Digital Christianity! Smart phones, Smart Pews, The Changing Phase of Worship

Live streaming, apps, mobile money transfer, hashtag prayer points, among other technology-related terms, are gradually taking over Christianity as much of the Nigerian population knows it. Rita Okonoboh, in this report, examines the concerns of just how effective technology has been in ensuring productive evangelism, which is the bedrock of the Christian faith.

It was a Lagos branch of one of Nigeria’s most popular churches. Well into the service, just after the sermon, the pastor announced:

“Dear brothers and sisters, it is time for payment of tithes, offerings and other contributions to the church. Kindly follow the instructions as usual as displayed on the projected screen. May God bless you as you respond to His call. Amen.”

Seconds later, account details of the church, followed by instructions on how to make payment, floated into view. There were various categories of payments. One was strictly for tithes; another was for offering; one was for church maintenance; another was for special projects. Within the next few minutes, worshippers were busy on their smartphones, making fund transfers, while some simply took the opportunity to catch up on other ‘pressing’ social issues.

In another church located at Victoria Island, Lagos State, inside the church compound, a few steps outside the church building, there was a parade of Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), with labels of different banks proudly displayed on each machine.

On enquiry, it was discovered that each machine was to ease access of donations to further the gospel of Christ, such that issues of network problems, which is the bane of seamless financial transactions, would be almost non-existent.

Once upon not-too-long ago, before smartphones became the in-thing for Christians and non-Christians alike, it wasn’t uncommon to find the notice, KINDLY SWITCH OFF YOUR HANDSET BEFORE ENTERING CHURCH PREMISES, adorn many sections of the church, and many times, in capital letters. However, with emerging trends, signs as such have found their way to inconspicuous confines.

With more churches embracing the ‘smarter’ funding options for churches, streaming services online, engaging in social media interactions as a means of furthering the gospel, the issue of biblical dictates, and the effectiveness of such uses, come to the fore.

It’s a deviation from the Bible —Bishop Omoniyi

An Anglican Church member in his thirties, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, shared his experience, noting that such online transfer of funds for church work was impersonal and would only serve to dissuade blessings from God.

According to him, while noting that the whole point of giving – in the form of offering and tithes – is wrapped up in the blessings one receives at the altar. “When a person just decides to make a transfer to the church’s account, even during church services, for me, it loses value. Where is the attendant blessing in that when you can’t dance to the altar with the blessings you have received from God.”

Bishop Titus Omoniyi of the Methodist Church Nigeria (MCN), speaking to TribuneChurch, said: “Christians are expected to offer their tithes and offerings at the altar. Most people who bring phones to the church, according to what we have found out, use it to distract themselves from the worship in the church. Some of them use these phones to keep up with their social media activities. The ideal is to bring offerings to God at the altar and blessings are said on such offering. Using phones for whatever transaction during church services is a deviation from what the Bible instructs us to do. It has really affected the act of worship.”

‘Reading from print Bible does not bless you more than reading from a smartphone’

However, Founding Pastor, The Fruitful Church, Pastor Tunde Idowu-Taylor, holds a divergent view, as he states that technology is very relevant in today’s ministry.

According to him, “The social media, and e-banking services, among other technology-related practices, have been beneficial to the ministry. It has bridged a lot of barriers as far as the church is concerned. Social media interaction among believers is very relevant as well, but where I think we need to be careful is when everybody is moderating such interaction, because, if it becomes volatile, it can become a big problem.

“Seeking God is a personal affair. Is it because we were given paper first? If the first technology that came was not paper, then I think we won’t have paper Bible. Whatever it is, it does not depend on where you are getting it from, it is still the word. It is the receiver that needs to check his/her posture. To think someone carrying a tab to preach is not as spiritual as someone with a paper Bible is not totally correct. Reading from the print Bible does not bless you more than reading from tab, except the person carrying tab is not concentrating and is being distracted by social media messages that pop up on his/her phone. Personally, I think technology has really made things easy as long as you stay connected with God and never allow our phones to become our God.”

Are youths abandoning orthodox churches for tech-savvy options?

“I was born into the Christ Apostolic Church (CAC). However, now that I’m in my youth, and being a student at that, I prefer to attend a church that my peers attend, which is a new generation church,” was the response Bayo Olutayo gave when asked why he attended a particular church, instead of the church he was born into.

He went further to explain that the CAC for him, wasn’t giving him the kind of opportunities he would prefer when it came to relating with his peers from school. Olutayo’s response resonated across a cross-section of young Christians who spoke to TribuneChurch on why they left their Orthodox backgrounds.

Some lamented what they described as “old-school worship style,” insisting that orthodox churches needed to find more ways to appeal to the new generation.

“I can’t imagine being asked to put off my phone in church, because I was reading the Bible from it. It was a little embarrassing and that was when I decided to leave the church for another. Besides the digital issue, some of these orthodox churches seem so backward in the kind of programmes they have for youths. There is not much opportunity for self expression, whether in church or on the social media accounts of the church. And let me shock you. When I compare my former church’s Facebook page to my present church’s page, the difference is very clear. More shocking is that my former church doesn’t even have a page on Instagram, not to talk of Twitter. How do you expect me to cope with that?”

As more orthodox churches find ways to engage youths within and outside the church, while trying to keep up with current digital practices, responding on ways orthodox churches can encourage self-expression for youths, Bishop Omoniyi, who said “the church service is a spiritual thing and nothing should take away our hearts from focusing on God,” noted that “the MCN is now more flexible in our mode of worship. Youths can worship God in their own way, so more youths are coming back to our church. The MCN is now trying to be more flexible and to bring in practices that will be more appealing to youths. For instance, we now have youth chapels, where the youths hold services and are supervised by adults.

Bishop James Popoola, Osun Anglican Diocese, said the church now had more programmes for youths, which included retreats, programmes run on television and radio, a recording studio, among others. Youths of the church now also hold their services in the youth chapel.

“They also participate in various seminars and workshops for spiritual and physical development. There are also various organisations for training youths: Girls’ Guild; Diocesan Ladies’ Christian Fellowship; Boys’ Brigade, which moulds the boys into disciplined adults; Anglican Boys’ Fellowship; Anglican Youth Fellowship. These are to mention a few programmes for the development of our youths,” he stated.

In reality, there are many advantages to using digital alternatives for Christian activities. Making church services available online will aid further study of the word outside the church environment, and will work for reference purposes. There is also the opportunity of attending services from anywhere in the world, whether one can get to church or not. Like Pastor Taylor advises, the key to ensuring productive evangelism is proper moderation. While in church, notifications for social media apps can be turned off, to ensure full concentration. Discipline also comes into play to dissuade distractions.

Tribune

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