COVID-19: Nigerian churches turn to “digital natives” to preach in face of lockdown

 ON a Sunday morning, the pews at Kingdom Hall of Jehovah Witnesses, Olunlade, Ilorin, Kwara State are empty and also the car park. The sounds of hymns from the congregants could not be heard or the noise from the feet of children running around in Sunday school.

For a church whose core mission revolves around preaching from house to house, the onslaught of COVID-19, a disease caused by the coronavirus has disrupted their mode of worship.

With the government’s ban on movement to halt the spread of the virus, that part of their religious obligations is no longer possible at least until the threat of COVID-19 is a distant reality.

Live services at the congregation have been replaced with virtual services on Zoom, an online video streaming service and the usual hugs and handshakes amongst members after a service, a part of their social construct has been substituted with brief nods on screen.

Ibiniyi Timothy, a member of the congregation says their mode of worship has taken a new meaning as the outbreak of the disease has introduced several changes into their services.

“We have switched to meetings online through Zoom but you can’t compare that interaction with face to face meetings which restricts the way we interact with each other in the past. Though the world headquarters have paid for a full subscription at Zoom which accommodates 300 people for each meeting. It is not the same,” he said.

This virtual service takes place twice a week but several members cannot engage with the service because they cannot afford data or do not have access to the internet.

“So the financially stable members of our congregation usually contribute money for those who can’t afford to buy data while those who don’t have access to the internet will have to join their neighbours who have access so far it’s been challenging,” he said.

For the first time in Nigeria for over 50 years, churches were locked up for more than a six week period, creating a major social disruption in a country where eight in ten adults attend a weekly worship service which is ranked highest in the world according to a 2018 data analysis obtained from Washington-based Pew Research Center.

From pews to cyber views

On Monday, Nigeria had recorded 5,959 confirmed coronavirus cases and 182 deaths which had seen an increase in the rate of infections to 852 cases per day.

Despite, a nationwide curfew imposed from 8.00 p.m. to 6.00 pm where people were compelled to wear face masks in public including the ban on travel between states.

Nigeria which boasts of an estimated Christian population of 80 million with about half of the population members of the pentecostal churches, the lockdown has seen increased activity of churches on various online streaming services compared to the past as the church has moved to the internet to connect with their audience.

The move by the churches to adapt to these changes was orchestrated by the outbreak of COVID-19.

According to the Global Digital January report, Nigeria has 69.2 million mobile phone connections which account for 83 per cent of an estimated population of 200 million. About 85.49 million Nigerians have access to the internet while 27 million are active social media users.

Most churches in the country have a common similarity which is its sound system. Music played at high volume is a familiar feature especially on Sunday services or during all-night services.

The noise can be intolerable for those who are not used to it and for those who live or work nearby but at St John the Baptist Cathedral Catholic Church, Gboko, in Benue State there has been an eerie silence since the lockdown was announced with the church was under lock and keys.

Odaikwu Idoko, a member of the church told The ICIR that since there were no sermons several parishioners were stranded as for weeks and considered the period a holiday.

“It was considered a holiday for everyone since we do not stream the mass conducted at the cathedral online there was no way we could attend mass so we had prayed in our own ways at home,” he said.

Kehinde Ajibola who attends Christ Apostolic Church, CAC, in Mararaba, Nassarawa State has not been able to able to attend any service in his church since the lockdown was announced so he resorts to studying the church’s Sunday school manual to fulfil his religious obligations.

“I’ve not been able to attend a regular service in my church since the lockdown it very odd for me because attending church has been a habitual activity for me since I was a kid. I’ve been doing it all my life and to suddenly have that experience taken from you is a shock,” he said.

Online traffic on the rise

In the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, churches in Nigeria expanded their digital presence, accepting offerings online, streaming sermons on social media and hosting group meetings through video chat.

Muhammed Rudman, CEO of Internet Exchange Point of Nigeria, iXPN, in a report, stated that daily internet traffic and data usage in Nigeria had increased by 10 per cent which he attributed to growing online activities during the lockdown.

“We started noticing an increase like a week ago, about 10 per cent increase in traffic. As more people start learning online, we expect the traffic to be much higher,” he said.

Some families created an atmosphere of a church at home by dressing up in their Sunday outfits to sing, preach and take “offerings” from the rest of the family to give to their church.

Anna Oboh, a member of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, MFM, South West region, district 6 located in Ibadan said they performed Sunday services choosing a preacher and also taking offerings.

“On Sundays, we perform a version of a church service appointing someone to preach, another to take exhortation and also take offerings,” she said.

However, the catholic church had not fully embraced the technology of virtual reality as hundreds of parishioners could not participate in the church’s rites of confession, offerings and the eucharist.

    Patrick Alumuku, a priest who also doubles as Director of Communications at the Abuja Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, explained to The ICIR said every rite associated with the celebration of mass (service) not physically conducted was spiritually represented.

    “The Catholic liturgy is divided into two parts the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the eucharist but the word which is the sermon takes prominence over every other aspect of the liturgy but long before now the church has a tradition of what is called the absence of physical rites reserved for sick people or incapacitated who were exempted on the basis of reciting a special prayer to that effect,” he said.

    He said the Abuja Catholic archdiocese was able to make use of its television station, Catholic Television Network ramp up over 200,000 viewers to it’s Sunday masses across different parts of the world.

    “We did not conduct masses on social media because we had a television station but the major challenge was getting people to get free to air decoders to participate in the mass. Though, we were able to get 200,000 viewers watching from different parts of the world which is a remarkable landmark for us,” he said.

    Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.

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