“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.

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Online/Offline Worship and the Future of Christian Persecution in the Free World

2 Timothy 2:9 proclaims, “The word of God is not bound.” Many try to bind it, but the word of God always breaks free!

Today, in more than 70 countries around the world, governments are attempting to “bind” the word. Few governments are seeking an outright ban on Christianity. Instead, they are seeking to reshape it into a religion of good citizenship in support of their policies and ideology.

There is a typical pattern of increasing control over the church as governments seek to bind the word: 

  1. Controlling what meeting place the church can use, i.e., “You may preach here but not there.”
  2. Controlling the message, i.e., “You are permitted to preach this but not that.”  
  3. Controlling who can be members, i.e. “You may preach to these people but not those people.”
  4. Controlling who can minister, i.e., “This person may preach but not that person.”

We can see these forms of control advancing globally, including here at home. In Russia, evangelism is now prohibited outside of government-registered church meeting places. In Europe, “hate speech” laws have criminalized the traditional Christian message of marriage. In most of the Middle East, it is illegal to preach to Muslims, who can be jailed or killed if they become members of a church. In China, only those who swear allegiance to the Communist Party may serve as ministers.

Romans 13:1 commands us to be subject to the governing authorities, but God does not permit us to submit to authorities’ efforts to bind the word of God. We must instead preach the whole gospel of Christ, in whatever place Christ commands us to preach it, to whomever Christ commands us to preach it, and we must do so whether or not the state recognizes our “right” to preach.

At the same time, we must always remain subject to the penalties and punishments the authorities lay upon us for refusing their binding of the word. We must always preach boldly but then go to prison meekly, even joyfully. As the global founder of Voice of the Martyrs, the Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, explained with regard to the Romanian Communists who imprisoned him, “We reached an understanding. We would preach, and then they would beat us. In this way we were both happy.”

Lately, churches in the free world have been directed by the government to “preach here [online] and not there [offline]”. Some churches have obeyed the directive, citing Romans 13:1, public health considerations, or love of neighbors. Other churches have continued to meet “offline”, citing the command in Hebrews 10:25 not to neglect meeting together, or pointing out the church’s essential role of leading public intercession and repentance. They note that the church has always continued to meet, even during times of national emergency. Which side is right? In light of 2 Timothy 2:9, there is reason for humility and introspection on both sides.

For those insisting that only online worship is appropriate under such conditions, we must remember that the church can never permit the word to be bound, even if the request is reasonable, urgent, or official. The Bible is filled with stories where the servants of God are compelled to preach in times and places against the direct order of the authorities (e.g., Peter and John at the temple in Acts 3-5). We are sometimes called by God to places where their preaching is guaranteed to ignite a riot (e.g., Paul in Ephesus in Acts 19 and in Jerusalem in Acts 21-22). As Jeremiah 38 shows, God can even call us to preach in ways that demoralize the people in time of war. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul urges Timothy to be ready to preach in andout of season. The Greek word for “out of season” means “at the most inopportune times”. The bottom line is, we are not authorized to negotiate agreements with the government or the public or our church congregation to bind the word of God, even if such agreements appear to us to be prudent or to safeguard national security or public health.

But for those insisting on continuing “offline” meeting in these conditions, it is equally important to remember that the word of God is not bound to a particular building, nor to church traditions. The Bible is the story of the word of God escaping the confines of buildings and religious traditions so that true worshipers now worship God in spirit and in truth (cf. John 4:23). God raises up persecution in Acts 8 to shake the church out of its regular home, so that it is forced to take the gospel where it otherwise would not go. Given the numeric decline of the church in the free world, perhaps the Lord is using the Coronavirus and the authorities to accomplish another Acts 8-type shakeup and send-out of the church.

The word of God regularly challenges our dearest convictions and most closely-held traditions, especially in times of crisis. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord in Isaiah 55:8. As the servants of the word and not its masters, we cannot take as our starting point government warnings, public pressures, congregational preferences, or our personal concerns but instead must always ask only, “Christ, what do you want us to preach, and where, and to whom, and by whom, at this hour?”

