Every winter as Lunar New Year (LNY) draws near, Andrea Lee assists her Southern Californian Chinese church, New Life Christian Center, in preparing red envelopes, a traditional Chinese way to give gifts during the holiday.
But these aren’t just any hong bao (红包, “red envelopes”). While they do contain crisp one-dollar bills, they also include bookmarks inscribed with Bible verses designed and printed by the church. Throughout the LNY season, members of the congregation pass these out to newcomers and those attending church-hosted celebrations, which often include a communal meal and a sermon from the pastor.
“This is a way of honoring the Chinese tradition, spreading the feeling of warmth and goodwill to diaspora Chinese,” said Lee, a content manager with ChinaSource. “The elderly in the church are particularly delighted, and the children love it too. The joyful faces of the old, middle aged, and young, all ages, coupled with the pastor’s gospel message and encouragement, fosters a sense of home and belonging.”
In Chinese culture, the color red signifies celebration, and red envelopes symbolize happiness and prosperity. Thus, during the Spring Festival, Chinese individuals often jokingly say to each other, “Gong xi fa cai, hong bao na lai” (恭喜发财，红包拿来), which means, “Congratulations on the good fortune, but give me the red packet first.” Today, a digital version of this playful practice has also moved to the realm of the Chinese social media app WeChat, where people can virtually “snatch” red envelopes.
Generally, red envelope gifting goes only in one direction: from elders to the (unmarried) younger generation, from adults to children, and from the employed to students. The actual sum placed in the red envelope varies. For those who are not particularly close, a nominal amount suffices as a token gesture. Only among relatives or at special occasions, such as company parties where bonuses might be paid to employees, is a substantial cash amount included.
Christians have increasingly appropriated hong bao for gospel ends. In Singapore, a Christian art gift company partnered with local churches to design a series of gospel red envelopes (called “ang paos” in Singapore) showcasing the 37 miracles performed by Jesus. Another business, The Commandment Co., employed “God’s creation” as the theme for their red envelope series, portraying God’s abundant blessings through colorful designs.
To learn more about how Chinese Christians on the mainland and among the diaspora use red envelopes for their ministries, CT spoke with seven pastors and church and ministry leaders across five cities.
All the leaders of overseas Chinese churches and organizations interviewed by CT affirmed that distributing gospel red envelopes during the Spring Festival is a common practice in their congregations and felt positively toward it.
Agnese Tan, editor-in-chief, Behold magazine, Los Angeles:
Red envelopes are a helpful tool for evangelism, creating a sense of welcome and goodwill. We like to include a 25-cent coin, a one-dollar bill, or a chocolate gold coin inside, which symbolizes blessing and conveys a sense of friendliness.
[As Christians], we know some will come to eat a meal and “take advantage of the church.” But we do this because we are genuinely happy to serve others voluntarily. We do so without expecting gratitude or anything in return and resist complaining that our guests are there just to eat.
James Hwang, former director of the Far East Broadcasting Company’s Chinese division, Los Angeles:
Although my church’s red envelope contains only the symbolic gesture of a dollar, the recipient is still pleased to receive it. Its presence allows the pastor to elaborate on the symbolism of the “renewal of all things” (Rev. 21:5), making a specific Chinese pun (in Chinese, 一元, “one dollar,” can mean “beginning of all things”). Coupled with the eight fu (“blessings”), that is, the Beatitudes, printed in Chinese on the red envelopes, in this context, it embodies the essence of a gospel tract.
Nan Qiu, editor of the Australian edition of The Herald Monthly in Brisbane, Australia:
As Christians, if we remain vigilant and not succumb to the love of money associated with the secular tradition of giving red envelopes, then the distribution of gospel red envelopes can serve as a way to join in the fun, making the Good News more down-to-earth. It’s a practice that can conform to traditional customs as well as serve the purpose of glorifying God and benefiting others.
Karen Wong, Christian writer, Hong Kong:
Note: In Hong Kong, the money contained within the red envelope is referred to as "lai see ” (利是).
