The year 2020 is destined to be a key year in history, marking the beginning of a new era. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the largest headline throughout this past year. The word “pandemic” was chosen as the word of the year, according to Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com.
With a disastrous impact across the globe, the international pandemic came 671 years after the Black Death that occurred in 1349. Due to the pandemic, all registered churches in China and many house churches were shut down in late January. The churches launched intercessory prayers, mostly for repentance.
In the following two months, churches across China were forced to gather online, while donating money and material to affected areas. As the country entered into the phase of containing the virus on an ongoing basis at the end of May, churches gradually reopened. Meanwhile, the cross-removal campaign continued in some provinces. As online gathering became the “new normal,” Chinese Christians were active in attending various kinds of conferences, forums, and retreats at home and abroad.
In November, the US presidential election accelerated the divisions among Chinese Christians. There were discussions and arguments on whether we should support President Donald Trump or Democratic candidate Joe Biden. First established in the early 1990s, the Chinese Church Bible Day was restarted in mid-December, showing the importance of the Bible from the Chinese perspective.
As we embrace 2021, the editorial team of China Christian Daily has selected the top 10 Christian news stories of 2020 based on the number of views, keyword searches, shares, and prominence of articles.
Below is part 1, Nos. 1-5 of CCD'S top 10 news stories of 2020.
1. The Chinese church under the pandemic: closure, reopening and restrictions
Since the epicenter of Wuhan was closed on January 23 due to the coronavirus outbreak, one after another churches across the country cancelled in-person services, urging intercessory prayers for the epidemic. In early February the United Prayer Group of Church Pastors in Wuhan appealed to domestic believers to fast, pray, and be the watchmen for the city, for China, and even for the world.
After the pandemic in China was contained, the virus spread to other countries where facial masks and PPE materials were in need. Protestants and Catholics in China donated materials to churches in other countries, demonstrating their concern for other countries suffering from the virus.
Online services and virtual gatherings began to thrive in urban cities such as Beijing, Suzhou, and Xiamen. For the first time in the history of Christianity, most Easter celebrations were conducted virtually.
As the country entered the phase of containing the virus on an ongoing basis at the end of May, government-sanctioned churches in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Chongqing gradually reopened with pandemic prevention and control measures in place, while underground churches also resumed private services. Many house churches met in homes or in groups, supplemented by online services.
Entering the Christmas season, some believers were unable to join in public celebrations. A percentage of Three-Self churches adopted restrictions and asked attendees to make reservations for Christmas services. A Christian scholar commented, “Actually the problem is not a resistance to Christmas, but the lack of opportunity to participate in Christmas activities. Many churches require a face-scan, registration and ticket distribution ahead of the service – if this becomes normal, we may lose many of our rights to practice and express our faith.”
2. Online services and gatherings become a “new normal.”
Churches in hard-hit areas gave live broadcasts or provided Sunday service content (videos, audio files, texts, or outlines) through their official accounts on WeChat, China’s Twitter. To meet the pastoral needs, some churches and Christian organizations offered sermons, devotionals, Bible study classes, “iCloud choirs”, counseling hotlines, and prayers for China. Churches recommended Family worship during the special period.
However, every coin has two sides. Online services are more “convenient” because of their simplicity and being able to worship in one’s own space, but disadvantages also surfaced. Church incomes decreased because members could follow any church service they wanted, contributing to a lack of commitment to one church. A survey claimed that the inevitable trend of the future Church was offline ministry as its main force with online ministry as its support.
Some people said that most online churches were megachurches with abundant resources, and many wealthy church members. Compared with them, small local churches consisting of dozens of members, for example, churches for migrant workers, regarded online services as supplementary.
At the same time, Christian-themed videos have been more restricted on mainstream live broadcast platforms, such as Renrenjiang. Bible commentary books are also banned on Taobao, China’s largest PC retailer, according to two Christian bookstores.
3. The hyping of the rumor saying that Li Wenliang was a Christian jammed the Internet.
In the early hours of February 7, Dr. Li Wenliang's hospital (Wuhan Central Hospital) released news of his death on its official micro-blog. On the Internet, people mourned and remembered him in many ways, especially because Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the earliest discoverers of the pneumonia outbreak, and thus became one of the original eight "rumor mongers".
In the Christian online community, however, there is a different picture. Many Christian WeChat groups are retweeting a message that Dr. Li Wenliang was a "Christian", like Luke in the Bible. Many Christian public platforms took the chance to launch hot tweets, raising the matter to spiritual heights by commemorating him. For instance, there are claims that Dr. Li "gloriously returned to his heavenly home", "he rested in the Lord's arms", and some are even like this "Latest Breaking News! Dr. Li Wenliang was a brother in Christ", as if discovering the New World... Some of the Christian public platforms even commemorate him in Paul's voice, declaring his "spiritual significance" as if Dr. Li was like Paul who fought a "good fight."
