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Connectivity and communion: The mobile phone and the Christian religious experience in Nigeria

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This article explores the integration of the mobile phone into the religious experience of Christians in Nigeria. Based on the results of an online survey and the author’s observation, it argues that the mobile phone has become an actant in the mediatization of religion, creating dependency among some users and transforming religious praxis in palpable ways. Unsurprisingly, perspectives vary on whether and how the phone should be used during worship. Attitudes coalesce around three viewpoints, leading to the emergence of user groups labelled critics, advocates, and dualists. The accounts of study participants give access into the ways some people seek to (re)configure their engagement with religion by inserting the mobile phone as a multifunctional techno-spiritual gadget.
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Connectivity and Communion:
The mobile phone and the Christian religious experience in Nigeria
Allwell Okechukwu Nwankwo
School of Media and Communication,
Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria.
Email: allwell.nwankwo@pau.edu.ng
Abstract
This article explores the integration of the mobile phone into the religious experience of
Christians in Nigeria. Based on the results of an online survey and the author’s observation, it
argues that the mobile phone has become an actant in the mediatization of religion, creating
dependency among some users and transforming religious praxis in palpable ways.
Unsurprisingly, perspectives vary on whether and how the phone should be used during
worship. Attitudes coalesce around three viewpoints, leading to the emergence of user groups
labelled critics, advocates, and dualists. The accounts of study participants give access into the
ways some people seek to (re)configure their engagement with religion by inserting the mobile
phone as a multifunctional techno-spiritual gadget.
Keywords: Christianity, Digital Religion, Media, Mediatization, Mobile Phone, Nigeria,
Religious Culture, Religious Experience, Virtual Communities, Worship
Introduction
This is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil….A pastor held up a smartphone as he
made those remarks while preaching at the graduation service of a mission university in the
United States. He jocularly accused the graduating students of texting one another while the
sermon was on. The congregation laughed; yet, they apparently understood the minister’s point.
In the Biblical account of humanity’s fall, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stood in
the middle of the Garden of Eden, home of the first couple, Adam and Eve. The tree was an
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ambivalent phenomenon. Consuming its fruit would engender both wisdom (a desirable
outcome) and death (an undesirable consequence). God had instructed th e f irst cou ple n ot to e at
the fruit. But eat, they did. The wily serpent convinced them. Because of this frugivorous
adventure, humanity became wise but mortal. The phone-tree analogy obviously throws up
some philosophical conundrums beyond the perimeters of the present article. It, however,
periscopes the inherent contradictions of the social personality of the mobile phone.
Scholars have studied mobile phone uses in different contexts. The use of the mobile
for religious purposes and its role as a shaper of the religious imaginary are still largely
underexplored (da Silva, 2015; Hutchings, 2015a). However, within the framework of digital
religion (Campbell, 2013), which explores the interaction of religion, media technologies, and
digital culture, there has been an upsurge in scholarly interest, which has been analyzed in
waves (Campbell, 2017). Early on, it seemed that most of the studies in digital religion took
place in the West, with Africa, South America and Asia being under-represented (Hutchings,
2015a). Alzouma (2017) also notes that little attention has been paid to the study of the mobile
phone and religion in African countries. The reality is, however, different. A growing corpus
of studies in Africa (for instance, Chiluwa, 2008; Chiluwa and Uba, 2015; Cloete, 2016; Faimau
and Lesitaokana, 2018; Goliama, 2011) and in Asia (such as, Barendregt, 2009; Fakhruroji,
2015, 2019; Han and Nasir, 2016; Slama, 2018) has explored the deployment of digital
technologies for religious purposes.
The study reported in this article sought to understand how urban Christians in Nigeria
have integrated the mobile phone into everyday religious practices. Although it was exploratory
and used a modest sample, it gives insight into the lay of the phone-religion landscape, focusing
on urban Christian practices, while gesturing toward future research directions. The study, it is
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hoped, will help to enrich our understanding of digital religion in an African context: Nigeria,
in this case.
In Nigeria, religion is an important institution. It permeates and conditions various
aspects of private and public life (Yagboyaju, 2017). According to a survey, Nigerians are the
second most religious people on earth, just behind Thais. Ninety-seven percent of those
surveyed claimed to be religious (WIN/Gallup, 2017). In this country of 201 million people
(UNFPA, 2020) Africa’s largest religion is regarded as part of personal identity. Three
religions predominate: Islam, Christianity, and African traditional Religion (ATR). According
to Falola, Genova and Heaton (2018), 50% of Nigerians practise Islam, over 40% Christianity,
and a small indeterminate proportion practise ATR. A few practise no religion at all (George
and Amusan, 2012). A historical survey indicates that religion and the media have always had
some affinity in Nigeria. For instance, the first Nigerian newspaper was established by
Reverend Henry Townsend of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1859 (Akinfeleye,
1985). Since then, the role of the media in religion has grown. Nigerian churches today
command huge media empires (see Obayi and Edogor, 2016; Obayi and Onyebuchi, 2014)
through which their members partake in religious experiences and possibly seek to set some
agenda for the public (see Rashi and McCombs, 2015).
