Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan, Hubei Province, churches around China have stopped on-site gathering by having online ministry. Most churches have taken a more rational approach, with the exception of a very small number of people who still call for the persistence of on-site gathering as the biblical instruction says "you should not stop gathering". Among them, some groups that still insist on on-site gathering belong to the Shincheonji cult. The cult became a web hit ever since the media recently revealed that its followers still gathered have become a larger group of infected. At the same time, the organization is particularly active on the web, using modern chat tools to attract members and offering online courses to spread its false teachings, bringing a hint of stress and influence on the mainstream church ministry during the outbreak.
I recently contacted a minister who works for a platform called "True Way", which closely watches Shincheonji, and learned from several church ministers of different regions on the disclosed information of the cult and the congregation protection experiences.
Features of Shincheonji online ministry
The "True Way" platform, which is dedicated to exposing Shincheonji, lists some of the obvious features of the cult's teachings. They are: explaining everything in parables; the whole bible is spiritualized in its meanings; not believing that "Genesis" records a true creation of the world's beginning; claiming Adam was the first spiritual living being chosen by God 6,000 years ago; a high frequency of quoting "Genesis" and "Revelation" for teaching and preaching; thinking that the method of redemption varies from time to time; claiming that the end of the world does not refer to the demise of the earth, but rather the annihilation of the spiritual religious world (mainstream Christianity); the false teaching on Trinity which holds that the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit do not refer to one God; not believing in miracles, e.g. Jesus was born by the virgin Mary; emphasizing the number of people, 144,000, who will receive the eternal life of the flesh; and weakening the teachings about the cross of Christ and the doctrine of righteousness by faith...
A staff of 'True Way', Brother A, told me that the online ministry of Shincheonji had been going on for years. Basically, whenever a new chat tool comes out, the organization would quickly make use of it to start its preaching. At present, some popular video and voice software, e.g. WeChat Group, QQ Group, DingTalk with Encryption, WhatsApp, Encrypted Telegram, Zoom, YY, BatChat and Zhumu, have long been used by Shincheonji for attendance records, online courses and membership.
During this outbreak, Shincheonji has become a web hit because many believers have been diagnosed with the infection. It is a blow to believers to change from a formerly collective life to now idling home life; because of this special period, believers may most likely not realize that they are actually being influenced by a cult while they access various information at home and chat with their parents and friends. Therefore, as the True Way staff told me, Shincheonji has begun to organize a lot of online ministry for believers to gather online to meditate every day, and also arranged for them to join different groups and courses online in order to increase membership by inviting friends.
Behind the zealous preaching style and membership attraction is a set of logics similar to a "spiritual pyramid scheme". Shincheonji believers believe that they can live forever only if they keep pulling people in to guarantee enough positions to be one of the 144,000. "Their faith is work based. In contrast, we Christians recognize ourselves as sinners, and we receive salvation by accepting Jesus' atonement. However, they strive for salvation through their own efforts by pulling people in so they can occupy the so-called positional head as chief priests. They also think that by learning Shincheonji curriculum, they can by themselves unravel the mysteries of Biblical revelations and so be more knowledgeable than others."
The studying intensity designed by Shincheonji is far greater than what many Christians think. Brother A said 'Almighty God', which had been recognized as a cult, was more enclosed and their learning intensity was not high; Shincheonji, on the other hand, usually has high-intensity studying with an extent of enclosure. They prepare exams all day long, along with lessons to learn how to spread Shincheonji. Saturdays are arranged for believers to go about lurking in the major churches, attempting to pull in people.
The organization's members are also divided into many kinds. Some are merely interested and generally attend classes every day; some are more established, either studying or learning how to pull people in. The higher the rank, the more achievements it indicates. In order to attract membership, they indulge in different social tools. Usually, they get up at six or seven in the morning to participate in online morning prayers and need to keep attendance records. In the evening, they chat with hundreds of friends to maintain relationships. The higher ranks even have a few thousand friends. Then according to the situation of the person they chat with, they choose the right opportunity to meet with them for participating in on-site activities.