Just as many Christians are cheering for the sudden discovery that Dr. Li Wenliang was a "brother in the Lord", there are astute Christians who have questioned where the news that Dr. Li was a "Christian" came from, and whether it was confirmed that he was attending any church. Interestingly, the original Christian platform that announced that Dr. Li was a Christian soon issued a message in a bid to "prevent the rumor" by changing the "Christian" Dr. Li Wenliang into an "interested individual" (a faith seeker to Christianity). As a result, its tweet title was changed to: "Remembrance of Brother Li's (a faith seeker) Glorious Return to His Heavenly Home." By looking at all of the information online, the conclusion is that Dr. Li must have attended church, and even participated in Bible studies, but he was not baptized. Looking at his tweets, there is no trace of a Christian faith.
Some Christians seem to feel that these celebrities can make their own faith appear more glamourous. At the end of the day, the fact that many Christians believe that Dr. Li was a Christian remains a part of this unhealthy desire for glamour.
4. Persecution and pressure on Christianity in China
Looking back on this past year, Christianity in China went through persecution and pressure in different ways.
The recent cross-removal campaign started in 2015 when many church crosses in Wenzhou, China’s Jerusalem were removed. The campaign suddenly came to a halt in the first months of 2020 due to COVID-19. However, the campaign that began in early January resumed in China’s central Anhui in early March. In mid-April, two crosses atop churches in China’s central Anhui Province were removed by local authorities. On April 27, 2020, the cross of a century-old church in Hefei was forcibly removed. A registered church located in the town of Tongda, Hefei, Anhui suffered the same fate on May 18. Many churches around Shiwan Church in Lichong Hui Ethnic Township, Fengtai County have had the crosses on top of their church buildings removed, according to a local source. On July 13, the removal of a cross of a church in Huainan failed as the elderly believers protested.
The campaign spread to the neighboring Jiangxi Province. On May 7, a state-registered church located in Guangxin District in the city of Shangrao had its cross removed. In a video shared by a local source, a crane pulled down the cross of Zhongxin Church in the afternoon. On July 26, local authorities took down the cross of a church in Xinfeng County, Ganzhou.
Penalties for illegal Christian gatherings
A hotel in Xiamen, located in China’s southeastern-coastal Fujian Province, was fined 20,000 yuan for providing venues where Christians held illegal gatherings, according to local authorities.
Situated near the prestigious Xiamen University in Siming District, Xiamen Sea View Garden Hotel was charged with violating Article 40 in the Revised Regulations for Religious Affairs. The Article states that “religious activities held by citizens shall generally be held in an approved religious venue.”
Cancellation and restrictions of Christmas services
Entering the Christmas season, some believers were unable to join in public celebrations as a percentage of Three-Self churches adopted restrictions and reservation of Christmas services
Due to the resurgence of positive COVID-19 clusters, many churches in Beijing cancelled Christmas services and remain closed. Some churches in Fujian, Hebei, and Shaanxi also called off Christmas celebrations. Before believers attended any service during Christmas, many churches required face-scan, registration, or ticket distribution in advance.
Christian entrepreneur put on trial for making audio Bible players
Christian entrepreneur Lai Jinqiang was put on trial in Guangdong Province on December 7 for making audio Bible players after being detained for more than one and a half years.
On September 22, 2019, Lai and the employees of the “Gospel through the Company” were arrested in Shenzhen for producing electronic Bible players that are popular among elderly rural Christians with weak vision, according to IPK Media, a news and information website for overseas Chinese.
As a member of the “China Gospel Fellowship” which is considered one of the five major house churches in China, Jin and some Christian businesspersons co-founded the company dedicated to manufacturing electronic Bible players.
On December 9, 2020, four people in Jin’s company were also tried on the second charge, charged with “illegal business operations.” Local courts suggested that the company’s legal representative, Fu Xuanjuan, be sentenced to five years and the other three to one and half a years to three years, all with fines.
5. Cults were more rampant during the pandemic.
Founded by the Lee Man-Hee, the Korean Shincheonji cult raised a storm in Korea. In late February, the China anti-cult federation reported that 458 of the positive 763 cases, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), were tied mainly to the Korean cult 'Shincheonji Church of Jesus'.
The role of the cult in spreading the virus and the organization’s failure to be honest when investigated aroused the indignation of many Korean residents. Meanwhile, the group urged its members to “seduce” sheep from mainstream churches. On August 1, Lee Man-Hee was arrested and charged with “hiding information about the group’s members and gatherings from contact tracers.”
An eschatology institute said by the end of last March, there were 18,440 Shincheonji followers who were active in 19 areas across China. They were mainly scattered in Changchun, Dalian, Shenyang, Beijing, and Shanghai.
In China, the cult is active on the Internet, making full use of instant messaging platforms to attract people and spread its doctrines through online courses.
On March 17, 2020, the civil affairs bureau of Siping, Jilin released a notice banning the Korean sect Shincheonji Church of Jesus. On November 22, the civil affairs bureau of Zunyi, Guizhou also announced that the cult was to be outlawed.
Karen Luo and Ruth Wang contributed to these reports