At the micro level, a mosaic of looming media presence and activity also emerges, with
the pervasive adoption and insertion of the mobile phone into the religious lifeworld of many
Nigerians. There are over 190 million active mobile connections in Nigeria (NCC, 2020a) And
there are about 93 million unique mobile phone subscribers after accounting for multiple SIM-
card ownership (Adepetun, 2018). Moreover, Nigeria has over 138 million internet subscribers
(NCC, 2020b), 93% of whom access the web through their mobiles (Ericsson, 2015). These
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statistics make Nigeria the largest mobile phone market in Africa. With hundreds of radio,
televisio n, c able a nd satellite ch ann els co upled with over 10 0 press titles, Nigeria’s media scene
isone of the liveliest in Africa(BBC, 2019). This broad range of media platforms available
to various religions paints a highly variegated mediascape. The complexities apparent in this
media-religion landscape make the country an interesting locale for studying the interaction of
the media and religion. The country offers insight from a developing world perspective into the
fusion of personal media (in this case, the mobile phone) and religious practices. The question
may arise: why is the focus on the mobile phone, rather than the smartphone? The reason is that
in Nigeria (as in other African countries), smartphone penetration is still low. Many people
access the Internet and social media (mostly Facebook and WhatsApp) through simple feature
phones, also known as dumbphones(Sadeque, 2018). The popularity of feature phones is
driven by cost considerations, prompting some manufacturers to develop inexpensive devices
christened ‘smart’ feature phones (Akinpelu, 2019; Awosanya, 2019). The context of Nigeria
makes focusing the discourse exclusively on smartphones a less realistic approach.
The research questions for the study were as follows: What role does the mobile phone
play in the religious practices of study participants? What types of religious content do
participants consume? What are participants’ attitudes toward the use of mobile phones during
worship? How do participants perceive the mobile phone as a tool for the practice of their
religion? These questions were considered important as the literature on media and religion in
Nigeria indicated they had been largely understudied. The article is based on primary data
generated through an online survey, supplemented by the author’s observation. The study itself
was framed by the mediatization of religion theory. Although the study was exploratory and
based on a limited sample, the findings suggest that the mobile phone is playing a prominent
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role in the mediatization of religion. They also sketch the contours of an agenda for further
research. The rest of the article is organized along the following rubrics: mediatization of
religious experience, the mobile phone as agent of religious mediatization, method, findings,
discussion, and conclusion.
Mediatization of Religious Experience
As a concept, the mediatization of religion is based on the broad theoretical framework of
mediatization which designates the process through which core elements of a social or cultural
activity (for example, politics, teaching, religion, and so on) assume media form(Hjarvard,
2008a). Mediatization is a social process through which other institutions of society submit to
the logic, or the operational methods, of the media (Hjarvard, 2008b). The concept of media
logic has be en c riticized , esp ecially in the light of the variety of available media today (Couldry
and Hepp, 2013). However, mediatization is not a one-way street that privileges media as the
reason for changes in society and culture. It is a dialectical process in which the media influence,
and are influenced by, society and culture (Krotz, 2014). Thomas (2015) views the
mediatization of religion in the context of the self-transformation of religious organizations
and agents in anticipating the expectations of the media.’ Broadly, however, the mediatization
of religion, as a theory, does not only analyze changes at the societal level but alsoat the level
of social interaction, as expressed within particular organizations and in the practices of
individuals(Lövheim and Hjarvard, 2019, emphasis mine). Thus, mediatization manifests in
the individual experience of religion. In this paper, religious experience broadly refers to the
beliefs, values and practices employed by individuals in demonstration of their religiosity. It is
not to be confused with discrete religious events or activities which could be regarded as
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experiences. The concern here is with the holistic experience of being religious and integrating
the mobile phone into that experience.
