The sudden coronavirus outbreak has prevented the Church's on-site services. As a result, the Church has to broadcast its services on air. That’s why we can currently see the busy picture of the Church running against the clock to conduct its online programs as well as purchase Webspace and equipment. So the churches which seemed to have been impacted by the pandemic for a time are reviving on air.
Now, this busy online stuff seems to be the opposite of what was predicted that the Church would experience. Many felt that the Church would decline and there would be changes due to the outbreak. It seems to suggest that Church services can’t be stopped by anything in the world, a fulfilment of what is said, when God closes a door He will open a large window.
However, is this really the case? If we examine it carefully, we’ll see that the hot trend on the Web may not indicate that the Church is reviving but perhaps it’s declining.
First of all, we understand that the development and acceptance of the Web didn’t just happen during the past months, but it was already in full swing in the past decade. Ten years ago people were using the Internet and five years ago smartphones became a household device. Then why didn’t we see the rise of Web churches? We didn’t even hear of such a church.
Has the pandemic provided an opportunity for the Church to thrive on the Web, and will it become the main form of religious services in a new round of revival? Apparently not.
If it weren't for the outbreak, the idea of online services would still be unfamiliar. It isn’t because no one tries such services. In countries like the United States, for example, there are often attempts at gathering online, but this form of worship has never become a part of the mainstream. Most churches don’t do online services. Even though there are many churches using the Web for services both during and after the outbreak doesn’t indicate that a new form of church is developing.
In addition, if we look closely at the size of the churches which are busy on the Web, we may find that they don’t represent the wider Church. In fact, they are mostly mega-churches.
Megachurches are characterized by large numbers, ample resources, professional staff and they can mobilize many people. Just as it was before the outbreak, the voice and influence of mega-churches has been huge, covering up the voice of most churches so that unknowing outsiders often think that all churches must be large and successful. However, behind their social influence, these churches are often supported by unknown forces that do not belong to the Church.
In fact, these super-sized churches can’t represent the revival of the Church nor the revival of the gospel. Neither can their Web activities represent the status quo of the Church in general.
Megachurches can gather a large number of elite youth who excel in using technology and online hosting. Meanwhile these churches have the financial strength to buy equipment, acquire cyberspace and a hit rate of which small churches can't even dream. It is those small churches that are the mainstream of Christianity in China.
I have come to know an urban church with about 30 members, formed mainly by young migrant workers. After the outbreak, due to financial pressure, they stopped paying rent on the venue where they were meeting and began to hold their services on the Web. For them, online services are cheap. Although they can't afford to subscribe to premium Web services, the current free cyberspace and smartphone terminals already meet their needs. Although the number of people involved in online services is good, the church's public visibility has declined significantly compared to having on-site services. In the church leader's view, online services can only function as a supplement but not as the main mode of the ministry. Once the online mode of services becomes mainstream, churches like this one won’t last long. Of course, megachurches supported by entities behind the scenes are an exception, but as I have mentioned, they no longer represent the Church.
Yes this thirty some small church can represent the main situation of today's Church in China. After all, the oversized churches are few. Their size takes up only a very small proportion of the Chinese Church. So they aren’t representative.
One problem with online services is that the sense of a sacred space has been lost. In an on-site service, people are gathered in a space where the outside world is separated from the sacred—it is shielded from outside interference. A sense of the sacred and an atmosphere of worship comes with meeting in a place that is set apart. This is lost when services are only conducted on the Web. The privacy of the Web does not ensure protection for the participants from the interference of the outside world. They attend the service while being in a secular environment. As a result, they will inevitably not concentrate on the religious sacredness. So, the sense of fellowship will be greatly reduced on the Web.
On the other hand, the decrease in the frequency of on-site services leads to increased believer mobility and reduced stability. Although some Web services are very popular, if you research the turnover rate, you may find the proportion of believers who can be stabilized in a cyberspace may not be as high as you think.
Through the above analysis, I still insist that the pandemic will inevitably bring about a turning point for the Church. Just because there are many services on the Web doesn’t indicate that the Church is experiencing a revival.
The impact of the outbreak on the Church will be prolonged over time and its effects will continue to be felt.
So, at this point, we should think about the core issue of the Church – whether it is services-centered or gospel-centered. On the basis of the Church’s reflection, we shall address the negative effects of the outbreak and rebuild the Church of Jesus.
God sometimes may build another house when He closes the door of a house instead of opening a window of that same house.
- Translated by Charlie Li