The "True Way" staff revealed that Shincheonji claimed to have the life book that controls the eternal life and death of people. Its missionary targets are between 20-45-year-olds. The membership criteria are: too old, depressed, sick, poor, or disabled do not qualify. The staff gave two examples. They had once met an elderly Shincheonji believer, who fully believed that Man-hui Lee was the Christ to come, but the Shincheonji interviewer rejected him, so he hated the organization yet still worshipped Man-hui Lee feeling that he should directly meet the founder to qualify for eternal life; Shincheonji prefers taking in individuals at the higher levels of society. In east China coastline, a company executive became a believer and took over the local Shincheonji. His talent was put to full use and so vastly promoted Shincheonji development in the region.
Before pulling people in, Shincheonji investigates the current Christian's faith loopholes; they also investigates potential member's trusted pastor and seek for opportunities to slander the pastor, making newcomers feel disappointed with mainstream churches. They investigate the person's detailed home and workplace addresses, church information including length of time they have been adhering to their faith, frequency of church attendance, and relationships with other believers in the church. They also investigate economic income and health status, vigilance, privacy loopholes, etc., to determine whether the person is suitable for entering Shincheonji after contact is made.
In addition to using chat tools to pull people in, Shincheonji cult offers online courses, on-site classes, and advanced levels. Each stage has several months to systematically "teach" the drawn-in believers. To make the new people learn more quickly, they also compress the curriculum and increase the intensity of learning. In the beginning and elementary classes, the course is completely free, and when you reach the middle level, you will give "tithe" and tell the believers that the more they devote, the more god will bless them. Unlike the offerings in mainstream churches, the believers voluntarily give. Brother A found that each offering in Shincheonji is recorded with the date and specific amount, and then handed into a dedication box. There will be someone to count who in what stage gives how much dedication. If a Shincheonji believer gives less, there will be special arrangements with him for a talk. They have very detailed studied information on the economic situation of the believers and there is no possibility of missing the 'dedication'.
Overall, Brother A concludes, Shincheonji keeps pace with the times, and no new software is left unused.
Moreover, Shincheonji has its own theological framework and systematically teaches its followers for a certain period of time, which can easily "shake" those preachers and believers whose theological roots are still young. "Which church dares to teach on revelations?", this is the commonest trick of Shincheonji, because there are different interpretations of apocalypse in the mainstream church. Meanwhile, the less experienced preachers are afraid of teaching on revelations or not professional enough, which more or less gives cults the opportunity to woo and confuse believers, and out of curiosity, most believers want to hear some of the interpretations of the "Book of Daniel" and "Revelation". They are gradually tricked by listening to their teachings. Shincheonji preaching courses are also concealed, good at hiding direct evidence that it is a cult, so some platforms fail to recognize that fact and have not blocked them.
Mainstream church: Do a good job of online ministries and guard the congregation
Since Shincheonji's ability to keep pace with the times is what the mainstream church is missing, then the Church is to do more online work on it - is it as simple as that? I find that ministers are encountering different situations. Indeed, some of the pastors in the church are older not familiar enough with online tools. While they deliver good sermons, they don't know how to teach the followers effectively, and they are more accustomed to on-site gathering.
In one case, a mainstream church's preaching was blocked; a pastor very seriously wrote a sermon and happily shared with the church group, which resulted in the group getting blocked. In some places, churches are not allowed to broadcast live, although this is a very good method of ministry during the outbreak and can effectively attract the church's participation.
Heresy groups never cease to operate, once a mainstream church stops using a certain software, or the effect of it is not good, or they are blocked, then the correct groups get easily squeezed out by heretic cults, drawing attention and bringing new pressure to the church's ministry. The loss to believers is unimaginable, and the impact to social stability is all the more negative.