Although mediatization has spawned several works (in addition to those already cited,
see Hepp, Hjarvard and Lundby, 2015; Hjarvard, 2013; Kaun and Fast, 2014; Kortti, 2017;
Krotz, 2017), it has been criticized for being too broad, lacking solid empirical grounding, and
making hubristicclaims (Deacon & Stanyer, 2014; 2015). Hjarvard (2016), however, places
it on the same pedestal as other overarching societal processes like globalization,
individualization, and urbanization. He contends that mediatization occurs at two levels: the
media become an independent institution and, at the same time, become so embedded in other
institutions that they inexorably become part of, for instance, doing family,’ ‘doing politicsor
doing school.Similarly, it is argued here that the mobile phone, as a media form, has become
so ind ispen sable that it can be considered part of d oing religionamong the Nigeria n Chris tians
surveyed in this study.
Within the mediatization approach, there are three levels of analysis: micro, meso and
macro (Krotz, 2014; Lövheim and Hjarvard, 2019). While at the micro level, the focus is on
individuals, the meso and macro levels train the spotlight on groups (or organizations) and the
larger society, respectively. Yet, these levels of analysis are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Nor is mediatization a static phenomenon. It is a dynamic, ongoing, non-linear process that
involves interconnected actors at multiple levels individuals, organizations, and communities
(Hepp, 2020). I share Knoblauch’s (2014:146) perspective that, in addition to the macro view
of religious events packaged as media events, mediatization consists of the integration of new
media technologies into the communicative action of the participants in such a way as to
tran sfo rm the ir religiou s prac tice.’ Although discourses on mediatization generally sp otlight the
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macro perspective, the reality is that mediatization also occurs at the level of the everyday
people. Unsurprisingly, Jansson (2016) has suggested that mediatization is ordinary.The
study reported here analyzes its subject largely from the micro perspective although it, p er f orce,
also makes forays into the meso level. Exploring the media cultures of everyday people can
only extend the mediatization research agenda. This article applies the mediatization concept
as an analytical lens to investigate the religious practices of a sample of urban Christians in
Nigeria.
There has been some debate around the two concepts of mediation and mediatization.
Some scholars (for instance, Meyer, 2009, 2011, 2015) prefer to view the interaction of media
and religion from the mediationstandpoint. While the intention is not to join the debate, it is
noteworthy that Couldry and Hepp (2013) and Fornäs (2014), among others, have drawn a clear
distinction between the concepts. While mediationrefers to the regular process of
communication through the media, mediatizationis a dynamic process that focuses on social
and cultural change occasioned by the integration of the media into social and cultural life. The
preference for mediatization in this article is premised on its emphasis on changing religious
practices largely instigated by the integration of the mobile phone into religious experience.
The Mobile Phone as Agent of Religious Mediatization
While Mazur and McCarthy (2011:2) sta te tha t religion is everywhere,’ Stout (2012:20) argues
that religious media are found in houses of worship, but also in one’s own home. Religious
conversations can be face-to-face, but they’re often mediated.’ With over eight billion mobile
connections worldwide, perhaps the mobile phone constitutes the most ubiquitous of the media.
Miller (2014) considers the mobile phone a material manifestation of mediatization. He views
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its widespread adoption across the globe as an indication of the spread of mediatization.
Similarly, Jansson (2015) considers the expansion in the use of mobile devices alongside other
personal technologies as heralding a technological, social, an d cultu ral shift th at gestu res toward
a new phase of mediatization. Against this background, the intersection of the mobile phone
with religion cannot but be a matter of course.
Despite the obvious role of the mobile phone in the mediatization of religion, very little
research has paid attention to this area (da Silva, 2015). That said, some scholars have studied
the mobile phone as a tool of religious mobilization within Islam (Alzouma, 2017), mobile
phone customization to suit the religious beliefs and values of a believer community (Campbell
2007, 2010; Rashi, 2013), the uses and categorizations of religious applications (apps) for
mobile phones (Campbell et a l., 2014; Wagner, 2013), and the use and culture of text messaging
by Christians for religious purposes (Bell, 2006; Chiluwa, 2008; Chiluwa and Uba, 2015;
Roman, 2005, 2006; Taiwo, 2015), among others.
Heidi Campbell has explored the insertion of the mobile phone into religious practices,
esp ecially within the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Israel under the rubrics of new media
and digital religion. Using the religious-social shaping of technology model, she has explored
the process by which this Israeli community has aligned the mobile phone to its beliefs and
values (Campbell, 2007; 2010). Also, Torma and Tuesner (2011) have studied the ways the
mobile phone mediates and influences users’ engagement with their faith. Through their study
of three iPhone apps they showed that apps can be designed to support religion through text (a
Bible app), audio-visual aesthetics (audio and video streaming app used by a church) and
personal reflection and journaling (a confession app). Again, in several contributions,
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Hutchings (2014, 2015b, 2015c) has demonstrated a growing reliance of Christians on Bible
apps for their engagement with the scriptures.
