On a hot night in August, Yong Shao, a small group leader of a house church in a major city in northern China, was about to start the weekly Zoom Bible study when he started receiving a barrage of messages from his small group members with an unexpected problem: Zoom wasn’t working for them.
An IT professional, Yong went into troubleshooting mode. He suggested they update the Zoom app and switch to using cellphone data instead of Wi-Fi. In the past, these tricks worked when Zoom was down—but this time, nothing. As a backup, they decided to switch to an audio-only group call on WeChat, which Yong’s church typically avoided due to government surveillance and censorship on the app. (CT has changed all names of people in China in this article due to security concerns).
Thankfully, the group didn’t face any interruption or abrupt termination even as they mentioned sensitive religious words like Christ and eternal life. Yet the app limited the number of participants to 15 people, so some were unable to join, and the group’s worship leader was unable to share the audio of the worship songs they planned to sing.
Since that night, Yong and the small group have continued to face problems with Zoom and have no choice but to continue to use WeChat.
Other Christian ministries in China have faced similar issues using Zoom in the past three months, according to interviews CT conducted with nine Chinese church leaders and ministry workers. While the company has not made any official announcement of being kicked out of China (Zoom’s service status website states it is operational in China), users on Reddit and Zoom’s website have also complained about the outage as well. Zoom did not respond to CT’s request to comment.
With a number of tech companies banned in China—including Meta, X (formerly Twitter), and Google—Zoom had become a lifeline for house churches turning to online gatherings during the pandemic and beyond. Not only is the app user-friendly, it is considered relatively safe for unregistered churches who want to keep their communications free from government monitoring (although the company agreed to suppress sensitive speech in order to remain in China). While WeChat has been known to cut off conversations or delete messages with sensitive terms, Christians haven’t faced these problems with Zoom.
The full scope of the issue is still unknown. Some have said they found that Zoom accounts set up outside of China within the last year now no longer work in China. Some found that free accounts were unable to join Zoom meetings. Others wonder if the technical difficulties could be the result of the app complying with regional regulations.
Still, amid an ever-changing climate for Christians, house churches have learned to be flexible in adjusting to new modes of worship. If Zoom no longer works, they’ll find other ways to gather and worship God, whether that’s using a different video conferencing platform, downloading virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall,” or only meeting in person.
Zoom’s Challenges in China
Zoom, an American company with a sizable development team in China, is not without concern for Chinese Christians. After Chinese authorities blocked Zoom in 2019 claiming the company wasn’t doing enough to suppress anti-government speech, CEO Eric Yuan visited China and agreed to monitor conversations on topics the Chinese Communist Party found sensitive, according to court documents uncovered by CyberScoop. After that, Zoom’s service resumed in China.
Evidence of that monitoring came in 2020, when the company shut down Zoom vigils on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre—one of the most sensitive historical events in China—and suspended the accounts of overseas dissidents at the request of Chinese authorities.
Zoom’s annual report filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission expressed the risk of working in China: “The Chinese government has at times turned off our service in China without warning and requested that we take certain steps prior to restoring our service, such as designating an in-house contact for law enforcement requests and transferring China-based user data housed in the United States to a data center in China.”
Since August 2020, users in China have been unable to buy products directly from Zoom. Instead they need to purchase services through local third-party partners. Some Christians concerned about government surveillance responded by purchasing Zoom licenses in the US to use in China.
Still, Zoom has become an important tool for churches. Jeremy Liu, a minister in a small city in northern China, said that besides Bible study, his church uses Zoom for livestreaming Sunday worship, online devotionals, and discipleship training on topics like marriage, parenting, and mental health. When the COVID-19 lockdown began, his congregation divided into smaller groups and started using Zoom for all of its meetings. One benefit of the online meetings was that it widened the reach of Liu’s church: “It allowed some of the Christians who live in the countryside surrounding the city and some who are elderly or sick to participate.”
Yet last month, Liu’s church was also unable to log into Zoom. Liu, who also has some background in IT, was eventually able to get Zoom to work but only after spending a large sum of the church’s modest budget to purchase a specific software. (Liu did not share the specifics for fear that it might “give the Chinese government ideas and help their censorship.”)
