Written by Dr Dennis Kilama, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Africa Renewal University
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches will not meet over the coming weeks. Therefore the global church is full of suggestions for how a pastor can shepherd his congregation using the internet as the tool to connect. But, for many in Africa, this is far from reality and not a possibility. Many are wondering, how does one continue to shepherd a congregation if one doesn’t have access to the internet? This will be a dilemma for most African pastors in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Internet coverage in most of Africa is minimal and the majority of the continent relies on other means to get information. According to the World Bank “Internet usage differs markedly by country within Sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas more than half the population uses the internet in South Africa, rates are closer to 30% in West Africa, and only around 10% in Central Africa.” Internet is a luxury. Few can afford it. This has prompted pastors to ask, ‘How can we pastor when we and our congregants have no internet access?’
No internet does not mean no more ministry
This is not a time for a pastor to withdraw and take sabbatical leave. Now is a time for the pastor to take a defensive posture to confront the dangers of false doctrine that could have long term effects long after COVID-19 is gone. Most of these doctrines are easily accessible in Africa on our televisions and radios and if our people are unattended these could be the only option available for our congregants. Indeed, many congregants left with no shepherding will feed on spiritual poison that could cause long term destruction, long after the pandemic has ended.
It is essential for pastors with congregations with limited internet access to ensure the following:
1) Restructure the ministry operations of the church.
This will include meeting with the core leadership team and decentralizing the pastoral care. It is essential that the pastor practice leading as a team and not as individual one-man leadership. Make sure each member is directly under some pastoral care and accountability. Ensure the continuous flow of the authentic ministry of prayer and the word while encouraging social distancing.
2) Record details of the status of each member.
Know the status of each member during this pandemic and how to support them. Most people in African churches live within a close geographical space that is walkable or accessible by public transport. It is important that a pastor practically groups members based on their place of residence. This will ensure that at any one time a member can be easily reached by another church member to provide support for one another. It should be understood that social distancing is not relational distancing
3) Regularly use telephone communication.
Most people in Africa have access to a mobile phone – even if they have no internet. According to the United Nations the World Bank and African Development Bank report that in some African countries more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or electricity. In these times this is going to be an essential tool of pastoral care through calling and sending SMSs to the members regularly. Information about new developments on the spread of the virus, scriptures to encourage or updates on other church members that might need prayer or have thanksgivings can be passed on.
4) Reporting channels should be clear.
From the congregants to the leadership and from the leadership to the congregants. Lines of communication should be made clear to the members. Place pastoral care over the members in their different areas. Every 10 people should have a pastoral leader they can report to. Prepare material that they can use when the congregation cannot corporately gather. This could include a sermon outline, a bible study guide, and a children’s worksheet. These will inform the content of the study and scriptural reflections. And avoid the infiltration of false doctrines.
5) Recognize the needs of the members.
Point them to Christ as we give them hope amid the struggle of dealing with the pandemic. Provide opportunities and space for people to be supported in this season through pastoral care and counseling.
6) Refer any suspected cases of COVID-19 to the medical authorities.
There may be a temptation to undermine the precautions the World Health Organisation have given, assuming that cases of COVID-19 under our pastoral care can be ignored. This is irresponsible and we must refer these to the medical authorities immediately.
Now is the time to Shepherd
Even with no internet access, it is possible to shepherd your congregation in spite of social distancing. Through this we will come out of the pandemic stronger as a body of believers. This is not the time to withdraw from the sheep but to guard the sheep against predatory wolves that could attack in the absence of the shepherd.