Similarly, several scholars have studied the integration of the mobile phone into Islamic
religious practices. For instance, Fakhruroji’s (2015, 2019) studies have explored the
deployment of the mobile for religious messaging in Islama practice that supports the self-
helpstyle of religion. Khan and Shambour (2018), on the other hand, have x-rayed the
provision of services for the Hajj and Umrah through mobile apps. Signif ican tly, in their survey
and classification of about 300 apps on the Google Play Store, Hameed, Ahmed and Bawany
(2019) discovered that Islamic apps were the most downloaded of all religious apps. Such a
pronounced reliance on the mobile phone and its affordances points to the mediatization of
religion. It engenders shif ts in th e Bible- o r Quran-reading culture and the concept of connecting
with the transcendental. Elsewhere, this researcher has suggested that the mobile phone may
become a one-stop platform for all things religious in the life of the individual (Nwankwo,
2017).
No doubt, the mobile phone exemplifies the concept of multistability (Wellner, 2016),
which is the ability of the same technology to carry out multiple functions. Statista (2017)
ind icates that there are ab out f ive million ap plication s (apps), in the aggregate, available to users
of Apple and Android phones on the various app stores. Considering that each app represents
functional potentiality the multifunctionality of the m obile phone becomes clearer. Fo r in st ance,
Campbell et al. (2014) studied 451 religious apps on iTunes and developed a categorization
framework. Indeed, for religious apps, users are spoilt for choice. That said, it is this
researcher’s opinion that to develop a broad picture of the role of the mobile phone in the
religious experience of the user, studies need to adopt a more holistic view. While studies that
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focus on SMS, apps, and similar specific contexts may be appropriate for the Western world
with a longer history of scholarship in the area, starting out with a bird’s-eye view of the
phenomenon in the African context (with a younger history) is considered a good option. This
strategy provides the basis for the current contribution and plugs it into studies elsewhere.
Method
The study reported in this article used a mixed methods approach to collect and analyze both
quantitative and qualitative data, supplemented by the author’s autoethnographic observations.
As defined by Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004), mixed methods is a research paradigm in
which the researcher mixes or combines quantitative and qualitative research techniques,
methods, approaches, concepts or language into a single study.In this study, the mixed
methods paradigm was considered necessary to provide a nuanced account of the mobile phone
in the religious experience of participants. The study used the convergent mixed methods
approach a procedure in which quantitative and qualitative data are collected around the same
time and integrated to provide an interpretation of the findings (Creswell, 2014).
The data were collected through an online survey posted on Googleforms from January
to September 2017. The survey consisted of 24 questions: 15 close-ended and nine open-ended.
The first four close-ended questions sought information on gender, age, ownership of a mobile
phone, and the religion of participants. The actual number of close-ended questions that
explored the use of the mobile phone for religious purposes was 11. Thus, the survey was nearly
equally split between close and open questions. The close questions sought quantitative data on
whether participants had religious content on their phone, went to church with their phone, read
digital or hardcopy Bibles, made calls or sent messages during worship, and so on. The open
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questions, on the other hand, sought data on the specific religious content participants had on
their phone, how they used their phone while in church, and their opinions about the use of the
mobile phone during worship, and so on. This design allowed participants to share their
experiences and perspectives. The qualitative data generated were combined with quantitative
data to paint a detailed picture of the mediatization of religion.
The study locale was Lagos, a cosmopolitan city in Nigeria reputed to be the largest in
Africa, with 21 million people (Ighobor, 2016). Lagos is also a melting pot, with residents from
various parts of the country. Participants were chosen through a mix of purposive and snowball
sampling. Af ter setting up the survey online, I sent the link to Christian contacts on my phone
mostly through WhatsApp, except for a couple of participants who requested that the link be
sent by email. Contacts were requested to forward the message to their own Christian contacts
living Lagos. They were also advised not to post the survey link on Facebook or Twitter. This
was to keep the number of participants manageable and ensure that only people in Lagos
completed the survey. Eventually, 125 participants (65 females and 60 males) completed the
survey. Two female participants stated that they had no religion; therefore, as programmed, the
online survey terminated their further participation. Considering that the survey link was sent
by WhatsApp, a popular social media app in Lagos (Onyeator and Okpara, 2019), and that 93%
of Nigeria’s Internet users connect through their mobile phones (Ericsson, 2015), it was likely
that most participants completed the survey on their phones. Participants were aged 20-60
although, as Table 1 shows, the majority were between the ages of 20 and 40.
