The coronavirus has pushed many churches in China to rethink and expand their online ministries. In this article from Good News Today, Franklin Wang, a pastor in Beijing, and Huang Lei, senior pastor of Xia-Shang Christian Church in Wuhan, share their thoughts on why Christians must begin to use media in their ministry.
Because of the length of this article, we will first post Franklin Wang’s reflections and next week we will post Huang Lei’s.
What does a Frontline Pastor Make of New Media, and How to Use It?
Some time ago, many a Chinese church reckoned new online media a scourge. But, this epidemic has left many churches unable to do anything but adopt responsive tactics, and the pattern of meetings has moved from offline to online.
Following articles especially addressing this problem and recommended not long ago in [the blog] The Good News Today, entitled, “New Media and Pastoring a Church While Persevering Through the Coronavirus Epidemic” and “More Thoughts on New Media and Pastoring a Church While Persevering Through the Coronavirus Epidemic,” several levels of discussion were provoked.
This article is a response from Huang Lei, a pastor in Wuhan, and Wang Lin, a pastor in Beijing. They integrate examples of practical pastoring cases and coping tactics. Pastor Huang’s sharing is holistic, practical, and inspiring; Pastor Wang’s observations are concrete, thoughtful, and induce deep thinking.
Changes Brought About by New Media and Coping Tactics
By Franklin Wang
1. The virtual world versus the real world
I especially want to respond to one point Pastor An Ping [of Good News Today] made: that the changes brought by new media are truly subversive in nature—the relationship between individuals and society will be entirely reconstructed by it, a new relationship will be established, and the old relationship will eventually become meaningless.
For example, concerning “What is ‘online’?” I feel that online communication is a real form of interpersonal communication. When discussing new media, one of the biggest mistakes is that people assume offline is “reality” and online is not “real.” Currently, I am less and less convinced that the virtual world is really and truly a virtual world. Is it really “virtual”? Is it not, rather, an extension of people’s consciousness and thoughts?
I consider that people have actually always lived simultaneously in a mental world and the physical world. This is what the Old Testament is describing: God creates man from mud, breathes into him, and he becomes a living being (Genesis 2:7). From the first moment of creation, “human beings” have, simultaneously, a physical existence and also a spiritual existence. These two are combined together for all eternity.
Looking at it on another level, if you believe that “human beings” exist in several different dimensions, you will discover that the important dimensions of human existence already exist online—for example, online shopping. Nowadays, shopping is almost all conducted online. Is online really “virtual”? Is that a “virtual” number there?
Or take our interpersonal affections. Before, it would be very hard to get to know or meet up with someone you didn’t already know in person; but just through this latest online discussion, I believe that after Teacher An Ping finished sharing online, all of us now definitely know him and feel him. This is real interaction, not “virtual” interaction. You cannot say that how he speaks online and how he speaks face to face are different. In fact, in the era of new media, the most important things in our lives are nearly all mediated through the internet.
2. New media brings forth subversive changes
Additionally, the other most real and true aspects of human life are already found online. Why should the online situation itself bring subversive changes? It is because the extent and dimensionality of human existence has changed. In the past, my thoughts stayed inside my room; if I was upset with anyone, or I had any setbacks, frustrations and disappointments, no one knew, or cared.
But things are different now. For example, in the past, if a brother or sister felt uncomfortable listening to the pastor preaching, no-one would know. But today, they can send a long list of feedback via the church’s Wechat group. Sometimes the pastor will find this hard to get used to, feeling, “How can this be?”—but this is something that cannot be avoided. Every single person has already become a part of the media. There used to be only one voice from the pastor; while now there are many different voices—this is reality. There is no way of going back to how things were. We will never be able to go back to the point where only the pastors could express their opinion. Even if the brother or sister’s thinking is immature, he or she has true emotions about and experience of the faith that must be expressed.
So, regarding the existence of this subversive influence—on the one hand, it is destructive to the previously-established system: only letting certain people speak and certain authoritative voices speak is a situation that cannot be preserved. The only thing we can do is to face this and respond to it.
On the other hand, it provides certain opportunities that did not previously exist. In the past, if someone was closed off, they could not make an impression on society—and from another perspective it can be concluded that the world could not influence them either.
The thing that most impressed me was this: last year, I gave a sister some pastoral advice that I had never thought possible to give before.