A brother I know gave an example: a church's registered membership is ten thousand. After the cancellation of on-site gatherings, it failed to effectively carry out online ministry but only built a few small groups. The result: believers eager to learn can only reach out to find ministry and some had been taken away by Shincheonji or 'Lost Sheep' cults.
I talked with some pastors and preachers who have been involved in ministry all year round, and they shared some experiences in the hope of helping the church do a good job in caring for the congregation and resisting heresy.
Pastor W of Jiangsu believes that the church should avoid repetitive construction and low-quality operations when carrying out online ministry; for example, each church has spiritual practices and experiences, but they are very fragmented. The church, which does not want to experience a loss of membership (including avoiding the erosion caused by heresy) because of its ministry and the consolidation of its base, is now scrambling to open up to the public and send voice, text and video, but the quality of the uploaded information, the effectiveness of the message and the acceptance of the believers need to be taken into account. "It's like every regional organization in every church does information media work, but in the end there should definitely be a professional person to do it", he said. Can the church gather talents and make online ministry more professional? "Furthermore, I believe that the current means of online ministry, such as WeChat, Weibo and Public Live, can only be temporary, complementary and meant for staying in touch, and cannot be a permanent alternative to church fellowship.", Pastor W said.
Pastor L of Hebei said that under the outbreak, there have been ministers pointing out the use of online platforms by heretics to preach, and that the pastors of each church should also learn to use the online tech to teach. As to heresy prevention, the ministers should tell the church believers that they cannot casually listen to any sermon on the Internet. If church ministers have provide the teaching, they should do a good job of caring for and leading the believers well. In addition, churches can teach basic essentials and systematic theology through online ministry, so that believers know what heresy is and how to identify it. "If the impact of the outbreak continues, church ministers should carry out thematic teaching for services and conduct special examinations to combat heresy." The pastor shared that during this time he was leading the faithful to check on "Nehemiah" and that there was a lot of feedback from the faithful.
Pastor C of Hubei does not only lead the church in Wuhan, but also has social care work with his staff during this special period, such as giving masks and other forms of help to those in need. He shared that he personally had two tips in preventing Shincheonji: on a positive level, while meeting the needs of his friends at ordinary times, he usually popularizes theology and common sense in life, and improves on the difference between friends; "If a church doesn't have any ministry capacity or curriculum on the web, it is easy for heresy to take advantage."
In a previous testimony, Pastor Z of Jiangsu led believers to think about "plague, morality, and faith", and for Shincheonji, he believed that the ministers should first understand the cult's ideas and then criticize it by the Bible and mainstream theology. "It is the responsibility of the teachers of theological schools to sort out and speak out."
Pastor J of Henan has not only been on the frontline of ministry church for many years, but his province is also relatively more heretic. He has been watching and researching over the years and worked with local anti-cult associations. Recently, he planned to write a series of articles about Shincheonji to remind the church and its followers to take precautions. In his view, for Christians, reference can be made to various authoritative websites and publications which systematically collate more detailed and accurate information on Shincheonji being a cult, and they can be sent to various teaching staff for studying; a public notice should be posted on those controversial WeChat public accounts and illegal publications; if conditions permit, the staff of CCC&TPSM can divide responsibilities among a certain number of churches and contact them. Pay attention at all times to their online development of ministry, and if there is a suspicion, they can timely guide and notify. For faculty members, look at the relevant information to understand the cult, strengthen their own theological roots, correctly understand Christian teachings and biblical teachings, and systematically teach the core teachings of Christianity to the faithful in the Church's bible studying classes. In addition, use tools such as WeChat and phones to keep in touch with believers to learn about their various situations. For believers, you can set up watch prayer groups; invitees wanting to join need to be identified and checked. Under the outbreak, believers have a lot of time to participate in church online worship; do not participate in stranger-recommended secret Bible learning places and be careful of so-called "secret" and "figurative" teachings. If a teaching is not clear, they should communicate with their minister in time. Believers also need to unite with each other to maintain communication and pray for the outbreak and the Church.
