Since the coronavirus outbreak in late January, Pastor Song Guang, a millennial pastor from Liaoning Province, has come to understand the significance of online ministry. He explored a variety of approaches, beginning with sharing Sunday messages on WeChat, then he developed live-streaming services, and eventually this became a live broadcasting platform.
A question on the minds of many is, what happens to online ministry after church buildings reopen? Pastor Song shared his ideas with Gospel Times, a popular Chinese Christian newspaper founded in 2006.
Gospel Times: You have worked on online pastoral ministry for more than three months. As the pandemic dies away, the church in China will reopen. How will this affect your ministry?
Pastor Song: Recently I’ve been thinking about this, but before answering this question we must address the issue of whether we are doing online ministry or do we have an online church?
I think of our work as online ministry. This is the core of future growth for the church. Why shouldn’t it be online church? Because my co-workers and I all agree that although the Internet enables us to listen to sermons, lead communion services, give offerings, and praise and worship God wherever we are, online ministry can’t offer face-to-face fellowship, which we think is the biblical definition of a church.
So in answering your question—will our online ministry make changes when the church is reopened? The answer is both yes and no.
To be specific, the form and direction of our ministry won’t change, but the content will be adjusted based on the situation. Our online ministry is supposed to be supplementary to the traditional pastoral ministry of on-site churches.
My observation is that traditional ways of pastoral care hardly meets the spiritual needs of believers. In Liaoning, there are more than one million Christians, but pastors and elders number less than 1,000. Plus all the volunteer preachers who are formally trained, the number doesn’t exceed 10,000. On average, a pastor is responsible for 100 believers, so it is evident that traditional forms of pastoral care are not sufficient.
What’s more, many pastors spend a lot of time with administrative details, which further takes them away from their pastoral ministry.
Thus, online ministry is a complement to the church’s pastoral ministry. It can also be supplementary to other traditional ministries, such as pastoring believers in other places, receiving online tithes, strengthening connections between churches, and sharing good sermons. In conclusion, our online ministry will continue to provide the same services even though the church reopens.
However, we will adjust our content. As far as I’m concerned, the pandemic has been a great blow to the church. Some believers may become weak in their faith and simply fade away from the church.
Pastors in some areas are underpaid as some churches don’t have income. Confronting those urgent issues, our online ministry will restart to help the church solve its problems. Then we will ponder how our ministry can help the church resume its spiritual vigor.
We have begun preparing a revival time of praise and worship to ignite the first fervor and love in the hearts of Christians. Then people will know they are obliged to stand with the church through difficulties.
Gospel Times: You said that online ministry would continue even if there is no special reason that demands it. The ministry is highly valued. Can you share its significance in the post-pandemic era?
Pastor Song: My answer is positive. Online ministry must be one of the important ways for gospel to be shared and the development of churches.
There are three points. The first reason is that the results show that many believers are comforted and encouraged through online ministry. We know that they are receiving spiritual nourishment. Secondly, the potential of the supertool—the Internet—has barely been tapped; there is much that be done to develop it. Third, this ministry can help the church to guard against cults and heresies. During the pandemic, Christians have been very accepting of online ministry. People are accustomed to listening to online sermons. If we don’t occupy the spiritual ground, then it will leave room for cults and heresies. Moreover, many cults have been doing online ministry themselves and even doing things better than we are. I would say that the third point is the most important reason.
Gospel Times: Some churches worry that believers find it difficult to be committed to their own churches after hearing sermons preached by different pastors. What do you think?
Pastor Song: Online pastors and ministry will never replace real churches and the work of pastors. The two are supplementary. As physical churches do not offer daily sermons, online ministry can provide sermons for Christians who want to learn at anytime. Physical churches focus on fellowships and collective worship, while online ministry mainly provides individual devotional resources. So they don’t conflict with each other, but enrich the believers’ spiritual life.
Gospel Times: Can you share something about the overall situation of online ministry in China?
Pastoral Song: First of all, I think that online pastoring is a part of online ministry, but online ministry is more than that.
We can divide online ministry into three phases:
The first phase was doing video websites. In the early stage, church workers uploaded recorded sermons or worship videos online. But those videos are not available and most of them are banned online. It’s also difficult to upload Christian videos onto Chinese Christian websites.
Different kinds of websites and WeChat accounts showed up in the second phase. Christian websites like providing times of praise and worship, sermons, news items and other resources like articles, photos and audio files, which are then available on WeChat. These are always being improved.
The third stage is a new era in media. Other multi-functional platforms were born. There are various apps that can be downloaded, there are mini-programs on WeChat, and also YY, UC Audio, and streaming services. It’s like a hundred flowers are blooming.
What all these different stages have in common is that all online ministries are carried out by individuals or fellowships, but not mainstream churches.
In the next twenty years, I believe that the main force of online ministry will still be individual Christians. The COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point and breakthrough for online ministry. All churches have been forced to launch online ministry.
Online ministry has become acceptable to most believers and the mainstream churches are starting to think about online ministry as well. A small portion of them have opened public platforms or live broadcasting rooms. Many other churches are exploring opportunities to provide online services. Mainstream churches play an active role in developing the means and approach for online ministry. But even with the involvement of mainstream churches, online ministry still relies primarily on individual Christians.
Meanwhile, people lack a unified definition and understanding of the concept “online ministry”. That is the foremost issue.
“Online ministry” is not “online church” and will never become it. It is not “the online commercial deeds for the gospel.”
The distinction determines who we are, what we are going to do, and what we will become.
“The online commercial deeds for the gospel” means that the content of online service, the gospel, and the truth is operated under the commercial mode.
“Online ministry” intends to target the kingdom of God, but its income results from its operations or donations. All the income belongs to the house of God, and it shouldn’t be allocated in a casual manner.
Gospel Times: Has this “special” experience left you with any unforgettable memories? Have there been challenges, struggles, or successes?
Pastor Song: I'm most grateful for God's guidance. The work of God in my ministry is the most unforgettable experience during this time. As to challenges, they have come from outside and inside, from higher authority and believers. I don’t want to explain them in detail but they are all a part of God’s grace that he has given me for my own growth. As for success, this experience has taught me to seek God, depend on Him completely and have faith in Him.
Gospel Times: Can you share your expectations for online ministry?
Pastor Song: Our online ministry is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to its potential. We will reach the start-up phase when the word “online ministry” is commonly understood and recognized.
I don’t dare to predict the future as I don’t know when I will stop. All I want is to leave my own precious ministry experiences for the younger generation. And I’ve no idea how God will use this powerful form of ministry. If God is gracious to me and keeps our ministry going, I hope online ministry can fill the gap that traditional churches have in building online ministries.
My dream is to build an online pastoring ecosphere, a comprehensive platform that collects sermons, prayers, fellowship, and praise and worship. The ecosphere can provide comprehensive spiritual nourishment to believers.
For anyone who doubts the truth, there will be always someone providing an answer for you; for any prayer request, a person will be available to pray with you; if there is a desire to worship God, a worker can lead you to praise him. Online interaction can be targeted and designed for the individual.
My last point is that I have come to know many excellent young pastors in the past months. They are very gifted and thoughtful. Most young workers fail to go further in their new ministry because they are burdened by spiritual parents or worry too much about things they cannot control. No matter what reason is, I can understand them because I have gone through similar circumstances.
But I want to say that today's church should give these young pastors more support which will make them more courageous. As the backbone of the church, if young pastors lack a strong and courageous heart for God’s kingdom, will there be a future for the church?
- Translated by Karen Luo