/ 18 April 2019

Take me to church … on my app

Zaza Hlalethwa usually reads a devotion on her app first thing in the morning.
Zaza Hlalethwa usually reads a devotion on her app first thing in the morning. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

I stopped going to church with a Bible. I grew frustrated by the page-flipping Olympics that would render me disqualified if I used the contents page to find the Book of Lamentations. I grew tired of the well-meaning, but uninvited, “It comes after Jeremiah” whispers or the over-eager usher who though the was helping by paging through my Bible for me.

I ran out of polite answers to give to the elders who accused me of not reading The Word because of my Bible’s mint condition. So, I left it at home and started using the offline version of a Bible app on my phone instead.

Then I stopped going to church. The decision that I had been flirting with for some time came to fruition when I moved to Johannesburg a few weeks ago. Commuting for a three-hour service shortened my weekends and emptied my coin purse, because I had no plans of finding a place of fellowship in the new city.

Church-shopping has become an extreme sport I am not fit for because there is no way of telling what I would be walking into.The Christian faith is plagued by stories: of pastors,such as Alph Lukau, putting on magic shows during service times, those using tithes from disadvantaged congregants to fund exuberant lifestyles, Catholic and Anglican churches pardoning sexual assault or Timothy Omotosoon trial for rape.

So, I stopped going.

Now my faith is no longer reliant on Sunday morning rituals; the ones characterised by waking up to my mother’s amens in agreement with Thami Ngubeni’s gospel show (The Sacred Space) on Metro FM, the ones where time was wasted selecting an outfit from my collection of Sunday bests, the ones where I always had to be on time in order to lead the procession in song before sitting through a three-hour service in the hopes of leaving with a handful of divine insight.

Church starts when I turn on my data. I read from daily devotionals that speak to my context, share the insight on a WhatsApp group with three other friends, say gratitude prayers and watch sermons at my selected pace from the comfort of my room.

This digitisation makes it easier for me to opt in and out of communal spaces without being shamed about my preferred terms. And, with the great exodus of millennials from their homes into the working-class world, there are many others like me.

After having only lived in Rustenburg, Tlotlo Matladi (21) left home to pursue a pre-medical degree at the University of Pretoria. Speaking of home in the North West, she recalls how the Bahá’í faith was deposited on to her everyday and naturalised long before she was on solids.

“When you grow up and something is a norm at home, you conform to that norm because you don’t want to be different. I kind of felt pressure to do as I was told to do,” says Matladi, adding that she “grew out of” the conformity after leaving home three years ago.

Though leaving the mould, Matladi’s plan was not to discard the faith. She wanted to find its truth on her own, to ensure that her conviction in it was a sincere act and not the fulfilment of familial obligations. “I can’t just be born into the Bahá’í faith. That would be too easy,” she adds.

Yett reading her own path proved to be difficult when faced with “an intense varsity schedule’’. As a pre-medical student, Matladi says she has had to make use of small pockets of downtime, usually atodd hours, to fulfil her daily devotions. This called for a means that was not place- or time-bound.

“I don’t think I’m heavily reliant on these [apps]. It’s just a lot to commit to something via action that needs me to be physically present,” she explains,to the sounds of rustling paper in the background, during our phone call. In my everyday life I try. I try, I try, I try, to the best of my ability, to say my obligatory prayers and to meditate,” Matladi explains.

To achieve this she makes use of the Eternal Sunshine and One Ocean apps, both of which provide her with affirmation notifications, Bahá’í readings (from the Hidden Words book by the founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh) and reminders for her obligatory prayer.

In addition to this, Matladi subscribes to Facebook groups, podcasts and TED Talks with content regarding the challenges and beauties of the Bahá’í faith — beyond the ideals her parents confined itto.

“Me and information are friends. I try to find information from as many sources as possible. Anyone can. All the apps I use are free. You probably just need wi-fi, and I’m always on campus,” Matladi says.

For the likes of Matladi and myself —regardless of the faith —the certified sources of information, resources and community seem infinite. They range from a Hindu prayer beads app and the Ramadan Legacy (which looks to connect and empower the global Muslim community during Ramadan)all the way to the Umoya podcast, which looks at the everyday practices of African spirituality.

Terms of faith: pre-medical student Tlotlo Matladi enjoys meditating in the late afternoon. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Barriers do not exist in this online fellowship, giving users more agency to get the information they require to define their own spiritual practices.

Unfortunately, regulated and well-meaning digital platforms have to share their space with those who push ill intentions. Faith-based online communities can be used to fortify propaganda (using cyber-bullying), increase fragmentation within religious groups and decentralise centres of authority. After all, the internet and social media have enough room for various interpretations, right?

A few years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI was asked about his thoughts on a virtual means of practising one’s religion, he said: “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”

Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African studies at Princeton University, in a New York Times debate, argued how an essential part of many faiths is in the communal rituals of collective worship, collective prayer and breaking of fasts.

He said:“Faith journeys are not simply isolated, individual efforts. But communion with others deepens our sense of who we take ourselves to be as members of a particular religious tradition.”

Perhaps the idea of church shopping, mixing and matching ideals from various faiths and not putting ourselves in challenging, real-life contexts is less enriching. And maybe such a curated experience of our faiths puts us at risk of putting filters on them, thereby presenting ourselves only as we want to be perceived.

Perhaps digital fellowship is unlikely to foster growth the way face-to-face fellowship would. Yett here is a higher sense of security through online engagement, where fellowship entails podcasts, notifications, audio books, YouTube sermons, and WhatsApp groups with like-minded people.

With this digitised practice, there is no Sunday morning procession, no condemning altar call, church politics, protocol, forced amens and having to put up with patriarchy, propaganda, romanticising long suffering, the guilt tripping and the homophobia that one has to sit through in shared physical spaces.