by Mark Moore and Greg Taylor
We came to Uganda as a traditional rural church planting team, hoping to start a Web movement of evangelical Christ-centered churches through the Busoga region of Uganda.
I happened to be behind the counter when a missionary came into our Main Street computer center, asking if we had the facilities to send a fax. I guessed by his beard and shirt that he hailed from a Mennonite heritage. I informed him that we could fax the USA and began jotting down the number it was to be sent to. As I took the paper to fax it, he asked me, “Now this isn’t using the Internet is it? Because I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” He seemed emphatic and quite sincere, so I wanted to be sincere with my reply. “Technically,” I said, “We’ll send the fax using a Web site that sends to fax machines via e-mail.” I assured him that in the end, a fax is a fax.
He listened to my explanation and then politely took back his paper. I watched as he drove just a short ways down the street to the local post office where they faxed it for him … using a traditional fax machine.
My encounter with that gentleman sets the scene for the issues that we explore in this article. Should missionaries use technologies such as the Internet as ministry tools? Should we who speak so much about classic missiological Web movements, embrace Web movements of another kind as a tool to strengthen and build our churches?
Our mission team came to Uganda in 1994 to plant churches in the country’s rural eastern areas. Two years later we decided to recruit more missionaries to come and work in our town as well. We recruited urban workers because we wanted to enter the arena of town ministry using the concept of a modern resource center as the frontline draw for evangelism in Jinja. Our commitment to providing what people wanted led us down a new path. It is a path that we are at times uncomfortable with; one that has us utilizing technologies we never would have dreamed we would call “appropriate technology.”
VIEWED AS COUNTRY BUMPKINS
We came to Uganda as a traditional rural church planting team, hoping to start a Web movement of evangelical Christ-centered churches through the Busoga region of Uganda. We threw around buzzwords like “sustainabil-ity” and spoke often of the four selves of a healthy church movement (propagation, government, finance and theology). Other missionaries in our city seemed on the front edges of urban evangelism. They built schools, ministered in hospitals and constructed church buildings. In contrast, we spent most of our time in extremely remote eastern Uganda, where villagers still live in grass-thatched huts with cow dung-smeared walls and floors. We plodded along with our language learning, accomplishing little and awkwardly answering questions from our contemporaries about the slow growth and relative successes of this church movement. We never said it, but we considered ourselves noble for being so appropriate with our techniques and technologies.
From the start, even as we clung to our principles, we struggled with issues of how to properly use technology. For instance, we had disembarked from a 747 armed with computers and Gortex shoes, and we drove four-wheel drive vehicles into hard-to-reach places to communicate the gospel, yet we encouraged our Ugandan brothers and sisters to walk or ride their bikes to the next village to share their faith. We worried that our presentation of the gospel was inappropriate because local Christian evangelists could not reproduce our techniques. Slowly, at times grudgingly, we adopted other technologies like video, but only after seeing that those technologies were already being used in remote areas. Moreover, we realized we weren’t the first to use new technologies in pre-modern villages. We began to see CNN blaring from rural huts and meet farm traders with cell phones. Traveling businessmen lugged clumsy old televisions into remote villages to show Rambo or the WWF, and we soon understood that video had come to stay. Ask villagers what they’ve seen on video and they might say the Jesus film and The Terminator.
Still our mission team felt a burden for the town in which we lived. We worried we were dismissing ourselves from urban ministry as we drove out of town into the rural areas. Some, however, wondered if working in town would distract from our rural ministry. All of us were concerned that dabbling in urban ministry would blur our focus and steal time from our original rural church planting goals. That’s when we decided to recruit more missionaries specifically for the urban ministry.
CONFLUENCE OF CULTURE, COMMUNICATION AND TECHNOLOGY
It wasn’t until three years into our church planting work that we began facing more serious challenges to our views concerning culturally appropriate technology for ministry both in rural and urban contexts. Our town, though it might be thought “backwards” by Western standards, is a different world from the rural areas that lay just a few miles away from our houses located in Jinja near the famous source of the Nile, where we have electricity, running water, phones, decent roads and a municipal government.
By 1997, however, the information revolution was sweeping through Uganda. Internet access, though expensive by international standards, became available. Free e-mail all but eliminated the need for expensive faxing, which years before had only been available at the post office for eight dollars a page internationally. We now reveled in the ease and relative low cost with which we were suddenly able to “talk” to supporters and families using e-mail.
