Africa's cell phone church: ringing in the changes

By Ecumenical News International
23 Feb 2010

Once they were for banking. Now churches use them. A mobile phone suspended on a belt round the waist, or from the neck, is a common sight among members of church congregations in Africa. Church leaders are heaping praise on mobile phones, also called cell phones, because they say they help congregations grow - writes Fredrick Nzwili.

Mobile phone use increased rapidly in Africa about 10 years ago. At that time, however, some Christians on the continent criticised the phones for being "marks of materialism". Now, that has changed.

"It is as if cell phones have come to revolutionise everything, even Christianity," says Anglican Bishop Charles Gaita of Nyahururu in central Kenya. "They are making things happen quickly."

Gaita says mobile phones make it easier and cheaper for the church to spread word about its activities, such as Bible studies and meetings. The phones also make it quicker to get information, and help improve lives.

The bishop says Kenya's mobile phone boom is inspiring creativity among Christians. They are sharing Bible verses through text messaging services (SMS). Young people are using the phones to discuss religious matters on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and downloading Gospel tunes to use as ring tones.

Connecting the phones to microphones to record sermons that can then be sent to congregations in remote areas may sound strange but the churches are doing it, according to Archbishop Mweresa Kivuli, chairperson of the Kenyan Chapter of the Organization of African Instituted Churches.

"If there is a preacher the congregations consider important elsewhere, we connect them to the pastor through this means," Kivuli told Ecumenical News International. "We have at times linked our churches to overseas preachers."

Africa's mobile phone subscribers total nearly 300 million, according to latest International Telecommunication Union statistics. The figure is projected to double by 2020.

South Africa, where about 80 per cent of the estimated nation's 50 million population are Christians, leads the continent's mobile phone subscription level. Nigeria is second, with Kenya third.

"The Church sees the mobile phone as a blessing and a gift from God," says the Rev Martin Wanyoike, national secretary of the Social Communications Commission of the Roman Catholic Church's Kenya Episcopal Conference. "We must use it for the service of the world."

Recently, mobile phone companies introduced money transfer services, which some Christians now use to tithe or give offerings. The churches only need to inform the congregation of the required cell-phone number for this service.

"We get money through the mobile phones once we give out the account details. We have realised there are many Kenyans who do not earn a monthly salary. So, to facilitate their offering, we use the money transfer service," says the Rev Wellington Mutiso, an evangelical church pastor and general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya.

Mutiso says the phones have proved useful as a follow-up tool for converts to Christianity.

"If we do not see them in church [after their conversion] , we call them or send an SMS. The response is immediate," he says. "I can assure you they [the phones] are helping the Church to grow."

At the same time, money transfer services are providing an extra way for churches to raise relief funds. In January, for example, following the earthquake in Haiti, the Catholic Church in Kenya appealed for donations for Haiti to be sent through one of the phone money transfer services.

"The response has been good. We managed to collect 500,000 [Kenya] shillings (US$ 6500) in a short time. The money was sent to us through the mobile phones. This is a beautiful service," says Wanyoike.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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