NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Find-A-Church, the online directory of United Methodist churches, is going global. A mapping project is expanding Find-A-Church to include information on churches outside the U.S. for the first time.
The church’s online directory will begin to provide a resource for global communities by collecting church names, locations, GPS coordinates, names of pastors, local cell phone numbers and other information for United Methodist churches in Africa, Europe and the Philippines – data that has never before been accessible.
Over the past year, United Methodist Communications, the denomination’s communication agency, has spearheaded a mapping pilot project that will begin allowing congregations outside the U.S. to access and share information, beginning with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines. By the beginning of 2014, the mapped areas will extend to other countries within Africa and throughout the Philippines.
The goal is for people looking for United Methodist churches, hospitals and educational facilities in Europe, Africa and the Philippines to be able to locate them online, while churches will be able to share information about their ministries, from eliminating deaths from malaria and training health workers to educating children and providing communication technology.
“For over a decade, people in the U.S. who are interested in beginning or continuing a relationship with The United Methodist Church have been able to locate churches in their area using Find-A-Church,” said Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications. “Now we’re working to help people to find a United Methodist connection in their area, wherever that may be.”
There are an estimated 13,000 congregations outside the U.S., but the likelihood that there are many more unmapped United Methodist ministries around the world has driven the church communications agency to take on the challenge of literally putting unidentified churches on the map.
"We call ourselves a connectional church and a global church, and yet we have no idea where our members are," said Bishop John Yambasu of the Sierra Leone Episcopal Area. "A map that tells us exactly where a church is located in each annual conference will give us a better understanding of who we are and how connected we are."
United Methodist communicators in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines participated in a pilot with United Methodist Communications to gather information about church locations in those countries using FrontlineSMS, a text messaging system that does not require the use of the Internet.
Pierre Omadjela Tangomo, director of Communication and Development in Central Congo, sent out 158 FrontlineSMS messages to several communities in July. Nearly 129 SMS messages were returned from pastors serving at nearly half of the villages where local United Methodist churches are currently located with necessary mapping information. Because The United Methodist Church has been growing so rapidly in Africa, many of the village church locations are very new and do not appear on any current map.
According to Tangomo, there have been challenges to tracking down these points of worship and their leadership, but he and others are very excited about future possibilities that go beyond collecting names and addresses.
The software will also allow developing communities to report on real-time crises like earthquakes and other natural disasters. The public will be able to report what they see and then share that information online.
United Methodist Communications worked with Ushahidi, a nonprofit tech company, to utilize its mapping software for this major undertaking. Ushahidi often works with companies and others who need information collection tools and channels for encouraging participation.
Erik Hersman, the creator of Ushahidi, said that so far The United Methodist Church is the largest faith-based map project for Ushahidi.
“Faith-based nongovernmental organizations like The United Methodist Church are just at the nascent stage of using new technologies,” he said. “The United Methodists are using the most important Ushahidi tactics to tell a story and reach local communities.”
Ernani Celzo, Communications Ministry coordinator in Baguio, is coordinating the mapping project in the Philippines. Celzo has plans to use mapping to monitor programs and ministry, disaster response, monitoring and tracking, mobilizations and even “evangelization” of the airwaves.
“I find it an exciting platform because every time I map an unfamiliar location, I say, 'Oh, there’s a United Methodist church in this area!'" Celzo said. “It’s really cool when you see lots of red dots on the map.”