Although the debates about online/offline worship have gripped the church in recent days, such questions may not reflect Christ’s concerns about his church at all. In light of the fourfold strategy of increasing government control noted above, consider China, where online and offline church meetings have been equally easy for the government to shut down. That is because most offline and online church services are “pulpit-driven”, i.e., it is the pastor who directs the church and does the preaching, whether online or offline. By contrast, Chinese churches that are “household-driven” have continued to grow. In these churches, the pastors and leaders put all their time, energy, and money into training the members of each household how to preach, teach, conduct worship, and reach out to their neighbors from their own homes.

These “household-driven” churches are nearly impossible for authorities to shut down: Even when the pastor is jailed, the households continue to operate. Even when a household leader is jailed, the other household members continue to minister. Further, data shows that the church is currently growing the fastest in the countries where the government is most hostile to the gospel and where churches are “household-driven”. Could the Lord be using the present challenges to call the church in the free world to adopt a “household-driven” model? Could this be in anticipation of the governments of the free world exerting greater control over not only the church’s meeting place but also its message?

We should also consider that the Lord may be directing different parts of his church to respond quite differently at this crucial hour. In agriculture, if only one biological strain of corn or rice is planted in a country, the entire crop (and thus the country’s whole food supply) is at risk of being destroyed by a single crop infection. But if diverse strains of seeds are planted, the crop will be much hardier and resistant to destruction. Christ may be simultaneously directing some churches to be transformed completely at this hour while calling others to stand firm and unchanging in the face of pressure from every side. We should remember Paul’s admonition in Romans 14:4-5 not to judge our fellow servants but instead to each be fully persuaded in our own minds about our own particular assignment once we have sought direction from Christ alone. Then we can show love and respect for each other even when it appears that Christ has called us to different responses.

One practical way you can do that is to help churches who are suffering now after following their conscience about how to worship during the Coronavirus, even though they made a different choice than your church did. For example, if a church discerned that Christ was directing it to meet online but its offerings have decreased and now the church is suffering financially, then churches who have continued to meet offline and who have healthier offerings should send funds to help. Likewise, churches who are fined by the government for continuing offline meetings should receive help in paying their fines from those churches called by Christ to meet online only. In this way we can show the world that we are one body, united not by a common method but by a common conviction that the word must remain unbound, and that we will support all churches who suffer because of faithful submission to Christ, even when their submission takes a different form than our own.

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What the Church once knew about health and safety but is always in danger of forgetting

The church has now entered into dangers far greater and longer lasting than those presented by any virus. We have ceded to the state the right to define for the church the meanings of health and safety, and we have consented to constraining our community life according to state-mandated means to achieve these definitions.

The church has an inviolable responsibility to articulate, steward, and model the holistic theological understanding and practice of health and safety entrusted to it through its Lord, its scriptures, and its faithful members throughout history. Questions of health and safety are never value-neutral, nor are they “secular” questions outside of the church’s realm of responsibility, experience, and expertise. The church’s historical and scriptural frameworks of health and safety, while not inherently incompatible with nor mutually exclusive of those of the state, are not identical to the state’s, nor subordinate to them, nor less comprehensive, nor less binding on the Christian, nor less attentive to physical well-being, nor less caring of those outside the community of faith.

To the contrary, they are eminently more so. The church is required to include in its understanding and practice factors not recognized or regarded by the state. Where the church’s models share factors with the state’s models, the church’s models often weigh those factors substantially differently. For example, Christian models of health and safety emphatically reject the inherent problematization of assembly, the prioritization of one’s own personal protection, and the practice of isolation as a preventive or therapeutic strategy.

When the church’s practice dissents from that required by the state, it does so humbly and transparently, seeking concord where possible, and accepting punishment where concord is not possible.

The church’s historical practices of health and safety are deeply principled and arise from millennia of reflection, sacrifice, and prayer. It is not these practices, but rather the uncritical abrogation of them in favor of submission to the state’s alternative practices, that the church must regard as reckless, irresponsible, and dangerous.

The church need not and cannot constrain its theological, communal, and financial responsibilities and resources to a state-defined, state-administered model of health and safety. This is especially true in the worst of times, because it is in such times that our understandings and practices of health and safety are needed the most.

The church has been on the front line of the battle against plagues for thousands of years. It is a battle-hardened, experienced, wise, compassionate, collaborative, humble leader when it remembers what it already knows. If the greatest care that a church can think to show its neighbors during times like these is not to meet, then we have already succumbed to something far worse than the Coronavirus.

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