Awkward Situation of Online Ministry during Pandemic: While Mainstream Church Tightly Restricted, Cults Get Rampant

A picture of a church
A picture of a church
By Ruth WangMarch 3rd, 2020

"Shinchonji is doing online classes. There are many, many! Really flourishing. We can't cope!"

"Based on my observation, network platforms absorb all sorts of things. For example, on GIF and WeChat, there is plenty of room for South Korea's Shinchonji to sneak in."

Many Christian ministers recently noted that due to the pandemic, people must stay at home. So gatherings at the church have also been suspended temporarily. However, on the web the mainstream church is tightly restricted in many spaces for not conforming to web regulations. Meanwhile, many cults are becoming more rampant and seemingly lawless. This dislocation has angered many pastors and fellow workers in the mainstream Church.

This report begins with two Christian ministers talking about the phenomenon of the current Shinchonji's  attracting and "pulling" people online by taking advantage of the pandemic. After the pandemic outbreak, each local CC&TSPM issued a notice suspending public gatherings. So many churches within the system did so. However, services were not be suspended and may instead increase in times of crisis and the spiritual needs of believers were no forgotten. As a result, many believers began to search out religious services on the Internet, but did not realise a mixture of all sorts of things was waiting for them there.

One of the staff who has been following the trend of Shinchonji said emotionally, "In some places, large registered churches don't have their own online services so then believers search everywhere for services and consequently get into some online courses schemingly developed by cults like Shinchonjis, Almighty God or others."

There are also three-self churches in the system who host live webcasts trying to provide "cloud services" like Beijing Haidian Church. On January 23, after Wuhan was closed in the morning, Beijing Haidian Church immediately issued a notice to cancel the next three days' activities, and only had public Sunday services as usual on January 26. Shortly thereafter, a notice was issued and large public gatherings such as Sunday services were suspended temporarily. After that, Haidian Church chose to try a webcast. Beijing Fengtai Church, Yanjing Theological Seminary, Nanjing Jiangsu Road Church, Jinan Houzamen Church, Guangzhou Shantou Church, Harbin Bethany Church, and others made similar choices.

However, because webcasts and pastoral care via the web are a new phenomenon and churches stopping such services after one or two attempts was also an occurring problem online ministry during the pandemic remains a difficult issue.

There are also churches that have chosen and insisted on live-streaming Sunday services on the Internet. Some "wandering Christians" who could not find a services channel during the pandemic were comforted. Sister Deng, who lives in Nanjing, was unable to attend services at the church. After the pandemic, she began looking online for live services from various churches. Fortunately, she found a Beijing church that does online. After attending the services she felt very comforted in facing the news of the storm-like pandemic and she gained a rare peace. She later sent such the link of a live broadcast to her family far away in Hunan.

However, not all believers are as lucky as Sister Deng. Many of them have entered Shinchonji and other cults' live broadcasts, services or prayer groups.

"I think online gatherings are good and easily distinguishable by older or more mature believers.. But this is not so for brothers and sisters who have just come to the church. They are curious and want to see they want.  Some people are also kind in sending a link to others, but is there a problem? The sender didn't find it themself. This is a big disadvantage of the webcast platform." A preacher in Yichang, Hubei Province, who has experience of live streaming on the Internet said this.

In fact, by opening up some of the live-streaming tools such as GIF, you will find that the most active are not mainstream churches and ministers but rather many cults that preach in crooked ways or wolves in "congregations' clothing" whose agenda is to collect money by pretending to be pastors.

The sudden impact of the pandemic has forced many churches inside or outside the system, in order to support their own believers, tried to contact them with new things that they have never been exposed to before, things such as webcasts and online ministry. In addition to all kinds of issues of being unable to adapt, it is difficult to make it work and is also full of challenges.

Pastors at a local family church in Wuhan shared their observations that the pandemic had forced many conservative ministers who had previously looked down on live-streamed formats to give in and to change their minds. But many churches are still groping with how to use online tools.

One sister from the northwest described the live-streamed ministry of several local churches she observed after the pandemic began:

After public gatherings were suspended on January 23rd, Sunday worship on the next Sunday could only be held online. Under this ministry arrangement, the pastors of her church gave Sunday sermons to believers in audio format on WeChat. A segment of the sermon is no more than 60 seconds interspersed with believers' responses and links to some warm-hearted things that people recommended. A week after doing it that way, the speakers and the listeners struggled.

On Sunday, February 2nd, after and application for an account on the live-streaming platform and a week's preparation, the church finally conducted a live service online. The pastoral staff estimated that less than half of the church's followers would attend the live broadcast and that listening to it online was not good enough.

On Sunday, February 9, the church conducted its second live webcast. Drawing on the last experience, the church co-workers prepared for that week's live broadcast in more details by 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 the previous WeChat community to worship. The previous week's live broadcast was reported. The pastor was warned by relevant departments not to use the excuse of being unable to meet at the church so as to use online platforms for other online preaching-related activities such as live services. The minister proposed that the form of an online gathering was for the prevention and control of the pandemic and was not the same as online preaching. However this line of reasoning was rejected and the live broadcast had to be canceled and had to return to WeChat group..

A minister in Hubei, where the pandemic is centered, shared that in order to prevent misunderstanding or to use webcasts carefully, it's best to use voice or audio. His sharing reflects the ambivalence of many ministers. On the one hand, webcasts can be misunderstood or even called off, but only using voice is acceptable when occasionally needing to answer questions. However, during times such as Sunday services, the minister felt helpless. Both the minister and congregations felt that they are not doing a good job of Sunday worship.

While many churches were still trying and feeling their way around, on February 22nd some local CC&TSPM issued a notice saying: "Stop live-streaming sermons online now!" In the face of this "double no" that does not allow for meeting in private and nor for live webcasts, it is saying, "In order to take into account the believers' needs and emotions of your brothers and sisters, see how to actively guide them in other ways and formats."

To this notice, there are ministers who commented: "If no more network ministry is allowed, congregants will be pulled away by cults." Therefore, CCC&TSPM have long been advocating for the strategy of ministry "in the cloud". I heard that a place issued a stop to online activities by using the excuse of a leader's opinions in exercising authoritative power. Isn't that giving cults a chance to pull away mainstream believers by attacking the mainstream church? Isn't that adding to the mess of fighting against the pandemic?"

In the face of such notices, the province's local Ethnic Religious Bureau in accordance with the actual situation encouraged the local churches to hold services online. A pastor in Shandong Province shared that they received notice from the District Religious Bureau, "the current "war on the pandemic" is in the stage of climax and still needs to maintain a state of readiness, and stressed that each meeting point must not meet in private, personnel must not gather, and the site must be disinfected. In the face of the "Shinchonji" cult's rampant activities, the mainstream Church should make full use of web resources, guide believers to be patriotic and love their faith, adhere to orthodox beliefs, and act rightly by sternly resisting the cult!"

"So our live broadcasts will not stop. Please tell all the brothers and sisters."

Such reported events actually occurred early in some open areas of East China. One minister shared that in their local situation they had initially been cautious about online ministry and might have realized that heretics were rampant. They had been delivering more spiritual messages than usual and made sure that there were no cults in the group.

Another staff who has been concerned about religious legal persons said that he can see the need to handle the review of religious information services, whether individuals or legal persons are to be audited. However, how many mainstream churches and individuals outside the system that should be absorbed into the system under review is still a topic worth exploring.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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