Evangelistic Success in China Amid the Pandemic

Evangelistic Success in China Amid the Pandemic April 9, 2020

Hi and welcome back, everyone! The COVID-19 Chronicles continue. Lately, I’ve noticed a distinct narrative developing in fundagelicalism. It involves claims of wild evangelism success amid the pandemic. So far, nobody’s ponied up numbers supporting these claims (only contradicting them), but this sure wouldn’t be the first time Christians have made claims without evidence. This time around, though, the claims come from quite a venerable source. Today, let me show you someone from Billy Graham’s evangelism business making claims of a revival in China — and why I don’t trust this story.

a misty early morning fishing trip
(郑 无忌.) NOT fishers of men, apparently. Just fish.

(Some previous lying-for-Jesus posts: How Lying for Jesus Became So Common; Audacious Lies for Jesus; Library Edition; A Shocking Twist in an Old Story; Testimony Throwdown; LOL – “The Gospel Does Not Need Trickery”. Also see: Christianity’s Mad Men.)

Billy Graham’s Folks: MUH CHINESE REVIVAL!

For many years, fundagelicals have leaned on MUH OVERSEAS REVIVAL to shore up their spirits and their numbers. They’ve pushed that idea since before I became Pentecostal in the late 1980s. People usually set these tall tales in Africa and China, sometimes SE Asia.

Regularly when I was Christian, some missionary we supported would visit our church. At such times, we’d be in for a treat. The missionary showed slides of life in that country and told false stories of huge miracles and his totally great success in evangelism. Things would get rowdy. Then, he’d go home with an overflowing sack of “love offerings.”

This time around, the claimed revival takes place in China and the missionaries are just online keyboard warriors.

But the stories sound just as false as they did back in my day.

The Appeal of Setting.

China must make a great Neverwhere setting for fundagelical folklore. I mean, they’ve loved Chinese-revival stories for decades. And I can see why.

China’s very far away and the people there speak and write in a language very far from English. Their internet presence doesn’t seem to collide with Americans’ much. I bet if we asked 1000 random fundagelicals who the leader of China is right now, 999 of them would have no idea it’s Xi Jinping. (The one success would be a veteran fearmonger like Al Mohler. Or Billy Graham if he still lived.)

Thus, monoglot fundagelicals won’t likely hear any contradictions to their Dear Leaders’ fish stories. Plus, these stories boast that titillating association with fighting Communism, which was the big moral panic for fundagelicals before the Satanic Panic.

Billy Graham is, of course, dead now. In life, however, he helped engineer that first moral panic and seemed to enjoy telling fish stories. So it’s unsurprising to see that his ministry website ran a post in mid-March called “Chinese People Worldwide Seek God in the Midst of Coronavirus Outbreak.”

Do they, though?

Doubtful.

I just love seeing Christians contort to deceive others without explicitly telling a lie-of-commission. Here’s a prime example of this trope from Graham’s site’s blog post:

 Through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s internet evangelism ministry, Search for Jesus, more than 27,000 people across six languages have visited a Gospel-centered page on the coronavirus. Many are searching for God, with more than 600 of them indicating that they want Jesus Christ to be part of their lives.

The majority of those online visitors are Chinese speakers reading the page in Mandarin. (It’s also available in English, Spanish, Korean, Arabic and Portuguese.)

The writer fails to reveal what that “indication” means or what form it takes. We don’t even know if these numbers vary much from the site’s usual traffic. The writer implies it, but we don’t know.

If these numbers are accurate, his site boasts a 2% success rate. That seems very far-fetched given how difficult it is for Christians to win converts in Asia.

The Hilarity of the Pandemic Panic Page.

But y’all, their Mandarin page is an absolute hoot. I’m not going to say my translator thingie is 100% correct, but it renders the title of the page as “Wuhan pneumonia is terrible.” You don’t say!

It begins:

With the rapid spread of pneumonia in Wuhan, people’s panic and pressure are increasing day by day. You must have trouble sleeping and sleeping. When will all this reach the end?

Where oh where would fundagelical salespeople be without terror? NOwhere, that’s where! If they had to stop using fear to gain conversions today, they’d never make another convert. And they know it.

Then, having stoked that terror, the hucksters offer their product:

Belief and trust are often the antidote to our troubles and anxieties. But what else can we believe and who do we trust? Who can be so strong, wise, and kind that you can trust?

The answer is: God.

After some more hard-selling, there’s a button at the bottom of this Mandarin page that my translator translates as “I Really Want to Follow Jesus,” and that might be the source of that 600 number. They might really mean they want to “follow Jesus.” Or they could just be curious about what happens if they click that button.

We don’t know, and Billy Graham’s people clearly don’t wish to say.

Clicking the Button.

That button leads to a page that probably sounds really confusing to anybody not associated for a lifetime with Christian tropes. It requests personal contact info as well, including the respondent’s home address.

I wonder how many people complete the form? Are Graham’s people counting just how many people click that button to get those 600 “indications?” Or do they count how many submit the form? Or even how many actually respond to follow-up contact? What does success even look like for them?