At my church, we print lai see envelopes with Bible verses and place a small amount of money inside. Apart from the outer envelope, it is indistinguishable from the ordinary red envelopes distributed among friends and relatives.
I have also heard of non-believer friends who received red envelopes from churches, but when they saw Bible verses inside in addition to the money, they felt uncomfortable because they felt they were being proselytized.
Another disadvantage of the gospel lai see envelope is that recipients may not read the verses or Christian messages—most people discard the paper card or the envelope printed with such words quickly.
Chen Daode, Southern Baptist pastor, Los Angeles:
Red envelopes and the Spring Festival are cultural symbols of the Chinese. Christians express their love for their neighbors with specific items (such as red envelopes) at a specific time (during the Spring Festival), providing an opportunity to build relationships, just like sending out Christmas cards at Christmas.
We shouldn’t expect too much from the evangelistic efforts of the red envelope distribution process. The main purpose of distributing gospel red envelopes is to build relationships and convey goodwill. Therefore, we approach the results of distributing gospel red envelopes with realistic and relaxed expectations.
Pastors and church leaders of Chinese mainland house churches told CT that their churches did not distribute gospel red envelopes during the Spring Festival, and they had not heard of other Chinese house churches doing so. Some of them said they were “not opposed” to this practice, while others said they “would not support” it.
These pastors believe that the difference in attitude toward distributing gospel red envelopes between overseas Chinese Christians and mainland Chinese Christians in house churches is primarily due to cultural differences caused by different environments.
Note: CT interviewed a few pastors and leaders in China and two of them are quoted below.
Han Jianshe (pseudonym for security reasons), pastor of a house church, Shanghai:
Our ministries are the application of our theology in specific situations. I feel that overseas Chinese churches may be influenced by the gospel movement and attach more importance to evangelism. The culture of giving red envelopes can help achieve the goal of “information reaching” and of fulfilling “evangelism KPIs”—the rejection rate is very low, so I can see why this kind of ministry model would be adopted.
However, for domestic churches in China, the general culture of giving red envelopes has declined. In today’s urban culture, accepting red envelopes from strangers usually results in suspicion rather than [being perceived as] a friendly ice-breaker gesture.
From my personal pastoral perspective, we have so many ways to preach the gospel to people, whether from the Sunday pulpit or through daily conversations, charity and mercy ministries, or workplace testimony.
Therefore, carrying out gospel outreach by means of a declining cultural phenomenon is not a good practice. Moreover, the custom of giving red envelopes has a folk religious background, so we are more cautious with this practice (Chinese Christians with a fundamentalist tendency usually oppose “lucky money” because the idea originated from bribing ghosts and gods).
Sean Long, pastor of an urban house church in China currently studying for a doctorate in theology in the United States:
We must be mindful in our approach to the relationship between the gospel, faith, and culture, rather than merely amalgamating them all together.
One potential pitfall of disseminating gospel red envelopes is the risk of materializing the blessings God bestows upon people. Even from the standpoint of Chinese culture, the true beauty of the Lunar New Year celebration lies primarily in the reunion of family and the expression of affection, not in winning money from mahjong or receiving red envelopes. Moreover, from the perspective of Christian faith values, material blessings do not equate to the blessings of the gospel. The greatest blessing God provides us is found in Jesus Christ.
In light of these potential drawbacks of churches distributing red envelopes, I would like to suggest a constructive and innovative idea for utilizing red envelopes in care ministry.
When the church disseminates gospel red envelopes to more effectively embody the gospel spirit of “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” we could use actual money-filled red packets to support and assist those in need, such as refugees and the impoverished and vulnerable.
However, the church would not directly insert money into the red envelopes. Instead, the church would provide the outer casing and include a gospel leaflet or blessing card with Scriptures inside and then distribute these money-less red envelopes to brothers and sisters, who, if moved by the Holy Spirit, would contribute a certain amount of money, and then distribute it to those in need, expressing Christian love.