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Table 1: Study Sample
Age Group
20-30
31-40
41-50
51-60
Number
43
50
21
9
Percentage
35
41
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Overall, the number of participants was deemed adequate, considering the exploratory
nature of the study. The critical consideration was not the generalization of findings but the
construction of a basic understanding of the mobile phone phenomenon among participants.
Owing to the limited sample, questions about denominational affiliation (Roman Catholics,
Anglicans, Adventists, Methodists, and so on) were considered unnecessary. Data analysis was
conducted using NVivo and Microsoft Excel. The qualitative data from open-ended questions
were coded and thematically analyzed on NVivo while the quantitative data were analyzed
using NVivo’s chart functions and Microsoft Excel.
It need s to be stated th at th is re searc h de sign ha s some limitatio ns. The link to the online
survey was sent through WhatsApp to participants. It was likely that only people within a
certain circle people with similar media culturehad access to the survey. This limitation,
however, was not considered strong enough to render the study invalid so long as the findings
accurately represent practices reported by participants. Moreover, most Nigerians online
connect through their mobile phones; thus, completing an online survey was not deemed strange
to mobile phone users in Lagos. Af ter all, most apps (Bibles, hymnals, de votio nals, for ins tance)
used for religious purposes are downloaded, accessed, or share d through an Internet connection.
Those unfamiliar with cotemporary Nigerian media culture may think that, since most
participants apparently completed the survey on their phones, they may have abridged their
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opinions because of the constraint of typing on mobile phone keypads. It is arguable, however,
that since most Nigerians access the Internet through their mobiles, they have already mastered
the intricacies of typing with small keypads. Indeed, responses to open-ended questions
corroborated this notion. While some questions elicited one- or two-word responses, several
responses ranged between 30 and 60 words. The longest response to a question had 105 words.
That several participants typed out long responses indicated a mastery of typing on small
keypads and a high level of engagement with the subject of the study.
Before considering the findings, it is appropriate to briefly discuss this researcher’s
positionality. Often, researchers must confront the frames provided by their background,
culture, gender, and experiences. These frames could colour their approach and interpretation.
Reflexivity provides an opportunity to reflect on these frames and their influence on ones
approach to research (Creswell, 2014). Reflexively speaking, I identify myself as a Nigerian
Christian, a mobile phone user for 19 years, and a keen observer of what people do with their
phones. Significantly, my phone supports my religious experience in important ways. I go to
church with it and sing hymns from it. Although it has Bibles, I still go to church with my
hardcopy Bible, which I read during worship. I am, therefore, a participant-observer in the
mediatization of religion in Nigeria by the mobile phone. I often reach into my own experience
to understand, analyze and appreciate contemporary Nigerian media culture in the traditions of
autoethnography (see Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011). Because I am embedded in this
experience as a participant, I can provide nuanced interpretation and insight that an outsider
may easily miss. According to Ellis and Bochner (2000), however, this embeddedness may
become a drawback if one cannot get outside the experience and analyze it with detachment.
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To mitigate this, I have foregrounded the experience of participants as reported by them. My
own experience provides a background for making sense of participants’ experience.
Findings
The findings in the study are reported in this section. Each subsection below addresses one of
the research questions: What role does the mobile phone play in the religious practices of study
participants? What types of religious content do participants consume? What are participants
attitudes toward the use of mobile phones during worship? How do participants perceive the
mobile phone as a tool for the practice of their religion?
The role of the mobile phone
The mobile phone has become a very important religious artefact among study participants. Its
role manifests in two significant domains: (a) worship and (b) everyday religious activity. The
mobile phone now helps configure the worship experience as 88% of participants reported
going to church with it. While in church, more than 60% of participants would use their mobile
phones for worship-related ac tivities suc h as re adin g the Bible , singing f rom the digital hymnal,
taking notes during sermons, recording sermons, and sharing worship content instantly on social
media. In addition, more than 80% of participants reported they had prayed for someone on the
mobile phone (for various reasons, especially physical absence). However, only 60% believed
that a prayer said on the phone was as effective as one made in person. About 30% had no
opinion on this matter, while 10% believed phone prayers were less effective.
In the domain of everyday religious activity, the mobile phone was also fully involved.
It was implicated in the following: sending messages to members, evangelism, researching
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religious concepts online, spreading prophecy, sending tweets, video broadcasts, payment of
offerings through linked bank accounts, recording and sharing voice notes, coordinating church
group activities, follow-up on the welfare of church members, sharing testimonies and
inspirational materials, posting religious content on social media, sharing prayer points, and
reminding members of prayer times, among others. It seems participants were deploying the
mobile phone as a centrepiece of religious activity. Perhaps, no other artefact known to humans
has been saddled with a greater range of religious activity than the mobile phone.
