My earlier post on the use of WeChat by Christians in China was an observation. It was not a critique of the platform and contained no recommendations. It simply sought to draw attention to the widespread use and the full integration of this platform in the lives of Chinese people. It was noted how amazing it is that Chinese believers, in general, have openly shared with one another in groups about their spiritual needs, prayers, and personal testimonies. Even podcasts or videos of preaching and worship services are sometimes shared. And, by and large, these things have not been censored by WeChat monitoring officials.
At least, not yet. But the world is changing right before our eyes.
Chinese believers have chosen, for better or worse, to use this media—that’s the observation.
Should this media platform be used by Christians? Should believers share spiritual things so openly through it? Should they stay up late into the night checking their friends’ postings? Should they allow it to be their super-app used for most things in life?
Those are completely different questions and are all worth thinking about. But it is the Chinese believers themselves who will answer those questions and navigate what it means to be a disciple of Christ in China.
Our first role as cross-cultural servants is to be learners—“armchair cultural anthropologists” as the very wise Dr. Paul Hiebert used to put it. We need to observe, listen, and ponder to find out why people are doing something in a certain way. Answers to those questions can lead us to knowing a people group in a much deeper way. And only with those answers can we come alongside people with thoughtful observations of what might be the long-term outcome of those things. Chinese Christian leaders are brilliant and resilient people. They are thinking of these cultural issues and how they affect believers. If you are working alongside some of them then you may have some wonderful discussions on this topic.
“Just Say No” Doesn’t Work, but Building Life Does
One thing seems clear, if Christian leaders in China do not help those in their churches understand the lordship of the Christ over all areas of life—including social media use—then they will have missed one of the biggest areas of discipleship. For it is now evident that the “online life” has become dominant in terms of hours and energy given to it in a day—for the average Christian.
Have you observed the super-addictive use of WeChat up-close? It can eat away at people’s souls. The question is, can Christian leaders and churches offer something that is better?
In other words, do they have vibrant fellowships with holistic relationships that are fun, meaningful, and active enough to draw people into those healthy life activities? So many churches are one dimensional and many young people don’t want to attend a prayer meeting or a fellowship that is rigid and only focuses on the spiritual things while not building relationships or meeting a practical need as well as spiritual ones. Focusing on whole-person ministry will get people out of their home, off their phones, and active in interpersonal activities. Things like sports ministries, fitness groups, and adventure trips make a huge difference.
One of the most effective ministries for discipleship in this super busy society is a spiritual life retreat where no cell phones are allowed. It takes days to detox from the use of them and some people struggle a bit, but the results are wonderful. Most participants feel very happy to be free of their phone for several days.
Churches and leaders can have “social media fasts” for 24 hours or encourage people to delete themselves from all but the most important WeChat groups they are a part of—most people are in dozens of groups. They can also be encouraged to opt out of the “Friends Moments” feature which is kind of like scrolling forever on Instagram or Facebook videos. But the most important thing we can encourage Christian leaders to do is to model a healthy online and offline lifestyle for those they influence and limit their own use of WeChat.
So the challenge for Christian leaders is not to help people “just say no” to online media—which doesn’t work anyway. Rather it is to help them see that such addictive behaviors are related to issues of their soul—the lack of a strong sense of life purpose, real friendships, and healthy family relationships and communication. When people are missing those things and when they are hurting, they will turn to WeChat in an unhealthy way. Yes, the choice to overuse anything is still up to the individual, but to shepherd people into new life in Christ requires more to be offered. That something more is the building of life in Christ through relationships and Christ-centered experiential challenges.
Using WeChat Vs. Being Used
On a positive note, some leaders have learned healthy boundaries. And instead of being “used by” WeChat they have learned to use it well as a platform for writing and speaking. Instead of running away from it they have put their words right in the middle of it because that’s where their people spend time. One cannot help but be thankful for the millions of times the name of Jesus or God or a teaching about the Christian life is being posted each day in China. It is hard to imagine that this is happening in this country in the current environment—but it is, and that is amazing.
Discipleship, of course, must be personal—in small groups or one on one. In no way is WeChat a substitute for any of the long hours of deep conversation and doing life together that characterize true disciple-making relationships. But it can be a communication tool in a minister‘s toolbox not so different than the Apostle Paul’s pen and paper and the letters he sent to churches.
The Ever-tightening Grip on Christian’s Lives
It seemed inevitable that government authorities are now tackling the issue of Christians and their use of social media. As we have seen in the current environment, everything is tightening for Christians and the internet may well be next on the list. This one thing may change the behavior of Chinese Christians on WeChat sooner than anything else once large-scale policies are in place and actually enforced. Many believers know this and already self-censor what they put online depending on the life status of the user—either how important their job is or what circles they run in.
But when it comes to Christian group activities there is nothing more “open” than some church activities! Almost immediately participants might post to WeChat parts of the entire event from singing to praying to teaching times. Many Christians do not consider themselves important enough to be careful about what they post but this may change.
Chinese Christian leaders had been using other apps like Signal until it was stopped. But wide-spread use of different apps has not caught on yet and people default to their old standby.
If you are living outside of the country and regularly communicate with Chinese Christians, it seems prudent to be using one of the secure apps. Also, consider removing yourself from group chats. It is not so much the content of what you share in the chat but rather your presence in the group that might cause issues for Christians who are monitored there. Of course, as with all things in China, check with the local situation.
Chinese Christians are practical and resilient people. They “live and learn” social phenomenon like WeChat (吃一堑长一智 chi yi qian zhang yi zhi, ”falling into a pit will make you wiser the next time”). Quickly adapting to new technology has become a way of life for believers. They have done it before, and they will do it again. But in the meantime they are growing in how to live as disciples of Jesus in the WeChat generation. May God strengthen them and give them wisdom.
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