Covid-19: Churches struggle to minister to young people

CHURCHES in Bulawayo expect to struggle to attract young people back to the church after the latest Covid-19 regulations banned all public gatherings to stem a surge in infections.

As part of the latest regulations, all public gatherings except funerals were banned.

Church leaders in Bulawayo said it was a struggle attracting young people to the church after the lockdown imposed in January 2021, and the latest restrictions were a further blow to efforts to ‘entice’ young people out of bars into the religious institution.

Roman Catholic priest Father James Batsirayi said, even under lockdown, bars and all other spaces are open to the youth except the church.

“Alcohol outlets are always open even during the lockdown, drugs are also very accessible to the youth even during the lockdown,” he told CITE.

“Even when you go to the streets, in the townships, you see the youth going about, all over. Everything else is open to them except access to spiritual activities. The reason is that, when they want to access spiritual activities, it is the only thing that they can access via WhatsApp.”

Fr. Batsirayi is the Bulawayo archdiocese youth spiritual director.

A pastor from another mainstream church in the city said this was a very serious issue in that young people have always been a minority in the church and the lockdown would further push them away.

“As mainstream churches, we are old churches that are dominated by old people,” he said. “Young people who attend our churches do so as part of families and some ultimately go to Pentecostal churches, as churches of their choice. It means the fewer they are, they will further feel dominated by the elders. As a result, they might stay away from the church. Pentecostal churches are largely seen as youthful churches.”

A pastor from a Pentecostal church in the city said it was a challenge to reach out to young people on social media.

“A lot of things are happening on social media. Some of these things are contrary to the teachings and the work of the church. Social media are part of popular culture, and in popular culture, it is very easy for young people to be sidetracked,” he said.

The pastor said his church struggled to get back to its feet after the stringent lockdown imposed last year and beyond this current lockdown, they expected more challenges.

“The challenge of ministering through social media is at times you never know if you are reaching the other person on the other end,” he said.

“It is very hard to know if they read the posts that we put on WhatsApp or they just blue tick us. This challenge comes with frustration on the part of the church.”

Churches in Western countries have used technology such as Lifesize, Zoom video conferencing and social media and other online programmes to keep young people connected to one another and their faith.

With consistent vaccination programmes, it is likely that churches in the West are also likely to open soon.

However, African countries have struggled with their vaccination programmes.

This mostly affects young people as they are at the tail end of receiving the jab in any country as older people and frontline workers are prioritised.

A pastor at a mainstream church said the challenge they had reaching young people online with the gospel is the cost of data is prohibitive in Zimbabwe.

“It is even unaffordable for their parents. As a result, we have a challenge reaching out to young people as a special group that we feel is the future of the church,” she said.

Fr. Batsirayi agrees on the cost of data as the biggest challenge that young people face in accessing spiritual content.

“We have tried the social media way which we hoped was the answer to the lockdown problem, but it only reaches out to a few,” he said.

“The youth don’t have money for airtime. Only a few are using social media since data bundles are very expensive. When one sends out something religious or spiritual, it is usually a big file. Children and youths are always complaining that data bundles are very expensive.”  

The challenge to reach young people on social media is paradoxical considering that young people dominate statistics in terms of online media users and a majority of them are considered to have been born in the age of new media.

Fr. Batsirayi said despite these challenges, the church needed to come up with strategies that would make sure that the future of the church is built on the basis of young people.

“The future of the church lies in a lot of things, depending on a lot of things. Covid-19 was not just a setback but a big blow to the church, but we can also use that to our advantage whereby the church can re-evangelise and this can be done through the youths. If it is done through the youths and among the youths, it can have a very strong impact as far as the future is concerned,” he said.

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