Each morning at 7 o’clock for more than a decade, Amy Lax, a member at Fairfield United Methodist Church, has sent a text message with an inspirational song, often a short devotional, and always a pink heart emoji. Within minutes, Lax’s phone lights up with text replies, some sharing prayer requests, others checking in with a “Good morning,” but all ending their texts the same way, with a specific colored heart.
Lax and those in her text group are among a growing number of United Methodists who have found texting to be a way to both encourage and be encouraged, as well as develop their faith alongside others, frequently in real time, and regardless of location.
“Reading the text is how I start my day,” says Sharon Hennis, a member at Sedge Garden United Methodist Church who is in Lax’s text group. “It’s part of my routine to listen to the song and read the devotion.” The routine also includes responding with a red heart emoji.
Lax, Hennis and five others in the group have a friendship that spans more than 40 years, beginning when they were college suitemates. Though they stayed close and experienced many life events together, the daily texts have strengthened the relationships.
"Everybody needs a support group, whether it’s at church, a small group of friends to get together in a circle, or on texts, like us," Lax says. " I think you need that support to do life. Each one of us has experienced moments when we’ve felt sad, lonely, or scared. While we know that God’s got us, it’s a reassurance that we have from the group.”
When an emoji means something more
“When we see praying hands with a heart, it’s not just an emoji. It’s serious. And someone is praying,” Hennis points out.
“It’s definitely like having our own prayer group 24/7,” Lax adds.
June Hayes, a member of Brookstown United Methodist Church (and the green heart emoji), says the daily texts have positively impacted her faith journey.
“Because of the texts, especially the prayer concerns, I will spend some time in my day where I’m quiet and still with God to be able to focus on the things that are requested,” she shares. “I might not normally do that on a given day, but the texts cause me to move into that (space) because of the needs we have.”
Text messaging is an opportunity for ministry
The Rev. Taurai Emmanuel Maforo started using WhatsApp, an internationally-available free instant messaging app, in 2016 when he sent out daily devotionals to approximately 2000 people in his home country of Zimbabwe. When the pandemic sent everyone to lockdown, Mafora started the WhatsApp group he termed the “Prayer Closet” as a way to share prayers. What initially started for the UMC Bindura Circuit, quickly spread to other parts of the world. Beyond Zimbabwe, participants in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, United Kingdom and the United States now comprise approximately 20,000 participants in 77 WhatsApp groups.
“If WhatsApp is where people are spending most of their time, that as an opportunity to send the gospel to that platform,” Mafora notes. “Text messaging has become an opportunity for ministry, widening the reach from local to global.”
Through these groups, relationships have formed, Mafora says, with participants sharing their thoughts about the weekly sermon, as well as offering encouragement to one another.
“In the cases of a participant losing their loved ones, Mafora offers as an example, “other group members send words that provide soothing to the bereaved.”
Being together while apart
When Marne’ Price organized a book study in the fall of 2019 at Christ United Methodist Church, where she and her family are members, she had no idea the traditional weekly small group would transform into a daily lifeline for its participants.
A combination of factors, including moving the group online during the pandemic and several of the members losing husbands and other family members to Covid, resulted in the group calling themselves the Praying Angels.
“During the day, if someone has something that comes up, either with themselves or with an acquaintance, they just text the group and say, ‘Please pray for this’ and then they update us through the day,” Price says.
“When I see that group pop up,” Price shares, “it makes me realize how important our connection with each other is.”
Becky Calvin’s sister and husband died during the pandemic, traumatic loses that those in the group shared with Calvin although they weren’t together in person.
“It really felt like they were right there with you even though they weren’t because the texting is in real time,” Calvin points out. “I knew they were all with me in heart and letting me know how devastated they were with me.”
“They would give me a lot of spiritual encouragement. They didn’t necessarily quote verses but just hearing their opinion on certain things was able to help clear my mind and focus on the spiritual side of what was going on,” Calvin recalls.
“During that time, too, other people were asking for prayers in those texts. Seeing that and knowing that other people were having issues also helped me realize I wasn’t the only one who was hurting,” says Calvin. “It’s easy to feel like I’m out here on my own. The texting has kept me feeling included.”
“The ministry that we’ve been able to do together and not be together has been significant,” Price says. “I’ve never experienced something like that. It’s been a whole new way of being in community.”
Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email.
This content was published June 16, 2022.