Let's bow our heads and Zoom: Virtual communion takes over as churches battle with Covid restrictions
Hunger for the word of God, grief and having easy access to fellowship are among the reasons churches have seen an increase in the number of people who join virtual gatherings.
Most churches introduced virtual services when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the national state of disaster in March following the outbreak of the coronavirus.
During this period, large gatherings, including church services, were prohibited.
With those restrictions in place under the “hard lockdown”, church leaders across the country adopted a new and innovative way of worshipping through the live-streaming of church services.
Rhema Bible Church, one of the biggest churches in the country, has been offering virtual services via its television and YouTube channels for years. When the pandemic hit in March, the church intensified its presence virtually.
“When the pandemic hit, we were already online. We literally moved to the platforms that were already there,” said pastor Giet Khosa.
There is a lot of need out there. Things have gone bad in every direction. People have lost their loved ones. People have been tested.Pastor Giet Khosa
“We’ve seen a lot of people logging in. There is a lot of need out there. Things have gone bad in every direction. People have lost their loved ones. People have been tested.”
The number of people who log into their services, he said, had increased, with some people joining services for counselling or fellowship.
“We’ve seen a lot of people logging in to find encouragement, motivation and a hiding place. We’ve been able to pastor and minister to them. We’ve been able to help where possible.”
The biggest increase has come from viewership on television. The church is closed for services.
According to pastor Chris Mathebula of Hope Restoration Ministries, virtual churches enable people to access a service in the comfort of their homes.
“People, at this moment, need something that will empower their spirit. If they can access it in the comfort of their home, they do that,” he said.
He said he had seen “growth” in online attendance of his services during the lockdown, especially from people who were not members.
“They opened a door for other people who are not members to attend our services,” he said.
Apostle Makhado Ramabulana of the Apostolic Faith Mission also said virtual services brought a bigger following for his church.
“We’ve seen a huge following from members of our church and those who are not members.”
He said even when churches were allowed to reopen, a lot of members did not go back to church.
“People discovered they can fellowship at their preferred time and in the comfort of their homes. The internet has brought us new followers, especially people outside our surroundings,” he said.
Grace Bible Church’s Bishop Mosa Sono said the advantage of virtual church services was that they offered a broader platform to anyone who could access the internet to join in and worship.
“When things return to normalcy, whenever that would be, I would not rule out access on a virtual platform. It affords a lot of people an opportunity to join in and be a part of what we are doing.”
According to Sono, people access virtual church services because their “hunger” for the word of God has increased.
“People want to receive a lot more teaching because God’s word has a stabilising factor. People have time on their hands to explore.
“The only thing is people have said the experience of worship in a virtual sense is not the same.
“The interaction with a human, in the sense that you can see their facial expressions during a service and when they are being challenged, is a totally different experience.
Alleluia Ministries Pastor Busi Gaca said: “We have definitely seen a big rise in numbers. We hit 1 million subscribers on our YouTube channel about a month ago. This is not just subscribers, it’s the souls who are fed the word of God on a daily basis.”
Gaca attributed the increase in the number of attendees of virtual churches to people seeking “assurance” through the word of God “that everything will be all right, that they will survive this pandemic, and that God has not and will never forsake his children”.