“Big Data” church surveillance: the COVID legacy we need to prepare for now

Churches are surviving the Coronavirus, but the next test—increased government monitoring and oversight of church activities and leaders—may prove to be more difficult and longer lasting.

The South Korean government is receiving high praise from other governments around the world for its use of so-called “big data” and artificial intelligence to profile and track members of the Shincheonji cult in the government’s fight against the Coronavirus. But now that the government has found these ‘big data’ tools to be so useful in dealing with a cult, it may be reluctant to put the tools back in the box. We should prepare for these tools to be re-purposed and their use possibly expanded to churches as well. Churches which undertake ministry activities or espouse beliefs that the government considers objectionable could be classified as possible public safety risks, thus justifying surveillance, public pressure, and intervention.

That is not speculation so much as the voice of experience, as our organization already regularly experiences such challenges. For nearly two decades Voice of the Martyrs Korea has done discipleship and evangelism with North Koreans wherever they are found, including launching Bibles by balloon into North Korea and arranging for Bibles to be carried back into North Korea by hand. When the South Korean government wants to put pressure on North Korea, they have even encouraged us to launch balloons. When they want to appease North Korea, they tell us that our work is a risk to public safety and order us to stop. Determining what is safe and what is not is always partly a political question for governments.

Many Christians wrongly assume that only dictators and totalitarian countries act in this way. Especially since 9/11, democracies have also increased their use of ‘big data’ and surveillance technologies on their own citizens. Beginning in Europe and then spreading outward from there, churches have increasingly become objects of surveillance in democracies because of traditional Christian positions on issues related to the sexual revolution, evangelism, missions, and public prayer. Churches must take action to prepare now for increased government intervention, since once a public safety risk is declared, it is almost impossible for a church to receive fair public consideration.

Churches in countries hostile to Christianity provide some of the best practices for churches in the rest of the world to study and adapt. I chronicled twelve of these practices and expanded them into chapter-length recommendations, with applications for both existing churches and church planters, in the book, Planting the Underground Church. ‘Underground church’ does not mean a church doing sneaky, hidden things. It means a church that has had to learn how to operate even when the government cuts off its public resources. That could mean frozen bank accounts, seized buildings, protests by neighbors against the church, or loss of legal status. These are things churches need to be preparing for now. And we can best learn from the churches in the places that have had to deal with these issues all the way back to the time of Jesus.

Planting the Underground Church is the second part of a trilogy I wrote on what the global church can learn from underground churches in countries hostile to Christianity. The first book, Preparing for the Underground Church, discusses the social conditions that are causing the global church to face increasing opposition. The third book, Living in the Underground Church, shows how the church can restore family worship to the central place in church life.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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