, I use Zoom and Twitter Space for evangelistic talks and devotionals.5
WeChat is almost the only social media that people in China can use “inside the Wall,” that is, without a VPN (virtual private network). However, it has its own problems when it comes to evangelistic uses. In 2017, when WeChat evangelism was at its peak, the Chinese team of ReFrame ministries studied thousands of WeChat public accounts.6 They found that less than seven percent of the accounts containing Christian words were actually run by Christians. Four of the top five such accounts were commercial accounts operated by a single, secular marketing company in Jinan, Shandong. In addition, plagiarism was a problem that was widespread—even among Christian public accounts.
What I would like to remind mission-minded Christians who use the internet is this: While all these new media tools can be useful for internet evangelism, they also have their challenges and pitfalls. Some challenges are China-specific, such as the Great Firewall, the censorship by the Chinese government, and WeChat’s commercialism and plagiarism. Others include apologetical challenges which often also have unique Chinese contextual characteristics, such as nationalism and scientism.
Then there are those typical, universal pitfalls of social media, such as polarization, disinformation, distraction, and addiction. Internet evangelism is an extremely difficult endeavor. One has to have a true calling to become involved, and not every Christian is called to do internet evangelism and apologetics. In this digital age, practicing self-control is an important spiritual discipline for Christians. Therefore, to be able to do internet evangelism, Christians must grow in spiritual discipline and bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit if they desire to contribute in this way.
As many Chinese church leaders like to say, the Chinese word for crisis is wei ji. Wei means danger or challenge, and ji means time or opportunity. Using new media for the glory of God on the Chinese internet has never been easy, and it will not get any easier in the future. It has both challenges and opportunities. Even in the post-2018-new-regulations present, there are still plenty of platforms, new media, and websites, both outside and inside the Great Firewall, that Chinese Christians can use to spread the gospel among Chinese internet users. In North America, a number of Chinese ministries have joined forces to organize the Internet Mission Forum, even providing training courses on using new media for internet mission.7 It is notable that at the end of the newest revision of the Chinese Returnee Handbook,8 URLs of useful online websites are listed.9
As a veteran “internet missionary,” I am thankful to have participated in history and witnessed the miraculous growth of Chinese internet mission. There were only a handful of Chinese Christians on the internet when I started writing about Christianity 28 years ago, but today millions of us are using the internet. While only a small percentage of these are intentionally involved in internet evangelism, that is still a lot of Christians. I pray that more will be called to participate, and that by God’s grace we will continue to carry out the Great Commission on the Chinese internet.
- Zuo Peng, China Youth Research, “High vigilance against the online spread of Christianity,” June 2012, http://www.hongqi.tv/hyzd/2012-06-01/729.html. Note that this link may not work in certain places in the world.
- Jidian (Sean Cheng), “The Chinese Internet and the Gospel of Christ,” accessed September 12, 2023, http://www.godoor.net/jidianlinks/net.html.
- Ian Johnson, “Wang Yi: The Faithfully Disobedient Chinese Pastor,” Christianity Today, February 2023, accessed September 12, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/january-web-only/china-church-wang-yi-persecution-faithful-disobedience.html.
- Sean Cheng, “Can China’s New Regulations Really Stop Evangelism on the Internet?” Christianity Today, March 3, 2022, accessed September 12, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/march-web-only/internet-regulations-china-evangelism.html.
- Audios, Videos, and Writings of Jidian (Sean Cheng), accessed September 12, 2023, http://godoor.net/whjdt/.
- Jerry An, “Here’s What Thousands of Christian WeChat Accounts Reveal About Chinese Internet Evangelism,” May 13, 2022, accessed September 12, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/may-web-only/wechat-public-accounts-chinese-evangelism-censorship.html.
- See the Chinese Internet Mission Forum website.
- Returnee Handbook, 3rd ed, Overseas Campus Ministries, Chinese e-book, https://wdbook.com/dp/35486931288065.
- See Internet Christian Resources in Chinese, accessed September 12, 2023, http://godoor.net/whjdt/ziyuan.htm.
Sean Cheng is Asia Editor of Christianity Today. He has been active in internet evangelism for 28 years employing a variety of media and platforms using the pen name of Jidian (基甸). He is the host of a YouTube channel, podcasts, and Twitter Space, and the author of three books …View Full Bio