Common Religious Content
From participants’ accounts, it appears the mobile phone has become the hub for, and an
aggregator of, religious content from various sources. To start with, 93% of participants
reported having some form of religion-related application or content on their phone. The most
common religious app or content was the Bible, which 94% of participants had. Others were
hymnals, gospel music/videos, and Christian literature including devotionals and Bible study
guides. About 30% of participants reported some musical content (songs, hymnal, music). As
suggested by Wagner (2013), the apps installed may indicate the content that users care about
as they seek authenticity in their religious experience. Interestingly, half of the participants
reported going to church with both their hardcopy Bible and mobile phones; eight percent
attended church with only their hardcopy Bibles, whereas more than 30% attended with only
their mobile phones. While 37% preferred reading the hardcopy Bible, 32% preferred reading
the Bible on their phones. Nearly a quarter (24%) reported no preference. Although there was
no perceptible difference between men and women in the habit of going to church with their
phones, more women (54%) attended church with both the hardcopy Bible and mobile phone
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than men (37%). Similarly, more women (44%) than men (30%) preferred reading th e har dcopy
scriptures, and this mirrors Hutchings(2015c) finding that men were more likely to read the
digital Bible.
The use of the mobile phone during worship
As stated earlier, most participants reported that they attended church services with their mobile
phones. Only a female participant (aged 41-50) reported that her church did not permit the use
of mobile phones during worship. A few participants (15%) indicated that they made or
received calls during service while a greater number (35%) reported they sent or received
messages. More men (18%) reported making or receiving calls during church service than
women (11%); conversely, more women (40%) reported sending or reading text messages than
men (32%). As entrenched as the mobile phone seemed to be, the issue of how the device could
or should be used during worship still created polarities in opinion. Participants were asked to
consider whether they viewed the mobile phone as a distraction during worship or a device that
could be used to build up people's faith. Based on responses to this question, three attitudinal
groups emerged. I have labelled them critics, advocates, and dualists. These labels have been
employed solely for categorization purposes; they do not imply any opinion regarding the
rightness or otherwise of a group. Poignantly, the opinions expressed by participants tie in with
Wagner’s (2013:204) suggestion that a smartphone privately reflects its user’s concerns,
preferences and activities.Because this question generated tremendous interest, going by the
number of elaborate responses received, I will devote some space to it.
In the context of this study, critics is a descriptive label to denote those who espouse
discipline in the use of mobile phones during worship. It connotes no judgment on participants
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so labelled; nor is it meant to be pejorative. Critics maintain a strict don’t-touch-don’t-use
attitude. Their stance, however, does not come near the technological discipline of the Amish,
who for over a century have kept a tight leash on the phone to secure their faith and community
(Miller, 2011). Although he reported having the Bible on his mobile and going to church with
both the Bible and his phone, a male participant (aged 31-40) warned that the mobile phone is
a device, not the Bibleand not really an active instrument for religious purpose.For some
critics, the phone should be switched off during worship. A female participant (aged 31-40)
who reported going to church with her phone advised: Mobile phones are a distraction during
worship. People should go to church with their bibles and not phones.Another female
participant (aged 31-40) who reported not going to church with her mobile phone stated that
during worship, it [the mobile]’s a distraction because you can be tempted to quickly check
what is happening in the world,adding that some people could use it as means of gossip during
service.For a younger female participant (aged 20-30) who opined that prayers made through
phones were less effective than face-to-face ones, using a mobile phone during church service
or mass is usually distracting to the user and persons around.She also reported that she would
not go to church with her mobile phone. Now, does the stand of the critics vitiate the central
argument of this article that the mobile phone has become an agent for the mediatization of
religion? Certainly not. Evidence from the study suggests that even critics depended on the
mobile phone in several ways to support their religious experience. They were only against its
use during worship.
The second group, advocates, considered the mobile phone an integral part of
evangelism and building up people’s faith. Advocates believed mobile phones should be used
during worship for evangelistic purposes. They equally endorsed its us e fo r the spiritual nurture
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of members and expressed no qualms about using it during worship. They had their reasons. A
male participant (aged 41-50) reported that the mobile phone was used to message and mobilise
members of the local assembly...used to remind people of upcoming events and meetings
used as a prayer request collector…used for miscellaneous small group communications via
social media.Another male participant (aged 31-40) took a broad, philosophical view:
Mobile phone can never be a distraction. The reality of today is that mobile phone has
come to stay and it has nothing to do with religion. It depends on individuals. Mobile
device … has eliminated hardcopy and hard cover materials thereby saving space and
reducing load. During worship it is an all in one tool and very useful and efficient. I
laugh when I hear some pastors make generic statements like you guys are just checking
Facebook and all that but really who cares. The truth is no one is going to heaven with
their bibles be it hardcopy or electronic.
