I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the autumn 2023 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly. I may have been invited, in part, because I tend to be less ebullient about technological developments, particularly when every new development is viewed as heaven-sent. Nevertheless, I was glad to find that the autumn 2023 Quarterly covered a relatively balanced spread of perspectives on the uses and usefulness of advances in digital technology, along with healthy cautions.
There is a lot of deep stuff here that needs to be wrestled with before we jump into technological advances too quickly or with too much enthusiasm. I asked the ChinaSource content manager if I could write my response in more than one post, so that its length would not overwhelm readers, and I’m thankful for her willingness to embrace my verbosity.
In later posts I will highlight some of my concerns about particular aspects of the autumn 2023 Quarterly. In this first post I highlight what I found to be the most positive points of the articles. In my second post I will offer some critique. Finally, in my third post I will gesture towards a focus on relational discipleship. My hope is that my comments will provoke deeper investigation and reflective thinking that will lead to truly transformative ministry engagement in and outside of digital realms. I will list recommended reading in the third and last post of the series.
Some of the best uses of digital technology brought out in the autumn 2023 Quarterly are educational and informational. I enjoyed reading about the development and innovation of Liangyou Theological Seminary, from humble beginnings as a radio station to full-fledged online training programs and courses for free! This was a good example of an institution maintaining an innovative and flexible posture, filling an important role in mainland Chinese church contexts where theological education was (and often still is) hard to come by.
I was intrigued and encouraged by Sean Cheng’s story, and how he came to be one of China’s “most wanted internet missionaries.” This balanced piece highlights the amazing ways Sean was able to converse with people willing to engage in discussion about Christianity, and even bring out grievances through a “Venting about Christianity” Clubhouse room. That kind of humility can be hard to come by, and I applaud the efforts. I was also grateful that Sean did not celebrate quantitative representations of his activities. The one mention of quantitative descriptions in the fourth paragraph placed it in terms that are more faithful to reality. He did not talk about how many people were “reached with the gospel” by the articles he wrote, but merely that the articles were read.1 Sean’s experiences bring to life positive ways in which the Christian message can be delivered through digital means. His reminders of particular pitfalls should not be taken lightly. In my mind, his caution that “Internet evangelism is an extremely difficult endeavor,” and “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,” are perhaps the two most important sentences in the whole autumn 2023 Quarterly.
The idea of “micro-communities” in Tsun-En Lu’s article fascinated me. I can see how a centralized digital platform can serve particular needs of a highly mobile population such as overseas scholars, linking them with each other and with local Christians in their new locations. As I am not overly familiar with the platform or how it is used, I wonder how well Ambassadors for Christ has been able to move beyond the digital mode of contact into more personal and transformative relationships. I will address the importance of relationships in the third post of this series. I also wonder if AFC has collaborated at all with other ministries that reach out to internationals in the US, so that they might adapt the platform to reach beyond Chinese communities of nomadic scholars to other nationalities. Because of the mobility of international scholars in foreign contexts, I see transferable properties in this digital platform that other ministries would benefit from.
Lest readers of my critiques in later posts brand me as a Luddite, I do believe there are good uses to newly developed digital technology, and some of the best uses are for information transfer, some forms of education—particularly where more personal modes of education are not possible or practical—and establishing relationships in new geographical contexts where they might otherwise be difficult to find. ChinaSource is great example of the positive side of digital engagement, and I have contributed to it and supported its activities in resourcing and educating ministries for engagement in Chinese contexts for several years.
In my next post I will address what I consider to be problematic features in the autumn 2023 Quarterly.
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