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Virtual church is a new ministry paradigm

by PRIDE Newsdesk

The Rev. Taurai Emmanuel Maforo.
(Photo by Mutsa Roy Maforo)

Lockdowns brought on by COVID-19 have fast-tracked The United Methodist Church in the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area and beyond onto the information superhighway. This shift from physical gatherings to a ‘church without walls’ was deemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

In 2014, I struggled to convince my supervisor to approve my dissertation topic on the possibilities of online church. While the church in Zimbabwe was making baby steps to embrace technology, the academic, business and entertainment worlds were already there and I told myself that the church must find itself within the digital space.

In partial fulfillment of my studies at United Theological College, my research topic was ‘Re-think Church! An Analysis of the Impact of Social Media and Virtual Communities on the Physical Church.’ It seemed impossible then, but the church of God now thrives on Internet-based platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube.

The decision for visioning a virtual church in my research project was inspired by three factors:

  1. United Methodist Communications’ ‘Rethink Church’ campaign;
  2. My participation in UMCom’s Central Conference Initiative communicators training at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, in 2009; an
  3. Bishop Eben Kanukayi Nhiwatiwa’s positive energy in embracing new technologies for ministry in Zimbabwe.

The ‘Rethink Church’ tag line asked important questions such as: “What if church becomes something we do rather than a place we go?” A fire was lit within me, and I believed God for the opportunities for a virtual church as more real and practical than just an abstract idea. Indeed, the church has become more than a place we go but something we do since doors closed in March 2020.

The language of ‘doing church together’ now has a better impression on us because we are doing it in the United Methodist connection and beyond. Contrary to the 2014 perceptions that saw the Internet-based platform as tools for social interactions and not intended for meaningful religious experience, the online church is a total ‘Re-Think.’ Doing church online in the advent of COVID-19 has opened the gates for realizing the Biblical mandate to “Go into all the world,” creating what I now call the ‘Generation 28:19’—a generation that is not limited to geographical boundaries.

At Ginghamsburg Church, the two sides of me found their convergence — my vocation in pastoral ministry and my passion for communications. I had read paragraph 1806 of the Book of Discipline, which states: “Communication is a strategic function necessary for the success of the mission of The United Methodist Church.” I, however, struggled to understand how communication becomes a strategic function to my ministry.

Watching Rev. Michael Slaughter, the lead pastor of Ginghamsburg, at work in ministry with his technology team helped me connect the dots. Of course, Harare and Ohio are thousands of miles apart, but I was motivated to carry this inspiration back home. That experience still inspires my ministry to this day and the Internet has accompanied my ministry since 2009.

At the official launch of the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area website in 2013, Bishop Nhiwatiwa said: “Living life on the web has become a reality, and the church cannot continue to exist outside the bounds of this blessing.”

I took a cue from these words and I saw an online ministry as a ‘must’ and not a ‘may.’ At this moment we never dreamt of how the church could survive outside the four walls of our worship sanctuaries. United Methodists in the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area have been brought together by the click of a button. Funeral services, church services, music festivals, revivals and conference meetings are all happening online.

The discoveries in my research painted a gloomy picture of the possibilities of an online church. The commonly held myths were that the Internet is filthy and filled with sin—too secular, only for young people, keeps people away from the church, and that technology is cold and impersonal. But the recent wave of live-streaming church activities in Zimbabwe tells a different story.

On February 10, 2016, I started a daily devotional called #365SunriseDevotions, which has a daily circulation of more than 2,000 contacts on WhatsApp and reaches 2,000-4,000 on Facebook. This ministry on the digital space was only intended to last the 40 days of the Lenten season, but with the demand for the daily dose of God’s word, I have kept them running to this day.

Since July of 2020, the #365SunriseDevotions have been accompanied by an audio-sharing platform: the Prayer Closet Midnight Encounters, which runs Monday to Friday from 11 pm to midnight. The program appears on 68 WhatsApp groups and has 855 members on the Telegram platform. WhatsApp groups have a maximum of 257 members, which brings the total number of followers of the prayer platform to over 17,000 members.

The pandemic lockdowns pushed me further to find ways of keeping the church alive. For me, a time of crisis became a time of opportunity for a greater ministry.

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