FAN AND TWO OTHER CHRISTIANS in Beijing came up with the idea for WeDevote in 2010 as they saw the need for Bible apps in China. At the time, Chinese users who downloaded YouVersion—a popular Bible app created by an Oklahoma church—found the program crashing due to the Chinese government blocking the app’s server.
Other Bible apps based in the Chinese mainland were poorly designed. They also used content taken from other sources without permission and lacked quality control. “As a user, you didn’t know which material was theologically right or wrong,” Fan said.
At first Fan and his partners tried to outsource the creation of their app, but they were unsatisfied with the results. In 2012, as Fan quit his job at a tech startup to attend seminary, a friend asked him to consider serving God by leading a team to develop the Bible app. Fan agreed, delaying seminary for two years to work on WeDevote.
He wanted the app design to be aesthetically pleasing so that people would want to open it and read the Bible. His team partnered with various Bible publishers to include multiple translations of the Bible in Chinese and English, respecting copyright laws and paying royalties. To ensure the app could weather the unpredictable Chinese internet service, the designers made the features downloadable so the app could function offline.
The first Android version of WeDevote came out in June 2013, and the iPhone version came out that July. The same month, the Xiaomi app store listed WeDevote as one of its “Recommended Apps” on the store’s homepage. Suddenly Fan’s team was seeing more than 8,000 downloads a day.
That boost opened Fan’s eyes to another reality: Making an app could be a form of evangelism. “On the Chinese internet, there are so many people who are downloading apps, yet very few religion apps exist,” he said. “When we were on the homepage, it was an opportunity for many people to learn about the gospel.”
By the end of the year, WeDevote had become the top Bible app in China. The developers continued to expand the app, adding devotionals, Bible reading plans, and commentary to help Chinese Christians better understand the Bible and how it relates to everyday life. They asked pastors and theologians to assess the theological soundness of the app’s content. To fund the app, team members took on side projects and collected donations from Christian-owned businesses in China.
‘Under China’s tightening environment, outsiders thought there was no way we can create this app and survive. But we were able to do it.’ —Levi Fan
Trouble began in 2015. Beijing’s Public Security Bureau invited Fan in for a chat and asked him about the company and where its funding came from. A police officer politely told Fan that officials were monitoring everything about him: They knew about the articles his wife had written on a Christian WeChat account and about the new house they had purchased. Fan felt afraid, and at night he had nightmares about being thrown into prison.
“It was uncomfortable knowing that they knew everything, but because the Chinese house church has faced this persecution in the past, it wasn’t foreign to me,” Fan said. Every morning the WeDevote team members prayed and read a psalm together. Every Tuesday they held a two-hour prayer meeting. “It helped me grow closer to God. I realized that I couldn’t do this on my own and I needed to pray more.”
Authorities told Fan to shut down WeDevote or else they would charge the company with creating an illegal app because it didn’t have a registration number. Most Chinese apps aren’t registered, but Fan knew WeDevote was likely being pressured because of its Christian content. So his team decided to shut down the app and close the Beijing company.
But they were prepared for this situation: Several months earlier, they had set up another company in Hong Kong. They were able to transfer WeDevote ownership to the Hong Kong company and put the app back online.
WeDevote didn’t face any further problems until this July, when authorities cut off access to its website and scrubbed it from all domestic Android stores. While the app is still available on Apple’s App Store, most Chinese citizens use domestic, Android-based smartphones like Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi.
No one informed Fan why the app was removed from the app stores. He suspects the government took action because of WeDevote’s growing influence and popularity.