In February I interviewed a Chinese believer about how she was using WeChat to do outreach with her friends and family. “At first, I shared the gospel with my family when we had video calls on WeChat,” she said. “Then I shared lots of resources about my beliefs to my family group and on WeChat moments. Since we could not go to church this past year because of COVID 19, our church decided to do everything online, including our happiness group, which is a way to preach the gospel in a small group setting”.
The following month, Wesley Taylor wrote about his observations on how Christians in China are using WeChat and other online platforms. These include Bible study groups, discipleship training, church small groups, and even evangelistic meetings. “Christians use WeChat all the time for nurturing their spiritual lives,” he wrote. “Every home fellowship has their own WeChat group. Many local churches have the entire large group on WeChat, as well as their leadership teams. Nationally there are WeChat groups with hundreds or even thousands of people praying and sharing prayer requests.”
Given what we know (or think we know) about internet security in China, it all seems counter-intuitive, especially to those of us outside China. But it is happening, nonetheless, which is, perhaps, a reminder that we probably should not rely on our own culturally influenced intuitions.
We know, however, from our own experiences of a year spent “attending” live-streamed worship services, small group meetings, classes, and even conferences on Zoom in the past year that, while grateful that modern technology has offered us the opportunity to stay at least somewhat connected (can you imagine the past year without it?), we must acknowledge that there are downsides as well.
In April, Peregrine de Vigo, expressed his concern that an over-reliance on technology dilutes the incarnational aspect of both everyday Christian living and cross-cultural ministry. He writes:
One of my great concerns with the panacea of social media among Christians, and WeChat in particular in a Chinese context, is that it trades on the assumption that the gospel and discipleship to Christ is merely information that needs to be transferred. . . . By relying on these digital means of communication we forget how to interact with people in other ways, like through silence. A great deal of personal understanding is lost simply by enshrouding our communication in a digital medium (whether letters, idiographic characters, emoticons, or gifs).
It is a helpful reminder.
Then there are the questions that many of us outside of China who want to stay connected with our friends there have: What can we do? What can we not do? What should we do? What should we not do?
Again, there is no one right answer because situations for each friend may vary, and the level of risk varies accordingly. In other words, the risk and restrictions may be higher for a person with a high position than for an undergraduate student. It also may be riskier because of your presence as a foreigner in the conversation. For our part, a prayer for discernment is the best, the only place, to start.
There are those who adopt an entirely reasonable stance of staying off WeChat (and other social media platforms) altogether. Not being a huge fan of social media in general, that has some appeal. However, for me, it’s about the speech community. Whether we like it or not China’s speech community is on WeChat. I want to be part of the speech community, so I must be on WeChat. At least for this season, it is the only way I can participate. But I have set my own boundaries on how and to what extent I use it. For me it is pretty much just a tool to stay in touch.
For a quick look at what we have published over the years about WeChat and other social media use in China—going back to 2015—check out these links:
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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