Another participant, a female (aged 31-40), wrote: Mobile phone has help[ed] me personally
share the word of God to people [I] have never … met or would never meet. A male (aged 41-
50) noted that the mobile phone can be used to reach out to the youth who are active on the
platform, in sharing the Word of God with them.The perspective of advocates ties in with the
views of the Chabad, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish group that considers communication media
veritable tools for reaching and influencing society (Rashi and McCombs, 2015).
The third group, the dualists (not related to the philosophy of dualism), accept the dual-
facetedness of the mobile phone as a device to prop up faith, but also a potential distraction
during worship. Their opinion seems to echo Arnold’s (2003) phenomenological analysis of the
mobile phone using the trope of Janus, the mythical dual-faced Roman god, who looked both
forward and backward. Thus, the mobile phone has the potential for achieving contradictory
19
ends, depending on the circumstances of its application. For dualists, the mobile phone could
be used either way, depending on the user and their level of discipline. A female participant
(aged 20-30) wrote:
Well, the innovation of mobile phones has been of great help to this generation; in my
opinion it is not supposed to be a distraction but I guess it is now a distraction, where
people answer calls in church, send text messages, but it’s a matter of choice. We decide
how best we want to serve our loving God.
In a similar vein, another dualist stated that, ‘it depends on the individual's level of control.
Ideally it should support / help our faith as it does our entire life, but for people who can't
exercise control over its use, it is a distraction(male, aged 41-50). A male participant (aged
41-50) opined: The mobile phone is a double edge[d] sword which has its merits and demerits.
It can be used as a tool for evangelisation. It can also cause distraction.For dualists, t he co ncept
of multistab ility (Welln er, 2 016 ) is real: the mobile phone can mean different things to dif ferent
people. A male participant (aged 31-40) summed up the issue this way:
If well managed mobile phone can help one to grow spiritually because it provides a
whole lot of information that can help one grow. At the same time, it can serve as a big
distraction if not well managed because messages and calls may be coming in at the
same time as you are studying your Bible.
The stands of the critics, advocates and dualists demonstrate the agonistic tension a useful
object like the mobile phone often generates when it encounters religion. Similar tensions have
been reported in Brazil where the mobile phone is regarded as an instrument that both God and
Satan could use, and Pentecostals are often admonished to use their phones with responsibility
(da Silva, 2015).
20
The mobile phone as tool for religious practice
In the context of this study, religious practice refers to the gamut of activities or actions
undertaken by an individual as an adherent of a religion. It includes participation in church
services, evangelism, prayer, and other religious rituals. It may be carried out individually or
collectively. Religious practice encompasses the two domains referred to earlier: worship and
everyday religious activity. Majority of participants considered the mobile phone an important
tool for the practice of their religion. They pointed to its portability and versatility as attributes
that support anytime, anywhere engagement with religion. A male participant (age 41-50)
wrote:
The mobile phone today has multiple capabilities - including audio/video recording,
notepad, bible apps and more, which can be of much good to its users, especially for
documentation purposes which users can easily reference on the go, anywhere, any
day at any time.
A younger male participant (age 31-40) stated that ‘the cap abilitie s of the phone to store several
spiritual materials and its portability anytime, anyday, anywhere gives me constant access to
material[s] that has aided my growth.A female participant within the same age group noted
that the mobile phone helps us in our religious outreach evangelism, the phone connects people
together.According to a male participant in the 41-50 age bracket, one can take any religious
material with one anywhere through the phone.For many participants, the mobile phone
strongly supported the practice of their religion. A female, 31-40, stated that themobile phone
has help[ed] me personally share the word of God to people [I] have never … met or would
never meet. On the other hand, there were some cautionary voices. A male participant (age
21
20-30) said: Technology is a problem to religion.’ And a female in the same age group said:
Phone is a device to be used and not a god to be worshipped.
Discussion
Writing abo ut the media tization of politic s, Krotz (2014:134) opined that as politic al institu tions
(such as parliament, governments, political parties) depended on digital media for their
functioning, they mediatizedthemselves. At the micro level, a similar conclusion can be
drawn regarding participants in the present study, the difference being that what is mediatized
is religion through a digital medium (the mobile phone). The findings of this study align with
developments in other parts of the world. The mobile phone has gained respectable acceptance
within the church (maybe, not everywhere yet), although not long ago, its use would have been
frowned upon and forbidden (Hutchings, 2015b). The situation bespeaks of the growing
mediatization of religion and the submission of religious institutions in this case, churches
to the logic of the media (Hjarvard, 2008b) represented by the mobile phone. The famed
portability and accessibility of the mobile phone have made it a participant in everyday
Christian religious praxes.