Solomon Li, an overseas ministry leader to urban house churches, has heard widespread complaints about Zoom in the past few months. “I think it’s part of the Great Firewall in China, and also China is forcing Zoom to comply with some local laws,” he said. “Zoom is becoming more and more difficult for local churches and organizations to use, no doubt about it.”
That’s been the experience of Sarah Cheng, who works at a seminary in eastern China. She said that since August, 18 of the 20 Zoom licenses her team had purchased for the seminary and the house church associated with it had been inactivated. (By October, the remaining two also stopped working.)
Cheng said they had spent $2,000 buying the one-year licenses in the US in May. When she called Zoom, the company said their activity had violated local laws and the American version of Zoom was not allowed in China. Zoom also refused to refund the nine remaining months left on the license.
Recently, Cheng noted that Chinese users of the free version of Zoom have received error messages when they try to join Zoom meetings set up by foreign accounts. She believes that the Chinese government is trying to force locals to use third-party partners, which comes with greater risks. “The tradeoff is everything you record, who joins the meeting, that data will be stored in China,” Cheng said. “To us, that’s very dangerous.”
Only Zoom’s business accounts (which require users to buy at least 10 licenses) work in China. Now, the seminary largely uses Webex, a conference platform that is not as user-friendly as Zoom, especially for recording or setting up meetings.
Not all house churches use Zoom or other online conferencing apps. Some even intentionally avoid meeting online. Pastor Shi Ming in Shanghai said his church used Zoom during the COVID-19 lockdown, but they have stopped since February when they resumed in-person meetings. Their reasoning was more practical than security-driven: “As long as Zoom is permitted, people would find excuses not to come to the in-person church meetings,” Shi said.
To prepare for future tech bans, Yong, the small group leader, also believes churches need to rely less on technology. Instead, pastors and church leaders should “carry out offline pastoral care as much as possible, even if the number of people who can gather together is small,” Yong said. “Pastors should put more time and energy into visiting church members in person as much as possible to take care of every believer.”
Aaron Zhao, the pastor of a house church in a big city in central China, agrees and noted that his church does not livestream their Sunday worship on Zoom. However, his congregation still uses the video conferencing app for online prayer meetings. When they do, “more and more people have told us that it has become impossible to join the online meeting. Sometimes they cannot enter the Zoom meeting, sometimes there is no sound or video.” Because they do not use Zoom often, this has made only a small impact on their church life.
“If one day Zoom is eventually banned completely, we will switch to other online conference tools,” Zhao said. Yet he noted that they would not use Chinese apps like Tencent’s VooV or Alibaba’s DingTalk, as those are known to be tightly monitored by the government. Instead, they would need to use foreign apps that may need a VPN to access.
Debate over VPNs
House churches have different stances on whether or not they encourage their congregants to use VPNs, which are illegal in China. In some rare cases, the government has fined and arrested VPN users.
On one hand, churches like Zhao’s encourage the use of VPNs. He said it helped the church “communicate without barriers and avoid censorship.” In addition, it allows “believers to have more sources of information and listen to both sides of the news story so that they will not be brainwashed by the Communist Party–controlled domestic media.”
On the other hand, Liu’s church does not encourage its members to use VPNs, even if he uses one personally. That’s because most of his church members are “older and less educated people for whom the technique is too difficult … and VPN tools that normally can only be purchased from the black market have their own safety risks,” including malware, he said.
Sayah Tu, a church leader on the east coast of China, has similar reservations about using VPNs. But he believes that it may become inevitable for house churches and fellowships to use VPNs to access needed Christian resources.
In the past few years, the government has blocked online Christian websites and WeChat accounts while shutting down independent Christian publishers.
“I hope that Christians in China … would not always be limited by the Great Firewall for knowledge and education, but will learn more about the outside world and continue to have a forward-looking vision,” Tu said. He believes that being aware of the true situation in China through foreign sources helps Christians prepare for future challenges their ministry faces.
Yet as the government severs Chinese people’s access to the outside world, the church needs to focus not only on day-to-day operations but also on how China’s current situation presents “an opportunity for better discipleship of the congregation.”
“There may be a day when no tool can climb over the Great Firewall and the Chinese network will become a closed intranet,” Tu said. “When that happens, it seems to me that the help that Christians outside the Great Firewall can provide is limited. So, it is more important that Christians in China can experience spiritual renewal under the current circumstances of persecution.”