Editor’s note: This article, written by Wang Yi in 2012, is the second in a series of three pastoral letters on how Christians should use the Internet and social media. It was recently re-published by Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC).
Although this letter was written nearly a decade ago, the questions it addresses are more relevant than ever in today’s world. As ERCC editors pointed out when re-sharing the letter, most people “spend significantly more time on computers and cell phones than interacting with people.” This new era has led to both “unprecedented convenience and…unprecedented threats, because each of us as individuals has become so naked and open.” Christians of all nations are in need of supernatural wisdom as we seek to follow and honor God in this digital age, and must keep in mind that our first responsibility online is to represent ourselves followers of Christ and to honor the mission of the kingdom. For Chinese believers, the need for discernment is even more crucial, as draconian new restrictions on online Christian activity will come into effect this spring.
This letter has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Peace to all God’s children:
Unreliable sources have reported that the parent company of Weibo [a Chinese microblogging platform somewhat similar to Twitter] intended to use Sister Xiao Min’s famous worship song, “Five O’clock in the Morning in China” as Weibo’s theme song. Sister Xiao Min recently said she is often asked why she chose 5 a.m. as the time for the call to prayer, instead of 6 or 7. She bemusedly replied that she was sorry for the inconvenience.
A Call to Prayer—or to Check Your Phone?
As the urban church has risen, the spiritual heritage of this practice of morning prayer has almost faded. One might argue that there are solid, defensible reasons for this, such as the fast pace and time crunch of urban civilization, and the overwhelming amount of information available in everyday life. However, it is not an exaggeration to say that, in the last two years, social media and not the gospel has reinvigorated the wave of people awake at 5 in the morning.
Weibo is changing the way the younger generation of believers do morning devotions. A member of our congregation posted that, every morning, he struggles between first grabbing the iPad on his left, or the Bible on his right. Half-joking, I commented that his hand should go right, because the psalmist David wrote, “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Another commenter replied that was fine—unless the Bible ended up on the left one morning.
In my own Weibo friend group, I see 100 members of our congregation who are active on the platform. I don’t use QQ [a Chinese instant messaging app], but I understand our church QQ group has nearly 200 members. It is estimated that about half of our church uses smart phones. A few weeks ago, a sister gave a talk at our church on “The Urban Church and the New Media Age.” Since then, I have been thinking about what the popularization of social media and the use of portable devices means for the church’s pastoral care, teaching, and evangelistic mission. How are these things related to the “desires of the eyes and pride of life”?
A U.S. survey showed that 40 percent of husbands and 20 percent of wives believed they could go a month without sex, but not without an iPad. Because of this, some organizations have launched a “clean bedroom” campaign, urging people to leave portable devices outside the bedroom. Churches have also launched campaigns to “clean up their pews,” refusing to allow portable devices in Sunday services. I don’t know if this is appropriate. But, dear brothers, if your need for ready entertainment and communication outweighs your love for prayer and meditation, you are abusing God’s creation. You are using this new thing God has given you to destroy your love for the ancient cross of Christ.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Will the iPad Be in the Kingdom of Heaven?
There are many idols, both new and ancient, behind the iPad. I recently read a theological paper that discusses eschatology, using the iPad as an example. The author asked, if the world to come is both disconnected from and continuous with the world today, then what may be brought into the new world? Will the iPad be in the kingdom of heaven?
I have two thoughts. First, the iPad is the most exciting, mass-produced invention human civilization has made to date Owning and using this device has an extremely strong idolatrous appeal, and I, for one, am not immune. Second, in the face of the innovation and change the iPad has brought to human life, we have almost lost our imagination regarding the kingdom of heaven and our desire for a more holy and beautiful way of living. Is heaven without an iPad more frightening than heaven without Jesus?
There is a joke about two beggars, discussing what they would eat if one of them became king. The first said he would eat a steamed pork bun bigger than the kitchen sink. The second said he would skip the pork buns, and go straight to eating the pig. I think the theological paper I read is very much like the discussion between these two beggars. If we think according to the desires of the flesh instead of the word of God, our hopes for eternal life will be nothing more than a replica of the beggar’s wish for a very large pork bun.
Am I paranoid? I worry that, for the older generation of Chinese Christians, “Five O’clock in the Morning in China” is a call to prayer; but for the new generation, it means checking Weibo. I am concerned that, no matter what we confess with our lips, our hearts proclaim: “I believe in the iPad; I believe in Weibo; I believe in QQ; I believe in eternal life; Amen.” I worry that the power of these new forms of media is taking away the blessing of the Holy Spirit among us. Every day, the world says to us, “May be grace and piece of Weibo, the touch of the iPad, and the guidance of Google be with you always, from now until the end of time.”
Public Witness in the Social Media Age
The sister who shared at our church about the era of new media said that, in this age, every person can share the gospel with everyone else. This is also a time of transition. While previously only the powerful had the opportunity to address strangers, now many people have the habit of talking online with strangers as well as friends. The personal lives of individuals are more transparent to the public than the lives of politicians and celebrities were in the past. Each Christian now faces greater pressure to be a public witness than that which was previously faced by pastors or missionaries.
Because of all this, whether or not you like it, every Christian who has something to say to the world ought to hold him or herself to the standards of an evangelist. If you go online, you must be a “missional Internet user.” If you talk about the gospel, you must be a committed and discipled Christian. If you start a Weibo account which you use to post daily sermons, then you ought to consider applying for a seminary certificate program.
I am not arguing against you. I am arguing against myself, because I, too, am often caught up in this spiritual crisis. I am not arguing against using an iPad or logging onto Weibo—I do the same. I am against my own misuse of God’s grace. I am afraid that I have come out of the twilight of one idol, to wake in the dawn of another.
Pray that Christ’s blood may cover us, that we may overcome temptations and gain ground in all spheres: including instant messaging and social networking.
Brother Wang Yi
Wang Yi is a Chengdu pastor who was arrested on December 9, 2018, as part of a crackdown focused on his church, Early Rain. He was sentenced to nine years in December of 2019, and is currently in prison.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Christians across the globe to learn wisdom and discernment as they live and interact with others online.