For the first time in The United Methodist Church’s history, Africans could keep up with General Conference in real time via text message.
The program allowed news to travel fast even to church members without internet access.
While the denomination’s top legislative body met in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20, close to 4,000 contacts in 12 African countries received the text messages, written in French, English, Portuguese and Swahili. More than 80,000 messages were sent during the two-week period.
United Methodist Communications launched the text-messaging program, which sends bulk messages to groups of contacts. Communicators from central conferences in Africa facilitated the collection of mobile numbers and dissemination of news updates.
Mobile phone technology has enabled today’s society to be in a circle of connectivity. Text messaging overcomes a lack of adequate traditional fixed phones, internet and two-way radio systems.
The Rev. Neelley Hicks, director of ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology for Development) Church Initiatives at United Methodist Communications, said the church’s involvement in sending health information via text message during the 2014 Ebola crisis highlighted the need to maintain a system to transmit local and connectional news to areas with no internet.
“We knew that the lowest common denominator in global communications is a simple text message — able to reach a person directly if she or he holds a basic mobile handset,” Hicks said. “A cloud-based solution like TextIt allows the global United Methodist Church to converse real-time on matters that unite us, such as General Conference proceedings.”
Command centers were set up at bishops’ offices in Liberia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. They received news via internet before disseminating it through various platforms. During General Conference, the command center team met every day to select the most relevant messages to share with their community.
“This diverse, inclusive team is meant to generate interest and discernment on the issues being discussed,” said the Rev. Allen Gurupira, Zimbabwe Episcopal Area administrative assistant to the bishop. “We are also taking part in making the goings-on known in our locality. The unheralded feeling is that I and my colleagues have been to General Conference for the same duration, experience and participation as those physically present in Portland, Oregon.”
In follow-up feedback, many pastors said they benefitted much from the text messages.
“The United Methodist Church has more than 150 local churches situated in the rural areas where internet communication is a challenge,” Malawi Provisional Conference communicator Hugo Ngwira said. “Ninety-seven percent of the local churches are situated in rural Malawi, whilst only 3 percent are in urban Malawi. For the first time in our conference, pastors and leaders got same information/updates/news of the General Conference simultaneously.”
Evangelist Willy Mikuwa, who is pastoring a local church in a remote area in Malawi, said he “never knew that The United Methodist Church is that big.”
He was thankful for the program that has helped him “get a picture of what the church and General Conference are all about.”
Mikuwa lives in a remote area where there is no internet and no post office. He and his neighbors use only phones for communication.
The Rev. Daniel Mhone, superintendent for the Malawi missionary conference, said, “One moving experience was that most of the leaders took time to pray for the General Conference — especially when tension was at its highest level. Thanks for connecting us in this special way to the global church.”
Messages were also sent via WhatsApp, a popular messaging program among Africans. Those who received WhatsApp messages also got links to watch the live coverage of the General Conference. People forwarded those messages to subsequent different groups, thereby speeding up information dissemination from person to person.
Many people expressed great appreciation for getting news from the General Conference as it happened.
“Gone are the days when General Conference outcomes will only be heard at the end of the year during the annual conference,” Gurupira said.
The system will remain in place after General Conference so that annual conferences can share connectional news.
“General Conference was a catalyst for the system’s implementation, but its usefulness is far from over,” Hicks wrote in a blog post. “Consider when the church wants to reach clergy to reinforce the need for Yellow Fever vaccinations, and where they can be found; when educational programs and/or scholarships come available; when daily devotions can be shared to strengthen the Body of Christ.”
Muzerengwa is a communicator for Zimbabwe East Annual Conference.
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