Since January 23, 2020, after the closure of Wuhan City, the whole country has entered into a long-term war of COVID-19 epidemic prevention. Churches also have to cancel public gatherings. However, while some churches are only about to start experimenting with online services and pastoral care through social media platforms such as WeChat, they have already started to experience embarrassing crises of various urges to "stop" on-line services.
This makes many pastors and believers feel troubled: the outbreak cannot be ended in the short term, which means public gatherings cannot yet be held; so, if "cloud" based pastoral care is not understood, what will be the way out?
"Cloud" pastoral care: an ad hoc choice in the outbreak
On January 24th, CCC&TSPM issued a document informing the local CC&TSPMs of each province, autonomous region, cities and churches everywhere under the direct control of the Central Government, "if necessary, we can suspend the gathering activities of more people to ensure safety", and did a good job in guiding the pastoral care during the outbreak. Churches also stopped gatherings around Sunday the 26th of January, and advised returning worshippers that the church was closed and the time to resume the gathering was still to be determined.
This is a sudden challenge for the Church; changing from public gathering to network 'gathering' introduces situations where meetings cannot be physically held, praying, praising and face-to-face counseling cannot be done together as in a venue. How can the church perform its functions under these circumstances? How should believers in the "fellowship" learn and grow? If public gatherings cannot be held for a long time, how can Holy Communion, church weddings and funerals be conducted?
Doubtlessly, cloud services are currently an important and almost the only way to pastoral care and to the practice of religious life of believers during the suspension of public gathering. Given the expectations of many believers, the Church should regard this challenge as an opportunity to teach, read, pray, praise and even consider online operation of some of the daily duties of the Church. During the outbreak, the Church should also respond to the call of communities and CC&TSPMs by raising funds or materials online for the epidemic.
So can the current churches cope with these challenges?
Cloud pastoral care challenge 1: online live streaming services being reported as online 'illegal preaching'
On January 26, there was a church that had remained closed for three days. It was the first Sunday after the start of the Spring Festival, and the Sunday service could only be held online. Under the previous Sunday Ministry arrangement, the pastors of the church delivered Sunday sermons to believers by voice in WeChat - a speech with segments of no more than 60 seconds, interspersed with believers' responses and recommended links offered by warm-hearted people. For the rest of the week, the speakers and listeners struggled.
On Sunday, February 2nd, after a week of preparation, the church finally conducted a live online service for the first time. After a week of preparation, an application for an account was approved on a live-streaming platform. Pastors estimated that less than half of the church's believers attended the live broadcast and that it was hard to tell of the effect of listening to a sermon online.
On Sunday, February 9, the church conducted its second live webcast. Drawing on previous experience, the church's co-workers prepared for this week's live broadcast in more detail, listing the entire process of online worship in advance, explaining the precautions for listening to the live stream online, and reminding believers that they could contact the church's co-workers for help.
On Sunday, February 16, the church returned to their WeChat group to worship because last week's live broadcast was reported as 'illegal preaching'. The pastor was warned by the relevant authorities that the prohibition of public gatherings should not be taken as an excuse for online 'illegal preaching'-related activities. The pastor raised the fact that the option of online gathering was chosen so as to comply with the prevention and control of the epidemic, and not the same as online 'illegal preaching', but then had to cancel the live broadcasting and return to the previous norm of WeChat grouping after being rejected.
For a month after public gatherings were suspended, the experience of the above-mentioned church may provide a glimpse into the reality faced by some churches in the country. While adjusting their own ideas to actively deal with the challenges of cloud-based pastoral care, church co-workers also need to carefully handle external pressure of their cloud-based activities being labelled as online 'illegal preaching'.
A lawyer has responded that webcasting during this extraordinary period cannot be considered as online 'illegal preaching'. He gave two reasons:
First, the live broadcast is intended for religious masses, which is a normal aspect of the religious life of religious masses, except that it is being done online this time around, instead of offline.
Secondly, it is clear that the Church is actively cooperating with the Government in its preventive measures. Without live-streaming online services, Christians, based on the needs of their religious lives and teachings to obey according to the Bible, should "not be expected to stop public gatherings". The Church, for the sake of safety and cooperation with the Government, advises believers to stay at home, not go out, and provides streaming as an alternative to gatherings, which is an integral part of the Church's participation and cooperation with the epidemic control.
The lawyer suggested that the Church could promise to reduce or even ban access to its buildings, operating live events is to be done by only the small number of people living in the church, or streaming at home by a family of well-established believers, so as to control and prevent possible accidents as much as possible.
Cloud pastoral care challenge 2: It looks "beautiful" but hard to fulfill.
A pastor from a church in the northeast said when they learned that they could not meet onsite, the first decision the fellow workers made was to do Sunday services live online.
