When the Covid-19 epidemic broke out, forcing the church to gather online, a special group of people became "marginalized" during the transition. They are believers who are unable to use social media, including mainly elderly Christians.
A church in Jinzhou, in China's central Hubei Province, started broadcasting worship services, informing its congregation on how to download live video streaming software and instructions. However, it is hard for senior believers to understand.
Without any preparation in developing online ministries, many churches have encountered setbacks.
Some churches have suspended all activities because the middle-aged and the elderly account for the majority of believers.
A sister from a rural church in Jiangxi said her church never launched an online gathering since it stopped onsite services in late January. "Because the church membership is largely elderly, little attention has been paid to developing online pastoring. The church was caught unprepared for the special circumstances brought about by the epidemic," she added.
A deaconess from a church in Luoyang, Henan, shared that her 1,000-member church had not arranged an integrated pastoral schedule nor a special approach for those elderly believers who do not use the Internet. It has sub-chat groups on WeChat, such as groups for the choir, the band, and the youth fellowship, but not a group for the general members.
She said, "God remembers the old, weak, sick, and young sheep, but we pastors fail to care for them. This is the church's deepest debt."
Another co-worker from a rual church in Hefei, Anhui expressed the same regret.
Besides those "debts" and anxiety, some churches who just embarked on online ministries faced awkward situations.
A brother from a church in Wuxi, Jiangsu claimed 500 members had joined the church's WeChat group after receiving assistance from one another. But the online sermons were often interrupted by casual messages that members sent. The situation did not improve even though the church made rules on what was acceptable.
A 500-strong church in Xinyang, Henan has a WeChat group of more than 400 members. It has sent single audio sermons for more than one month, according to Brother T, who is in charge of the church. It attempted to send a collection of audio files, but some elderly members said they could not open it.
Some church staff were not accustomed to sharing sermons through recordings, but they encouraged each other to adapt to this special shepherding strategy. In regards to the elderly Christians who cannot use the Internet, many churches keep in touch with them through phone calls from group leaders.
When the epidemic situation improved a bit, church workers advised that a few brothers and sisters might pray with them through home visits.
There are reports that some aged Christians have devotionals by listening to audio Bible players. Before this year's Spring Festival, which fell in late January, a small church in Ji'an, Jiangxi, mainly comprised of the elderly, purchased players and distributed them to the senior believers.
Sister Z revealed, "Only a small number are able to access online sermons. The other ministries are unable to continue. May God have mercy!"
Realizing the shortcoming in online ministries during this special time, most churches remain at sea to future similar challenges. They hope for a quick end to the epidemic so congregations can get back to having normal worship services.
The outbreak exposes pastoral staff and believers who are unfamiliar with online ministries, but do churches attach no importance to these ministries?
Pastor D explained the church used to be worried that believers would not attend church but listen to online sermons in bed if online ministries were provided. Nonetheless, he also expressed that this depended on how the church nurtured its members. He and other workers plan to broadcast onsite services when the epidemic stops.
Sister Z said her church proposed to hold computer training for the staff, but her idea was not implemented. She believed the backwardness of the church in accepting new things stemmed from its pursuit. "If the church is willing to make progress, it will look at different channels and ponder how it can serve believers better. This has nothing to do with age as some believers in their 70s or 80s can also use computers."
With seven or eight years experience in projecting powerpoint presentations in the church, Sister Z returns to the inner room to communicate with God via Bible reading and prayers. She feels a daily sweetness despite the crises in society and the church.
"May God lead and help us so that we can be God's good stewards of manifold talents and shepherd all the flock and avoid the loss of anyone," she said.
- Translated by Karen Luo