With the banning of all public gatherings, including church services, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, technology has come in handy for Kenyan pastors who are now using it to interact with church members in efforts to maintain the sense of community.
As many Christians slip into curated virtual life in search of spiritual nourishment, gospel ministers have little option but to venture into the social media space to connect with their flocks.
Apart from offering sermons, devotionals and prayer platforms, pastors are also using the virtual space to encourage their followers not to back-pedal on the biblical practice of giving their offerings and tithes, and caring for one another during this time of restricted social interactions.
One such minister is Peter Gaya of Redeemed Gospel Church Ruiru, who shares messages with his church members every Sunday morning and Thursday evening for about one hour via Facebook and YouTube Live streams. For those who don’t have smartphones or Internet access, or are not so familiar with technology, the church sends text messages about the day’s topic as well as scripture reading and study notes.
“The impact has been great,” says Rev Gaya. “Most of our members have responded saying the messages have been a great blessing to them. This has been followed by offerings and tithes sent through our M-Pesa paybill number; others actually come to church to bring their offerings.”
The church still has bills to sort out and workers to pay, meaning operations will be hurt if the giving goes down drastically. “But so far, the giving has been good albeit lower than what we get when we meet for normal services. We are monitoring the trend to see how it will play out in the weeks ahead,” says Gaya.
On April 5, he preached a sermon titled, Hope During Challenging Times, taken from Psalm 71:19-24. He encouraged his members not to live in despair because of the pandemic but to keep hoping and trusting in God. He says one member sent him a text message saying he had listened to the sermon five times and felt greatly edified.
Gaya says one major advantage of having a message on social media is that it can be saved for future use. But how has he been able to reach all the members? He says this was made possible through the church’s departmental heads.
“We encourage all our members to belong to the church’s three main departments: men, women and youths, and Home Bible Cell groups. The leaders of these departments and cell groups have all the contact details of the congregants under them and have incorporated them into the church’s WhatsApp group. We encourage regular phone calls and text messages to help us know how our members are doing and how we can assist where necessary,” he says.
Gaya says some of the needs are dealt with at a departmental level but those requiring pastoral attention are referred to his office.
“The good news is, the church office is not closed and members are free to come for counselling and prayers. However, we still observe social distancing and other precautionary measures,” he says.
Gaya is optimistic that things will return to normal soon.
Similar scenarios have been playing out in different churches across the country as pastors and other leaders put their faith in social media technology to serve the spiritual needs of their congregations. And while it is important for believers to meet together physically, pastors are constantly reminding their congregants that Church is not just the building where services and other meetings take place, but an organic body that extends beyond the walls and into the community.
Bishop Charles Mulema of Nairobi Gospel Centre International says the use of technology is not new to his congregation as they have been streaming their Sunday and mid-week services live through social networking platforms. “The only difference is that at this time, members must stay home because of Covid-19,” says the bishop.
While it is still hard to ascertain how this situation will play out or when churches will reopen, Mulema encourages believers to use the time they have to look more inward than outward.
“Instead of staying in the house sleeping or watching television from morning to evening, believers can spend quality time with God through His Word and through prayer. At the end, those who are focused on Christ will emerge stronger and more rejuvenated in their faith while those who are not may just fall by the wayside,” he says.
Mulema doesn’t foresee a rise in the number of “virtual” congregants once the social distancing rules are relaxed.
“Nothing can substitute normal fellowship where believers in Christ come together to pray, sing, hear the Word of God and interact. Only those who are shallow in the faith can be content with staying in their houses after the pandemic has passed and churches are once again allowed to operate as normal,” he says.
Gaya echoes these sentiments, saying many of his members have expressed a longing for the return of normal church services. He adds that this signifies a hunger and thirst for fellowship.
“You see, right now we cannot conduct weddings or major church activities that are the hallmark of Christianity. Corona (virus) has put us through a real test of faith, but one that will make us not break us,” he says.
As useful as these social media platforms have proved for pastors and their flocks, there is a possible risk – that of having their messages given a total blackout if tech companies view them as offensive. One test would be if the ministers were to start preaching against homosexuality and abortion.
In December 2018, Franklin Graham – son of the late world-famous evangelist Billy Graham – revealed that he was suspended from Facebook for taking a stand for his beliefs. The temporary ban lasted 24 hours and while the censorship itself was shocking enough, it was also surprising that the ban was retroactive, resulting from a comment he had made two years earlier.
“Well, now we know that Facebook has a secret rulebook for policing speech. I was banned from posting on Facebook for 24 hours. Why? Because of a post in 2016 about North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (popularly known as the Bathroom Bill),” Graham explained in reply at the time.
The bill amended state law to pre-empt any anti-discrimination ordinances passed by local communities and, controversially, compelled schools and public facilities containing single-gender washrooms to only allow people of the corresponding sex as listed on their birth certificate to use them.
According to Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Graham’s suspension raised serious questions as critics asked: “If Facebook is willing to block one of the most prominent Christian leaders in the world, then what’s next?”
The stunning announcement also reinforced on-going reports of censorship against Christian beliefs by other social media giants and the tech companies that control so much of the communication and interaction in our world today – Google, Twitter and Apple.
A Facebook spokesperson told The Charlotte Observer that Graham was indeed punished for his post. And while Facebook later apologised for censoring Graham, it had already passed a message that some of its team of 15,000 speech police can censor conservative Christians at will.
And that is a major reason for Kenyan preachers to be concerned.