In the midst of our use of such technology, we also realized that Ugandans as well longed for the ease and low expense of such technology. We watched every day as Ugandans in our town began using, and then demanding, the cheap communications services made possible by Internet connectivity. In short, we were right back in that tension between technology and culture. Were these technologies somehow appropriate for us and not for our Ugandan friends? And should we necessarily get involved in providing these services? We wondered if we could use this felt need for communication technology in order to attract people to our newly opened computer center, library and church facility on Main Street in Jinja.
The fact that the communication technology wave was building just as we launched our town ministry made the tension between technology and our ministry more acute. We opened a center in town and called it “The Source of Life Resource Center.” The famous source of the Nile River is only one mile away from the site of our center, so this name caught on quickly. We billed it as an idea and opportunity center and it featured a computer that could be used to send e-mails at the cost of a phone call. It was immensely popular, and as technology changed, so did our services. We opened our center expecting questions like, “What is a computer?” We instead fielded more technologically sophisticated questions like, “Why don’t you establish a LAN (Local Area Network) so we can share information more easily?” and “Can I access my Web-based mail?” We began to realize that we were on a slippery slope between a high road of ministry and a low ditch of using our energies in what could end up in actually enabling people in Jinja to have access to pornographic, morally degrading Web sites.
By the year 2000, the ICT (Information Communication Technologies) infrastructure in Uganda had advanced to such a stage that dial-in access to the Internet was no longer affordable or appropriate. We debated for a while whether the old horse and buggy dial-in connection was best. On one hand, we were all familiar and comfortable with the fact that the Internet could be accessed that way. On the other hand, a permanent line connection would make more sense because we now had nearly one hundred customers in town who were longing to make use of a permanent connection to the Internet. So we put in a leased line that could carry far more information and set up a LAN that would allow many users at once to send e-mails and access the Internet. We designed the front of our church building to be an Internet public access business to attract people and offer them a much needed service at a fraction of previous costs. We hoped it would serve the community and provide our church with a worship facility that was free from the ever-increasing, ongoing costs associated with keeping up a church building in an urban setting.
Having embraced one technology (and reluctantly at that) we now found ourselves embracing higher and higher technologies in order to stay afloat. Our access costs decreased and thus user’s costs plummeted as well. As the technology became affordable, more and more Ugandans learned to use it. It is now cheaper and more efficient for a Ugandan to send an e-mail message to a friend in a neighboring town than it is to send a letter or make a phone call. Our urban work was left reeling from the whirlwind of technical changes that had occurred. Now we were desperately trying to hold on to principles, and develop new ones, that provided a missiological framework for what we were doing. Each week we would meet and debate whether we should scrap the whole project. Each week we would prayerfully forge ahead, struggling with the tension inherent between technology and ministry.
Would the Tail of Technology Wag the Dog of Ministry? Many of us were concerned that this new Internet café might become the proverbial tail that wags the evangelistic dog. Indeed, most of us would feel more at home writing the rebuttal to this article than advocating it. We wondered if we, as missionaries, ought to get tangled up in this new Web movement or in any business type venture for that matter. At first we questioned how the Web could even be used in developing nations where most people have never used computers. Though many of us used computers, how could we as non-technicians set up an Internet server where there is no local access? And what are the cultural and missiologi-cal pitfalls to this evangelistic method? Through our experiences, our flat failures, and victories, we want to offer the following three practical observations to show why we feel the approach we have taken can be a positive tool for ministry.
1. Social impact and inevitability. Our faith in Christ prods us to respond to social needs in the communities we serve. The need for innovative ways to address social needs in the name of Christ is greater than ever. As governments fill gaps the church once filled, we ought to continue searching for the empty areas that remain in the hearts of people and stand in those gaps. Many feel that Internet connectivity has the potential of creating a new communications dynamic similar to that created by Guttenberg when he introduced his printing press. If we provide and present this technology in the name of Christ, in many ways we assume the role as shapers of how the technology might be used for community good.
We have begun to apply a principle of inevitability to our thoughts on technology. In other words, the Internet is coming fast and strong whether we like it or not. To avoid it is to surrender it to use by destructive forces rather than good. It is true that it has tremendous potential for sinful activity, but isn’t it best that we embrace what we can and use its nearly unlimited positive attributes as redemptive tools for Christ? We are quick to realize that embracing a thorny technology is much different than exalting it as the answer to all our problems. We believe, however, that we’re better off navigating the slippery slope than abandoning the debate all together and returning to our fax machines because the technology frightens us.
