Tafadzwa Mudambanuki: African Christians build community using radio and the Internet

The ‘ancient landmarks’ of the Bible are key to the gospel message, however you communicate it, says the director of UMC communications in Africa, Asia and Europe.


New communication tools are essential to spreading the gospel message -- or even the minutes of a church meeting -- in Africa, said Tafadzwa Mudambanuki, director of Central Conference Communications for United Methodist Communications.

In 2004, the United Methodist General Conference approved the development of communications systems for churches in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. Mudambanuki, the son of African peasant farmers, was chosen to direct the initiative for the central conference. He is a native of Zimbabwe and has advanced degrees in journalism, church communications and information sciences from United Theological Seminary and Ball State University.

Mudambanuki spoke with Faith & Leadership in October 2009 at Convocation & Pastors’ School at Duke Divinity. In this edited interview and related video excerpt, Mudambanuki talks about which media are most effective in reaching an African audience.

Q: What does the word communication imply in the context of your work?

We use the word communication in the broad sense of conveying life-changing messages. It could mean a sermon. It could mean a church conference on health, poverty or diseases. We’re looking at many models for using communication to help the church.

Q: How do you determine what communication model will work within United Methodist Communications?

To see what will work, we examine the model in the context of what is available to specific communities. Equipment is a challenge for many. We’re dealing with all areas, Africa, Asia and Europe. Church membership numbers are dwindling in Europe and people want to pick up their membership; communication can be a huge resource.

Q: In the African setting today, do you think that radio is more effective for communications than television?

The African culture is generally an oral culture, so radio is an important tool for communicating in Africa. When people hear things in their own language, they can easily understand it. Radio is the weapon to use in establishing Christian communities.

Radio brings people together. For example, I was born and raised in Zimbabwe and came to the United States for graduate school. Because of my education, when I use the radio to tell people in my village that the river water is too polluted for drinking, they listen. Because I was born in Africa, I can speak over the radio about how bad it is to be a polygamist. If a U.S.-born missionary says that, it will be looked down upon. Radio is a very important tool for relaying messages that can change the mindset of the community.

When people hear somebody from their culture using their language to speak about the demerits of certain behaviors, there’s a tendency for attitudes to shift.

Q: In your work overseeing communications, are electronic social networking tools effective in reaching out to the next generation?

Social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, cell phones and text messaging are very effective in communications. In fact, Africa has more sophisticated cell phones than the U.S. It’s caught on like wildfire.

Recently, United Methodist Communications trained 12 African communicators in social media. Now, they have laptops. They can do Skype. They can do Twitter. They have text messages. We have exported them to various centers in Africa; we’re trying to popularize the use of social media.

Q: How does the church use that? What do they communicate with the technology?

The church uses text messages for meeting notices, funerals, birthdays or weddings, the arrival of an important guest. Recently I’ve seen people send meeting minutes electronically, which is very unusual in Africa. The change is gradually working in that direction. It’s gratifying to see that the church has a future because they’re harnessing technology instead of demonizing technology; they’re using it for the common good.

Q: The older generation in this country tends to be uncomfortable with new technology, is that also true in the African environment?

It’s true with older folks but relatively young people are at home with technology. They’re hungry for knowledge. They want to learn. They’re very enterprising.

Working from the bishop’s office, UMC establishes communication centers [around the country.] The centers have computers. They have cameras. They have Internet access. They have all those tools for the people to use; we’re going to fan out to the districts and bring technology to every local church -- that’s the dream. Every local church will have all of this equipment and Internet access.

Q: What differences do you see between the communications challenges for the church in the U.S. and those in the areas for which you’re responsible?

Overseas the challenge is resources. They have the willpower. They have the passion, but the resources fall short. In the United States people have resources to accomplish their goals.

People in the U.S. and Africa see theology very differently. People in Africa believe in Hebrews 11, Chapter 11. They believe that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The Western world is different. Because of affluence, faith has a different meaning in the U.S.

Q: Tell me more about the theological differences.

I was born and raised in Africa in Zimbabwe, and when I came to the States I wanted to say, “Thank God.” I thanked the missionaries who brought the gospel to my country, but I saw the gospel that they brought to Africa is very different from the gospel practiced here.

Seminary was a culture shock. Things that we don’t do in the Methodist church in Africa happen in the U.S. church openly. When I was in United Theological Seminary, I saw some fellow students smoking and drinking beer. Seeing that in the church was a culture shock for me.

Q: How do you overcome such cultural challenges, essentially sitting here but responsible for work overseas?

I’m steeped in the word of God. I’ve always stuck with what I know and used it as a model. I don’t force it on anybody. I [practice] all those old traditions that we were taught in the church, like prayer, like fasting, reading the word, believing in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts is a model for me; I go back to our founder of this movement, John Wesley, and he’s a model.

Q: Beyond the practical things like text messaging minutes of meetings or sharing information, why is communication important to the church? What role does communication play in building and keeping together a community?

Communication glues communities together. Without communication, how can you hand down essential values? It is important to develop communication so that the church can give the next generation shoulders to stand on and look toward the future. [Young people] need to have a reference point as the future beckons. That’s why we just talked about John Wesley. We have a reference point. If we veer from that, we can always correct ourselves and say, “I think we have gone far away from the reference point.” Communication plays a very important role in that.

It also ensures that we keep the ancient landmarks intact. There are certain landmarks that the Bible talks about that we need to keep intact. When you remove those boundaries you become faceless, you don’t have an identity. The landmarks at the core of Christianity help maintain your identity so people will know who you are and what you stand for in the world.

There are so many things happening in the world now. What will our kids do? How will they live a life without something to hold on to? As a church we need to institutionalize our history so that the people can learn from it how to tackle their future.

Q: What do you mean when you say ancient landmarks?

Leading a holy life is one ancient landmark that is fast disappearing from Christianity. There’s a modern culture taking hold. It’s getting center stage. There are very few Christian homes where people study the Bible as a family. People used to go to church at nine in the morning; they’d leave church at 3 p.m. Sunday was dedicated to worshipping God. Those are landmarks within the Word, like brotherly love, sisterly love or taking care of your neighbor. Now it’s every man for himself and God for us all.

In some North American communities, we don’t even know who our neighbor is any more. As an African, I was raised differently. We talk with neighbors and we talk across neighborhood lines. If I don’t have salt, [I can go to my neighbor.] The same applies when they don’t have something; they come to me. In my U.S. neighborhood, if I have an emergency at 1 a.m. I’m disturbing somebody’s sleep. We have replaced that kind of love with 911.

Q: Does it matter whether church history is conveyed on parchment paper or with modern technology, on a computer or on a cell phone?

Yes, it matters. We communicate with what is available to the culture. It’s an age of cell phones. It’s an age of computers. It’s an age of social media, so we use it. That’s the language of the culture. Would you understand me if I started speaking Shona, my mother’s language? No, but if I come to you speaking the language you understand, we can communicate. There is a dialogue. We can solve issues together. We can exchange ideas and tackle the future together. Using communication tools that are available now is very important.

Q: You use new, innovative tools to convey an ancient, traditional message.

Yes. We put that old wine in new wine skins. It’s the same wine but it’s been transferred. People are always comfortable with the familiar. That’s why even God talks with what is familiar to us. When Jesus Christ was teaching he used parables about commonplace things; in agricultural communities he spoke of tilling the soil, with the fisherman [he spoke of storms at sea.] He didn’t use heavenly language that his listeners wouldn’t understand. We use the tools that the people understand, that they know.