Summer 2018 Vol. 38 - No. 189 Impact of New Media on the Church in China

Opportunities and Challenges of New Media for Evangelisation

Zhang Wenxi,
translated by Ingrid Chan

        What is new media? First, we know that it is a relative concept. Different forms of communication, including language, writing, painting, music, drama and print publications, etc., known as the traditional media, were widely used with the development of human society. Later, electronic media—telegraph, radio broadcast, television and movies—also referred to as the mass media, together with the one-way communication of traditional media, came to be known as the old media. With the rise of the internet, especially after entering the Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 phases, digital media was formed on the basis of the internet, and could also be known as the new media. As digital media comprises different forms of communication, including text, audio, influence etc., it is also known as converging media. If we narrow the definition, new media refers to the digital media which is based on the internet, especially on smartphones.

        From the viewpoint of the internet, it is clear that new media includes the following forms, for example, website, mobile applications (apps), electronic analogy, electronic games, intelligent systems, etc., with websites and apps, especially social apps, as the most common and well-known. Overseas, Facebook, youtube, twitter, whatsapp, etc., are some of the most representative. In China, there are WeChat, QQ, Weibo, Youku, Kuaishou, kknews etc. It surely includes the “we media” and “mini classes” which are built on these platforms; all this embodies the ever-changing technology and mass participation in the new media. The main characteristics of new media is interaction, by which communication becomes diversified, exceeding the traditional media, and even enables people to go beyond the limitations of space and time. Therefore, the main characteristics of new media are platform development, socialisation, interaction, personalisation, fragmentation, “everyone becomes media.”

What is Evangelisation?

        What is evangelisation? My understanding is: it is a calling of our Lord Jesus; it is a mission, a calling people to live out, proclaim and witness to our faith. The Church often mentions the new evangelisation, which does not change the essence and content of living out, proclaiming and witnessing to our faith. It refers to the new forms and methods of evangelisation. For example, how to live out, proclaim and witness our faith in the age of new media, or in the new culture and new lifestyles which are under the influence of new media. Jesus told us to go out to the whole world and to preach the Gospel. “The whole world” also includes the online virtual world. It is because whether we recognize it or not, the young are actually digital natives. That is why evangelisation should enter the digital world.

A. Opportunities for Evangelisation through New Media

        1. The new media offers a faster and easier way to preach the Gospel. People can go beyond the limitations of time and space, and share the Good News with anyone anywhere. New media is distinctive for its outreach, speed and influence. Everybody is a media outlet. Everyone can publicise their opinions through new media, witness to the Gospel, in particular, reaching young people and keeping in touch with them. For young people, especially the 90s generation, they have reached a point where it is difficult to live without a mobile phone. According to the 36th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China (23 July 2015) released by the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), there were 668 million internet users in China, an overwhelming majority (78.4 percent) of whom were aged 10-39. More specifically, internet users aged 20-29 accounted for 31.4 percent of the national total, the largest proportion among all age groups. According to the Statistical Report on Internet Development in China released by CNNIC in January 2017, China had 731 million internet users, a figure equivalent to the population of Europe. There were 695 million mobile internet users, and internet penetration rate reached 53.2 percent, with the 80s and 90s generations as the main group in internet consumption. The mobile penetration rate of weChat reached over 90 percent, with 549 million users. We can see from these statistics that we can preach the Gospel to more people through the new media. For example, the “Gentle Breeze editorial team” (和風編輯部) public account sends out daily evangelising materials. There are 30,000 subscribers, and the average number of page views is over 1000, with the highest single view rate as 2 million.

        2. The new media facilitates the process of globalisation, promotes the global village. For the universal Church, its information can be spread quickly through the new media, which enables us to be in communion with the universal Church, and understand its development. At the same time, we can understand and implement the encyclicals and the Church guidance more directly and quickly. For example, Pope Francis invited the Christians in the world to join the 24-hours Eucharistic Adoration and fast, praying for special intentions. We are able to realize the universality of our faith and the background of evangelisation on big media platforms. This promotes the communication of the universal Church and embodies the catholicity of the Church, so that Catholics can be engaged in evangelisation on the level of the universal Church.

        3. New media provides more platforms for the busy faithful to gain knowledge and messages from the Church. This makes online faith formation and counselling possible. We are now in the era of new media. Although we lead a busy life, we still have shards of time or personal time. It is unlikely we are able to attend class at a fixed time, especially in the formation of the laity. Therefore, lay people can make use of their personal time to learn online. The online mini classes as well as different courses on faith formation and the Bible can provide opportunities for the busy faithful to attain self-directed learning and formation.

        4. The formation and development of virtual parishes and digital churches provide new horizons for evangelisation. The pastors of the Church gain new platforms for evangelisation. Nowadays, many of the Church ministers are able to bring their expertise to full play by setting up their own online classes. Thus they can be engaged in evangelisation, Bible sharing, witnessing to the Gospel, etc. Through the online parish, everyone can become a virtual pastor, providing the online parishioners and non-Catholics faith formation and evangelisation. Anyone can even establish one's own online school of evangelisation to witness to one's faith.