2. A tool for building community. Critics are quick to point out that too often there is too much made of the community nature of the Internet. Virtual community is, after all, just that: virtual and not real. We would be better off, they say, fostering more real, face-to-face community relationships.
Having begun with that disclaimer, we do believe that perhaps there is untapped positive potential to connect Christians in poor nations with their brothers and sisters in rich nations. The potential for fraud is great, but the potential for partnerships that do not involve thousands of dollars in costs of plane tickets for US participants is greatly expanded as well. Advice, pastoring and instruction can occur with greater ease. We are referring more emphatically to the continuation of relationships through Internet access that began with face- to-face meetings and time spent together. For instance, Africans who know missionaries from their time on the field can continue corresponding in more of a dialog than a message in a bottle approach. For example, many Ugandans are accustomed yet do not like to wait weeks for a simple response to a Bible correspondence course. They can now do Bible courses online at our resource center or other Internet facilities.
Denominational leaders who are out of the loop of what’s happening in their home churches, while working on a degree in Europe, can interact, contribute and effect change in new ways. At the same time, damaging interactions can and will occur as the instantaneous and often exaggerated community nature of the Internet belies the still existing cultural gaps between Ugandans and those with whom they communicate worldwide via the Internet. There’s a risk that such communication will actually take us backward missiolo-gically to a time where we rely less on cultural understanding in our presentation of the gospel and more on methods. We are aware of this risk, but the inevitability of the situation calls us to search for positives rather than to build protective walls (virtual or real) around current methods of evangelism. Imagine forums, for instance, where church leaders in Haiti dialog with leaders in Kenya about how to overcome barriers of poverty to evangelize people.
3. Resources for Christian servants. In addition to the hype over the community nature of the Internet, it is praised even more for being a wealth of information. Yet many Americans have so much information, so many books at their disposal, that they fail to appreciate the great wisdom waiting in libraries, bookstores and the Internet. Ugandans, on the other hand, have much less access to such information, and poor nations do not attract booksellers. Study Bibles with reference guides and supplementary material are rare and expensive. Web-based materials, on the other hand, are plentiful and increasing daily. These Bible studies and life application studies can be accessed for little or no cost as long as printing and access costs are passed on to a paying general public. Better yet, a pastor with a computer disk can emerge from an Internet café with hundreds of downloaded files to read at leisure on his home PC. We are seeing the tip of the iceberg as far as the potential for such materials. Again, we do not build our leadership training hopes around such dreams, but we are excited about the possibilities they present.
Currently we are offering programs in our Internet café that enable local church leaders to freely access sites that we have found to be loaded with wonderful information. A chalk board in the café lists resource sites such as those offered by Christianity Today and Focus on the Family. Ideally, future sites will be developed with material more appropriate for audiences in poor and unevangelized nations. Imagine how a Web site to provide Christian teaching to Muslims can enter homes in nations such as Libya, where Christians may not be allowed to go freely. We want to be clear that such Web sites cannot take the place of face-to-face ministry, but they can help in some of the same ways that good books help reach the lost.
Finally, the idea of opening our doors on Main Street in Jinja, Uganda and inviting the public in to browse the Internet and get good Christian resources has been successful in attracting an average of two hundred persons a day. Young and old, men and women, walk in and out of our storefront Internet café throughout the day. However, without one vital element in our attempt to attract urbanites, our efforts are futile. While cell groups and healthy fellowship are a mainstay in our urban ministry, we have often lagged in connecting Internet café visitors with cell group leaders and church life.
We have yet to know where many of the visitors live, what they do for a living and what spiritual questions they have in their hearts. In the first two years, we have focused on setting up the computers and renovating the facility—just getting to know the names of hundreds of people walking in has been the first hurdle. For this effort to be truly connected with our church Web movement, we must find ways to build bridges from the Internet to the real lives, hurts and joys of the people using our facility. Without this human touch, we will be stuck in the net of technology, rather than using it to reach the lost who need to truly connect with Jesus Christ.
Mark Moore set up the Internet Source Provider (ISP) and led the way in designing the Source of Life Resource Center in Jinja, Uganda (www. ugandamissions.org).
Greg Taylor is managing editor of New Wineskins magazine www.wineskins.net and formerly worked with a church planting team sponsored by the Churches of Christ.
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