This sister’s husband did not believe in the Lord, so their household had a great deal of friction and many misunderstandings. Over the past ten years, this sister has had a dreadful temper. She grew up in a well-off household, and so she was spoilt and used to venting her anger. One day, the sister and I addressed this problem. During our long battle against this issue, she remained in the central group of church co-workers. Finally, one day I said to her, “Look, how about next time you want to blow up, you just go ahead and blow up—but first, before you let your anger out on your husband, send a message to Pastor Wang saying, ‘I’m going to blow up’—or if you don’t have time for that, just message me ‘blowing up,’ or ‘fire.’ Pastor Wang will pray for you, even though I may not respond straight away.”
Why did I say something like that? Previously, if I wanted to be involved in her life, I had to meet her face to face, had to have a conversation with her. But now, in this day and age, I could give pastoral help at the moment when she most needed it, and it only took a couple of seconds—she only had to switch on her phone and send a message. Are you really saying this is useless? Afterwards, this sister seldom sent me any messages—but those two seconds gave her the greatest help she needed in her life.
In my pastorate, I pastor around 200-300 people, more than ten of whom suffer from clinical depression. Among them is a sister whose condition is extremely serious. When her depression is very bad, she tends to self-harm. I said to her “every time you think of harming yourself, send me a message.” Yesterday evening, she sent me a message saying she was depressed; sometimes she could not stop herself from crying. So, what am I trying to say? Only that new media provides opportunities that did not previously exist: we can enter in and serve people in times and places we could never previously have served them; we can intervene in particular times in their lives.
3. Breaking the boundary between “church life” and “personal life”
We, as a church, used to exist within the boundaries of conventional media and had to divide a person’s life into “church life” and “personal life”.
In the realm of “church life” there would be time spent in the meeting on the Lord’s day, small groups, and prayer meetings; in the realm of “personal life” there would be time spent at work, with family, and with friends.
For relatively more committed Christians, each week would involve coming to church 2-3 times, spending 2-5 hours there each time. For others—the majority of Christians —most of their free time each week would be spent in other places.
The things that are accepted and discussed in church, and personal time, are also different. It’s just like Teacher An Ping said: of all the interactions on social media, 5% are faith-related. But how about in church? It’s almost 100% related to faith: teaching, fellowship, exhortation, and discipleship—but when someone returns to their “personal life,” what are their conversations mainly about? The individual can only rely on their own discipline, and in reality, you have no way to supervise and you also have no way to get involved, or offer advice or encouragement. When they are weak, there is no way to ask about it.
All of these things divide church people into two different kinds: one kind being the church’s preachers, teachers and co-workers, or core volunteers—spending most of their time on church activities; and the other kind being the vast majority of believers, who spend comparatively more of their time outside church activities.
We are always saying, “Don’t be a Sunday Christian,” but the situations and rhythms of our lives have already made us into “Sunday Christians.” Our “personal lives” and “church lives” have different core concerns and topics of discussion; our personal lives are concerned with food and drink, houses, cars, emotions, relationships; our church lives are concerned with the things of God.
Since new media continues to extend the sphere of our personal world, the most important result is that it has shattered the boundary between the existence of the individual and the church. Church leaders can send out material concerning the faith early on each day. Pastors hope to speak to the people of the church every day with a new message, and every day send out a completely new message, expressing it to each person.
I can get things done that would not have been possible in the past. When people need us most, when they come across a problem, at any time, they can use WeChat to reach me. My WeChat is always on, and furthermore I have promised everyone that I will reply to each question I receive—perhaps late, but I will always reply. In this way, whenever someone needs help, they can receive it. For many people, enabling them to express their problems has already given them half the help they need, and that opens up an opportunity that did not previously exist.
So, how should we approach the opportunities available online? My thoughts are as follows:
Actively use every kind of online channel to introduce the many layers of more traditional functions of church, such as education, communication, fellowship, and pastoring, into people’s personal lives. Sometimes we are too passive; I feel that we should enter into this proactively, invest our energies, use suitable messages and comforting words, and, at times suitable for the other person, dip into their life. Sometimes they might need music, sometimes images, sometimes a video. In the end, we want to achieve our objective that in every aspect and at every point in someone’s life, there is pastoring or evangelism or the presence of brothers and sisters to implement more fully the interaction of faith and life.
Help and speed up personal growth in an all- round manner. The things we do now, and in particular the things many church members do, are done according to these strategies: how to optimally invest our talents and resources in the life of every believer, and help them apply their faith to life not just once or twice a week, but ten times a day, in different forms, on different platforms and through different voices. Therefore, we can more successfully access and influence people. Perhaps not every contact will resemble the depth of a Sunday sermon, but each contact will make a difference, and when each little bit is added up, they can help that person accomplish a turnaround of their life.
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