For a month, materializing live streaming was not as easy as they have thought. The church's co-workers applied for accounts, which were blocked in the end, from three live video platforms. Church pastors said they had tried several platforms back and forth, and that they needed platforms that were easy for broadcasters and users, which could satisfy a large number of users at the same time and were suitable for the church. However, such platforms were few. After several failed attempts, they eventually chose to send audio recordings to believers for online worship.
A pastor from a church in Hubei said that their cloud-based pastoral care, which had just started, was a bit of a struggle at one point, and that the real beginning had come from a victory in his own inner battle.
The pastor is used to writing sermons and speaking to the congregation. He was a little worried when he took a pen to write a few encouraging articles to the believers or when he faced an empty seated "audience" to speak to. Not being good at using the Internet, the pastor, with the help of his family, solved the problems one by one. Last Sunday, he hosted a service through live broadcast with the believers.
A pastor from Henan had earlier tried to serve believers who could not attend public gatherings onsite through the Internet. But in the local rural churches, most of the believers are elders who are unfamiliar with the use of smartphones, which also puts a lot of pressure on online pastoral care. The current method adopted by the church is to arrange the parishioners into various groups and use a different approach to provide pastoral care to each group; the church regularly calls these elderly people over the phone to ask about their situation and prayer requests. The elders are also given some of the prayer requests from other followers and are invited to participate in the prayer.
The pastor added, "God will not forget His children, and we do not want anyone in the church to feel forgotten by the church during this time, and we want to be able to pay attention to and comfort them in whatever way".
A pastor from Shandong shared that the church had also thought about doing live or recorded services, but the local epidemic prevention and control is so strict to the point where workers cannot even meet to discuss on how to do it. An individual alone cannot complete the entire process of online live broadcast. After thinking twice, they began to nurture believers by using the QQ or WeChat groups established before the outbreak.
In the group, the administrator set up a full ban on cross-talks from other members, to ensure that the pastor's notice, audio and text do not go unnoticed, so that everyone within the group can see the updated information in a timely manner. For the need of communication and fellowship among believers, online sub-group fellowships are created for members to discuss, praise, pray, and share other information.
The pastor said the church did so by simply moving offline activities online. But online services are a little less effective than offline services when it comes to getting feedback from participants, and their co-workers don't know what to do about how to hold the Holy Communion online, which was previously done offline once a month.
Cloud pastoral care challenge 3: the network is not "clean", with crazy extreme heresies.
While the Church has begun to serve its followers during this period, it is also concerned about how to protect believers from extremist speeches and heretic cults on the Internet, in a time when the Internet is open.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, there have been many online platforms that post videos of doomsday speeches questioning why God did not save China, and using the opportunity to hype Christian celebrities or view non-Christian groups from a judgmental perspective...to the extent where many netizens resented and even began to doubt the Christian faith.
There are also some heretic cults using this opportunity to form QQ or WeChat groups in which, in the name of "pray for Wuhan", they provide so-called free psychological counseling and attract those who have burdens to pray for or are scared in the epidemic area, and then start to spread heresy.
In this regard, the various local CC&TSPMs release timely information to remind believers not to be fooled.
"While the epidemic is still rampant, it is also time for heretics to flourish, so we must be vigilant and not be tempted by them", a fellow member of a church in Fujian stated in an article, urging readers to read more biblical truth. People who have the correct understanding of the truth will not fall into the panic mood and will not be easily seduced by heresy.
One message reads: "A very enthusiastic sister from our church recently always forwarded some messages to me, but as I listen to her, I start feeling something wrong - the articles she sent said that after becoming a Christian, one no longer has to confess, no longer needs to pray for the grace and forgiveness from Christ...She also very warmly lets me listen to speeches, but I always feel that this is not the same as the teaching we usually receive...Could anyone tell me if she's into heresy?"
"This Spring Festival is a time for Christians to pray, a time for spirituality, a time to comfort each other through modern communication and to have strong faith in each other. Let us seek for the whole city's forgiveness like Abraham did; let us stand in the temple of God like King Solomon praying for all the people; and let us block the breaking of today's Church like Phinehas did", pastor Wu Weiqing of Haidian Church said in his testimony, urging believers on the first Sunday service after the Spring Festival.
This also represents the voices of many pastors: to have peace of mind, to strengthen faith in difficult times, to pray for Wuhan and China, and to show love and care to those in need.
For many churches and believers, whether online or offline, searching for the Lord remains unchanged and the initial love is not changed. However, back to reality, in this sudden challenge, the inability to hold onsite services may continue for a while. In the following days, while exploring other methods, we need to pray on how to both cooperate with the epidemic prevention and control, and also provide pastoral care to believers at the same time.
- Translated by Charlie Li