A young minister, Z of Fujian, who serves full-time in his church and is usually active on the Internet, also has some writings to support believers. Z introduced his recent ministerial experience: since the stop of gatherings till now, he and his colleagues record 10-15 minutes short lectures every day for the church groups, to meet everyone's spiritual needs. Online services are held together. For heresy, his church strictly requires believers to be alert, not allowing them to listen to the preaching of unknown ministers. If confusing information is found, they are to inform the minister in time for clarification. In addition, he personally holds Bible readings, reads four chapters of the Bible a day, asks questions or shares ideas, offers half-hour-a-day classes, and uploads gospel movies and anime through their WeChat public account to help believers reduce their exposure to heresy and strengthen the foundation of their faith. Many of the church's members in his area are family-like, thus forming a situation of mutual supervision from within, and they also study the Bible at home, which also helps to ward off heretic cults.
Brother C of Zhejiang, who is usually concerned about the theological construction of the Chinese Church, believes in exposing the destructive work done by Shincheonji during this time by pointing out the falsehoods of its ideas and by publicizing its public accounts and other recognizable features so that believers know how to identify it.
Pastor S of a church in Guangdong spoke of his experience. S has always believed that dealing with heresy requires familiarity with the Bible, so they have built two groups: the Bible reading group has been running for three years, and the golden verse reciting group has been on for more than half a year. "It's like a bank cash-counting officer who receives training for a month before going to work by counting real money every day. Once he is in touch with counterfeit money, with the sense of hand touch, he can tell it's fake."
A scholar who studies heretic cults suggests that the church merely sends out spiritual messages and its role in resisting heresy is not necessarily effective. They need to screen Shincheonji and that believers are to be taught for a period of time. The ideal is to be able to relatively and systematically use Bible chapters to talk about prevention of cults in combination with the epidemic. The main point is not to abuse the Book of Revelation. It is hoped that the Church will be able to preach quickly on the most important characteristics of several heresies or cults, such as Shincheonji, which has these key words in online evangelism: 6000 years, riding a white horse, apocalypse and creation, metaphors, etc. This is more effective against heresy.
A brother with a long-standing watch on heretic cults such as Shincheonji said the outbreak had brought the church to a halt, which is a challenge and perhaps an opportunity. The mainstream Church is somewhat backward in the Internet age, failing to use modern tools with the times, and now the Church needs to learn to use these ways and think about a way out. "From this point of view, we Christians can actually do a lot, such as praying for the epidemic and caring for people in trouble. The most important thing is for the church ministers to find an ideal way within the context online caring in an environment where they can't meet offline at all."
The brother finds that Shincheonji's gathering requirements are strictly through a number of requirements to improve the attention of believers, such as asking the listeners to take notes and present them to the group leader or administrator for supervision, giving assignments after service, reciting scriptures, examining and interviewing in order to continue to upgrade. Although the mainstream Church does not need such regulations, it is necessary for believers to be able to participate in a focused manner during worship.
So, he suggests that each church should apply for WeChat public accounts or live platforms in its own name and permanently upload quality sermons and articles to them. Apart from its regular ministry, the church needs to systematically cultivate believers, such as gathering through the web in which an interested individual comes in not only to listen to one sermon but also to know the full gospel. "The Chinese Church needs a systematic theological framework that can be taught to believers in a practical and easy-to-understand manner."
Even if the epidemic will one day be gone, I believe the church also needs to find relatively professional staff to carry out online ministry because believers tend to be younger, with access to online information becoming the norm for them. If the mainstream Church does not pay attention, it can only give a place to heretic cults. Moreover, as far as I know, Shincheonji, in its on-site gatherings, also has a set of ways to attract people, such as the developing reading clubs, organizing Chinese clothing photography and outdoor mountaineering, or other activities suitable to the tastes of young people so as to attract them to join, and then participate in systematic learning. The gospel is constant, but the way it is spread needs to be advanced with the times in order to better respond to the Call to care for those of that generation.
- Translated by Charlie Li