See, I ask this because of how their American ministry works: their leader contracts with a number of local churches, who pay him a great deal of money to be included in this grift. He shows up, works the crowds, and asks his audience to fill out “decision cards” with their contact information. Then, his people collect the cards and distribute each one to the nearest church to that person’s home.

sample decision card
Here’s a sample decision card from a Christian printing company. Note the checkboxes. The ‘service’ bit is just asking which service the visitor attended. (Source.)

Churches pay Billy Graham’s ministry to be given those precious decision cards. They function exactly like the prospect leads from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Remember, these hucksters’ actual product for sale is active membership in their denomination/church. Anyone who gets swept away by euphoria during the event can’t be counted upon to filter into the correct church afterward on their own! So churches need those cards.

Interestingly, the blog post doesn’t say what happens to those “indications” after they’re submitted. The Chinese pages only say the submitter will receive “a series of messages,” presumably through WeChat as one visitor quote mentions it. But then why would they need the recipient’s home address?

Thus, I’ve got to wonder if local Chinese churches have similarly contracted with Graham’s people to have “baby Christians” directed their way. 

Oh, These Quotes.

Hilariously, the writer of the Billy Graham post (relinked here) includes five quotes from site visitors, right after declaring how “many” Chinese people are “searching for God.”

Those visitors might have written Chinese comments, but only two of them at most were actually located anywhere in Asia at the time. And not one of those quotes sounds like someone “indicating that they want Jesus Christ to be part of their lives.”

So why didn’t the blog post offer any quotes from people who’d just made that “indication”?

The quotes sound, for the most part, like thank-you notes to Graham’s people for the page’s “message.” Nobody in the quotes sounds like a non-Christian or the wrong kind of Christian, nor like a brand-new Christian who just “indicated” a conversion. All five are very obviously long-term Christians already. That makes absolute sense to me, because who else would spend time on a fundagelical fearmongering site?

The last quote, from an apparently-Chinese woman “from Australia,” asks a poignant question:

We are still suffering the fire and cannot believe what is going on now with the virus. Is God coming? Where is He?

Yeah, great work there, “Search for Jesus” internet evangelism ministry!

You’re reeling ’em right in!

Hooray Team Jesus!

Much Ground-Breaking Evangelism. Very Jesus.

Alexa doesn’t even have a ranking for the Mandarin page. Their English site, peacewithgod.net, has seen an uptick in visitors, but it’s an English site.

And speaking of which:

That English site contains a pandemic page too. It seems utterly inaccessible from its main homepage. The same situation occurs with the Mandarin site’s main page. You can’t get to their pandemic-panic pages from their main pages.

Both English pages feature a four-step evangelism barrage that uses a visitor’s terror of the unknown to make a sale. The Mandarin pages both skip the barrage, probably because Chinese people probably aren’t familiar at all with the ideas involved in it. Americans have seen something like this four-step barrage for most of their lives. Instead, both Mandarin pages offer Bible verses and a short evangelistic appeal based on fear. They end thusly:

Please tell us that you want to trust Jesus Christ. We are very willing to take this path of faith with you!

Seriously. Not a single Sinner’s Prayer to be seen!

The Weakness of “Indications.”

Lately, I’ve gotten very interested in how evangelists measure success. Recently, I showed you how one fundagelical evangelism group measures it — or rather, doesn’t. They utilize a very common approach to measuring success: they redefine it until everything looks like success.

Billy Graham’s people appear to play similar reindeer games to exaggerate their own success. In their post, they crow about “indications,” not baptisms and not metrics involving the length of time someone remains in the tribe. All someone must do to be one of Graham’s success stories is (apparently) click a button. For all I know, the two buttons clicked on the Mandarin sites counted as an OMG TWO MORE CHINESE CONVERTS!

But once someone “indicates,” these success stories vanish. What happens to them when local churches start communicating with them? How does button-clicking relate to a full product sale?

We don’t know, and I think Graham’s people ain’t sayin’ because the answers would destroy the narrative they’re building around evangelistic success amid the pandemic.

The Wild Success of the Winning Team.

Fundagelicals haven’t been very successful in Asia generally. According to La Wiki, which sources all of this stuff, surveys consistently reveal that Christians constitute 2-4% of China’s population — even counting unregistered churches. I don’t think that’s changed much in recent decades, either. Even where they’ve had success in the past, like in converting the Guangxi Zhuang, today Christians comprise 0.26% of the population there (119k out of 46M).

Christians themselves may trust every claim their salespeople make, but out here in Reality-Land, we know better than to take such marketing claims as true without supporting evidence. And in an age of Christian decline and growing desperation, it seems like such evidence is in even shorter supply than ever. So they just massage the numbers and word-definitions till it all works if you tilt your head just so and squint.

If this is how one of the world’s biggest evangelism dog-and-pony shows defines success, that’s downright pathetic — and sleazy besides. And yet it’s exactly what I expect in their age of decline. If they can’t boast of success in America, then they’ll boast of it wherever they think they can.

Really, the further away the success occurs, the better. Then, their flocks can’t find the truth for themselves. I bet not a one of them will even spot all the weirdness going on in this current evangelism boast. They won’t even want to. These tall tales and fish stories are all they’ve got.

In their dreams, they are free indeed.

NEXT UP: A sad reminder of myself pops up on a forum full of fanatics. Then, we check out the eerie beauty of liminal spaces. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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