Indeed, participants’ accounts grant us a peep into the ways people might seek to
(re)construct their engagement with religion by inserting the mobile phone as a multifunctional
techno-spir itual gad get. Da Silva’s (2015) ethnographic study in Brazil reported a similar f usion
of the mobile phone with the religious tapestry of the Pentecostals and Umbandistas. Mobile
phones were used for prayers and sharing of religious content, among other things. In th is study,
specific usage patterns and attitudes differed from one individual to another; yet, there were
enough similarities to justify categorizations. The groups labelled critics, advocates, and
22
dualists represent Christians who all use the mobile phone in one way or the other to support
their religious experience. The major point of difference among them was the ir attitud e to usage
during worship. It will be interesting to see whether today’s advocates may , with time, become
dualists or even critics, and vice versa.
The mediatization of religion manifests in the ways using the mobile phone is
transforming religious practices. The mobile phone enables spiritual connectivity and ease of
access to religious content (da Silva, 2015). My observation, corroborated by the reports of
participants, indicates that the mobile phone has become indispensable to some Christians in
Nigeria. People access church and other websites on the mobile. They join congregation-wide
social media groups (WhatsApp and Facebook, for instance) on which churches share
information, encourage members, and build a community of believers. People pray on the
phone. They use it to nurture members, reach backsliding members, and invite prospects to
evangelistic events. To put these developments in perspective, it bears noting that the
widespread adoption of mobile phones in Nigeria began only with the launch of GSM telephony
in 2001. The use of smartphones is even a more recent phenomenon. The integration of the
mobile phone into everyday life including religion is gradually but surely transforming
religious culture. This transformation has seen physical religious communities with
infrastructural and other practical limitations (see Rashi and McCombs, 2017) create, and
extend their influence to, phone-enabled virtual communities. In the context of the coronavirus
(COVID-19) pandemic, this has become the norm.
Overall, the study reported in this article indicates that the mobile phone has become an
agent of religious mediatization in some circles. It has become part of what doing religion’ –
to echo Hjarvard (2016) means. It is so embedded in religious practices that participants
23
employed it to transform their previous ways of reading the scriptures, praying, consuming
religious content, sharing content, and evangelizing non-members. Some have used it to
transform their worship experience by pressing it into various duties during church services,
although others still demur at the thought. As Miller (2014) puts it, it is this growing
pe rvasiv ene ss of media func tionalities, roote d in d igital tech nolo gy, th at fosters the present-day
intensification of the mediatization process that is foreshadowed by the smartphone.
Conclusion
The study reported here indicates that the mobile phone as an agent of religious mediatization
presents both opportunities and challenges to Christians and, possibly, adherents of other
religions. Interestingly, Alzouma (2017) had reached similar conclusions regarding the use of
the mobile phone within Islam in Niger, Nigeria’s northern neighbour. Hjarvard (2012)
suggested that the mediatization of religion implies a multidimensional transformation of
religion that affects religious texts, practices and social relationships and eventually the
character of belief in modern societies.’ This article has, in broad strokes, painted a canvas
depicting how the mediatization of religion through the mobile phone is reconfiguring or
transforming religious praxis, engagement with religious content, spiritual relationships, and
belief systems about the appropriate use of media technologies.
Finally, it is pertinent to re-state that the study reported here used a limited, non-
representative sample to explore its subje ct. It studied Christian practices within a cosmopolitan
city in Nigeria. It did not, however, explore the nuances of technology use imposed by
denominational differences. Thus, the findings are not meant to be generalized. It will be useful
to conduct broad-based studies that go beyond the cities to engage people in the countryside.
24
Moreover, a comparative study across Christian denominations will help us understand how
belief s mould phone use. Importantly, a study on how the mobile phone is aff ecting the practice
of Islam in Nigeria is called fo r. Whatever the results of such studies, one point sticks out: when
the mobile phone and religion intersect, neither remains the same. Even the user, who enables
such contact, also undergoes change. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic,
much religious activity has migrated online. Digital technologies have assumed greater
importance for various religions. The mediatization of religion promises to remain a topical
issue for some time.
Aknowledgements
The author wishes to thank Ijeoma Onyeator of the School of Media and Communication
(SMC), Pan-Atlantic University, Nigeria, and the anonymous referees who reviewed an earlier
version of this article and made suggestions that greatly improved the final work.
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