Worship during lockdown – in a different way

Bishop Mthobeli Elvis Matyumza knew early in his life that he wanted to be a priest.

He grew up in the Methodist Church. His grandparents, who raised him, were leaders in the church. “I became aware that I think there’s a role that I can play in people’s lives. And I knew that I can only play that role through serving them in the ministry of word and sacrament,” he says.

But because he was the eldest son in the family and having lost his mother at an early age, he had to make sure that his siblings were taken care of. So he worked as a mechanic for eight years until “I could not take it anymore”.

His grandfather used to visit him in his dreams and would say, “Boy, your only gift is to follow this call to ministry.”

Matyumza finally quit his job and studied theology.

He has been ministering for 25 years at the Methodist Church of Southern Africa  and has been a bishop for six years, leading the Queenstown district in the Eastern Cape.

Having grown up in the church and now leading in the church, he never thought there would come a time when people would not be able to attend church. “As someone who studied theology I knew that there were times like that in the past, in the early centuries, when the church would not meet but I had never thought it would happen in my time, you know. We tend to take things for granted, you know, until we come across them.”

With the lockdown announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa as one of the efforts to try to fight the spread of Covid-19, Christians will also fail to meet for one of the biggest celebrations in their calendar — Easter.

Matyumza says the Easter celebration is a big thing in the Methodist Church, but saving the lives of people is paramount.

As a leader and someone who has an obligation to preach the gospel, he has not had time to mourn and complain about not being able to meet congregants during this time. Instead, he has had to come up with ways to encourage his congregants to understand that “there is life during the time of the pandemic. But it is a different life.”

So he started a WhatsApp group with the leaders of the church under him and it is on this platform that he shares scripture readings, specific prayers and comments. The leaders under him then forward the message to all congregants.

Matyumza said they have also agreed in his district that every Sunday from 9.30am to 10.30am they have a family church service guided by his WhatsApp message.

This week is a holy week and Matyumza said that usually a church service is held every evening. So, starting from Monday until Thursday, he sent WhatsApp messages of readings and comments for the holy week services held from 9pm until 9.30pm.

He said that before the announcement of the lockdown, he and seven ministers in his district put together a Good Friday service on the seven last words of Christ (amazwi asixhenxe).

The service will be posted on Facebook and YouTube on Friday morning. He has also had DVDs distributed to those people who do not have access to social media.

The bishop says church buildings might be closed but that does not stop people from receiving the Word. He says this is a time for the church to play its role but in a different way.

“The obligation to preach the gospel is that even though you cannot meet and celebrate as the congregation, your obligation to preach the gospel assists you to find a way to take the gospel to where the people are.”

He says the church’s new normal has received an overwhelming positive response not only from his church members but also from people who attend other churches and who follow the sermons on Facebook and get family members or friends to forward them the WhatsApp messages.

Matyumza’s message to all Christians during this time is: “God is working with us, striving to find a way forward and a cure [for Covid-19] because he has destined us for better life as humanity.”

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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