        5. The new media provides an easy, convenient, fast and direct way to communicate. It bridges the distance between individuals, changing the ways of communication and lifestyles. There are various forms of new media; people can make use of audio, video, the written word, images, etc. to preach the Gospel. All these ways of communication attract people to read and spread the message, striking a resonance in their mind. Therefore, our faith can be spread on a deeper level. One of the examples was the media report of our diocese:“The forgotten hero: a one-armed priest who rescued 300,000 Chinese refugees!”The report used a lot of photos and historical data, even inserted BTV's introduction of Fr. Yacquinot deBesange. The report was convincing and eliminated the misunderstandings of many non-Catholics.

        6. Low investment costs and easy operation of the new media promote the communication between individuals, as well as the integration and sharing of resources. The new media has entered the era of“self-media,”for example, the Weixin public account, kknews, dayu, weibo, ximalaya FM, changba, etc. By just registering an account, everybody can have his own radio, newspaper and video channel, spreading his own messages. Compared with traditional media, all these forms of new media are far more advanced. Basically, one just needs a computer or mobile phone for operation. After the initial set-up, there need not be any input cost except for labour.

        7. The immediate feedback enhances interactive connection. Traditionally, the distribution of pamphlets and booklets on evangelisation seems like dead letter which gains no feedback. Now one can talk in real time with those who are interested in the Church through the interactive messaging functions on media platforms, answering questions, as well as providing guidance and help.

B. How New Media Present Challenges to Evangelisation

        1. In the era of new media, people communicate through media, instead of through face-to-face communication or exchange. This results in a deterioration of the quality of interpersonal communication. Quite a lot of people experience the collision between the virtual and the real. They might have many friends on social media, who only exist online or in the cyber-world. Such friends are not there physically, so it is difficult to establish real trust and relations. Evangelisation, however, is based on trust. Without such a relationship of trust, evangelisation lacks reality and credibility. It lacks palpable force.

        2. New media is a killer affecting human relations. It interrupts family relations, turns children into“mobile-phone addicts.”Now more and more people become“phubbers.”The media has“replaced”the Church's role on teaching, gathering, liturgy, values, moral-ethics. People seek life's answers from new media. Many no longer care about the Church's teaching; they no longer obey Church authority. Instead, the opinions or ideas of some celebrity-figures become the standard or authorized answer. How can the Church cope with the strange phenomenon of the new media as a “new religion”? That is a question we have to resolve.

        3. In the age of new media, there is a flood of information; but the quality of the content varies. Some are even mixed with heresies and evil concepts. Fake news abound and cause a crisis of trust regarding the media. Those who are weak in faith formation are easily affected. Some new media even impersonate the Church to make money or reap other benefits. That damages the Church’s public image, hurts the personal interest of the faithful; the faith of some Catholics may even waver.

        4. When fake news is everywhere, personal privacy is endangered. Pluralism may confound. People will be easily swallowed by a surfeit of information. Often people find it difficult to tell what is true and what is false. Everybody can“publish”their own point of view, so that truth sometimes gets lost. No doubt technology brings convenience and provides people with more choices, but it also makes it hard for people to choose. Everyday there is too much information from public accounts. We do not know how to choose. WeChat groups and blogs are filled with too much information.

        5. The Church is short on people with IT expertise. The application of new media requires teamwork and considerable human resources. In order to regularly update the content on our new media, we need expertise from selecting materials to editing, from layout to photo-editing, from audio recording to visual productions. All this requires cooperation among people with expertise. It takes high-quality production to attract readers and users. In this transitional period of evangelisation, the Church lacks professional new media practitioners.

        6. Many are keen on grabbing attention, but few work on details and substance. Some Church new media platforms use far-out titles to attract people, but the content is so-so. Some even forget their fundamental evangelizing mission. Like tabloids, they pass on hearsay. For example, the recent tragedy of Fr. Ma of Baoding Diocese gave rise to gossip and speculations online.[1] It led to nothing good, but caused a lot of dispute. Or the video wildly circulated online that purportedly showed the incorruptibility of the body of St. John Paul II, turned out to be of a wax figure. Such fake news became a joke which deeply undermined the Church's image and became an obstacle in the work of evangelisation.

        7. Creativity is lacking. We are weak in terms of copyright protection. The Catholic Church as social conscience should model respect for intellectual property. After monitoring a number of Church websites, we found that they were more or less the same. Some articles appearing on several platforms were identical, but attributed to different authors. Original content put out on our diocese's public account aims at promoting evangelisation work. So we accept reproduction by others, provided they acknowledge the original author. But quite a lot of Church media do not have such self-awareness. Quite often some Catholics would raise questions about that. It is really impossible to answer. Serious violation of the rights of the creator puts a damper on creativity. It also hurts the Church's image.

        8. “Readers’feedback”is a double-edged sword. Except for WeChat public accounts, there is no filtering function. If somebody left a biased opinion on our platform, there is no way to remove it, nor can we clarify easily. It becomes a great headache to the Church.

        9. The surveillance and limitations imposed on the Church make it difficult for us to perfectly utilize the new media.

        The above are a few of my simple reflections. Surely they are quite incomplete. I also hope this brief article can arouse the interest of more people to reflect on the opportunities and challenges of new media towards the evangelisation work of the Church. Hopefully we can use the new media well to evangelise.

Endnote :

  1. Fr. Ma Qingyuan died of carbon monoxide poisoning in December, 2017, when he tried to bake hosts using a charcoal stove.

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