Special software for churches has been developed only in the last four years.

Deliberate error was unthinkable. Even the concealment of the truth filled him with a sense of imperfection, of wrongness—of what, in a human being, would have been called guilt. For like his makers, Hal had been created innocent; but, all too soon, a snake had entered his electronic Eden.—from 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction classic, Hal is an unwittingly menacing computer which (who?) takes over a spaceship and suffocates several astronauts.

In the years since 1968—when Hal and company occupied motion picture screens and the nation’s thoughts—Americans have grown more comfortable with computers. Computers are now involved in issuing social security checks, calculating bank accounts, and addressing magazines. Americans use computers at work, at play (with video games), and finally, irresistibly, at church.

In the church? Very much so, according to Jack Gunther, vice-president of Church Growth Data Services, one of the many rapidly proliferating firms that provide computer hardware and software (programs) for churches.

“The computer in the church is an idea whose time has come,” said Gunther, who formerly worked for IBM. “Five years from now virtually every church is going to have a computer.” The machine, Gunther and others predict, will soon be as commonplace in churches as typewriters and telephones.

Gunther believes as many as 1,000 churches may already have computers in their offices. Curtis Maybee, who manages Church Systems Incorporated, thinks the number is closer to 250. Executives at other church computer services are reluctant to hazard estimates. Either way, the vast majority of the nations’s 250,000 churches—all undoubtedly laced with telephones and typewriters—have yet to open their doors to computers.

Still, no one disputes Gunther’s prediction, though some think populating churches with computers will take twice or three times as long as he suggests. Church computer services are operating in a fledgling field. Computer vendors manned 12 of 32 booths at the National Association of Church Business Administrators (NACBA) convention last July. There were only five computer booths the previous year.

Marvin Myers, executive director of the NACBA, said a half day of the four-day meeting was devoted to computers. “Churches are moving quickly into computerized programs,” he said. So are church computer services. So many companies are breaking into the market that Myers had to keep revising his exhibitor list. “One exhibitor gave one name one week and had a new one when he came to the convention,” said Myers. “He had been bought out.”

All the rush and hulabaloo has been generated because computers are undeniably convenient and helpful for churches. There are obvious applications, such as using the machines for financial record keeping. Less obvious—and requiring special programming—is the use of computers to help congregations grow.

For example, a church might have a computerized membership profile with categories such as the member’s name, address, and marital status when he joined the church, his health, talents, interests, and spiritual gifts. The pastor of a large church, unable to know each member personally, can use the computer to match persons of similar interest in a Bible study or arrange a block party for members living in one area.

The detailed and easily accessible information makes it possible for visitors who are potential members to be matched with present members who live in the same neighborhood or share the visitors’ interests. “Attendance tracking” automatically alerts the church staff when a member has been absent several consecutive Sundays, allowing the minister to visit and perhaps prevent a dropout.

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The computer can also become the depository for the complete records of a church: membership, financial, attendance, library (including music and audio-visual titles), and inventory. Word processing capabilities allow pastors to prepare sermons, bulletins, and newsletters more rapidly and conveniently than on the conventional typewriter. A Maine pastor estimates that word processing has cut his sermon and bulletin preparation by three hours each week. Living in a remote and rural area, he looks forward to tapping computerized theological libraries by telephone. Computerized home Bible study aids have already been developed by an Austin, Texas, firm, Bible Research Systems.

Bible Research has a concordance, called “The Word Processor,” stored on eight floppy disks, and selling for $159.95. The concordance includes the complete King James Version Bible text. The company now plans a computerized version of Nave’s Topical Bible.

All this activity is recent. The oldest church computer services are Church Systems Incorporated (CSI) in Oklahoma City and Computer Dimensions Incorporated (CDI) of Florence, South Carolina. Both began in 1978.

CSI’s Maybee said computers are becoming more popular in churches because micro- and minicomputers, cheaper than larger models, have been perfected.

Harris Rogers, president of CDI, notes that the potential for computers in churches will not be exhausted for years. Eventually, he suggests, computers could regulate the heating and cooling of church buildings, minimizing the energy waste in rooms used only once or twice a week.

Computers, then, are changing the church along with the rest of society. The number of computers rose from zero to 10,000 from 1946 to 1960, then from 10,000 to 10 million between 1960 and 1980. According to one estimate, 15 million manufacturing jobs may evaporate during the next quarter century, when robots replace assembly-line workers. At the same time, the computer revolution will create jobs for millions in other occupations: engineering and computer programming, for example.

Despite the inevitable upheaval and change that they bring, churches appear comfortable about using computers. “In any church there is what I call the ‘cold water committee’—the group that resists anything new. There’s no more or less resistance to computers,” said Maybee.

A secretary in an Upland, California, Baptist church appreciates the computer. “Preparing the youth newsletter used to take an entire morning. Now it takes 15 minutes,” she said. John Burbage, a computer programmer who introduced a computer to his Denver church, said only one member protested. She prayed the computer would not be adopted because she thought it would replace people. “It’s not replacing a secretary,” Burbage insists, “but making her more efficient at what she does.”

Gunther, of Church Growth Data Services, said he has only been asked once about the deeper theological implications of computer use by churches. That neglect worries Irving Hexham, assistant professor of religion at the University of Manitoba. Hexham, an evangelical who has written on the theological ramifications of computers and robots, believes evangelicals have rushed headlong into the computer revolution without serious thought.

“I’m not antitechnology,” Hexham said. “I tend to like technology and computers.” Most of the churches clamoring to use computers are evangelically oriented and excited about how the computer may enhance evangelism. That is not bad, Hexham explains, but it leaves evangelicals (“so gung ho on conversion”) more disposed to buy into techniques and technologies without considering the long-range consequences.

“I’m not saying one cannot come to terms with the computer,” Hexham said. “But we need to ask how far you can take them. Where does the personal fit in computerized networks and systems? Use computers but use them self-consciously.”

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In the last century, the Industrial Revolution prompted some people to alter their concept of God. The astounding technological progress led them to believe that man, through his own genius, could usher in the millennium. That belief was an important element in the rise of liberal theology.

In coming years, when the computer revolution has taken firm hold in our society, man may again alter his concept of God, Hexham argues. He believes, ironically, that the computer age will generate a return to an older, more Puritan understanding of God.

According to Hexham, God is presently understood as extremely personal and accessible to individual believers, who have an almost casual relationship with him. He is what Hexham calls the “hi-God.” But the Puritans emphasized God’s majesty and transcendence. Computers are complicated and mysterious, much as the Puritans viewed God. With computers, “we punch things in and have less control,” Hexham explained. “The older theology” is consonant with the computer mentality because it teaches that “we don’t know everything about God, and He doesn’t do everything for our convenience.”

Even if the church were not using the computer, it would have to face the profound questions the machine raises. “No [occupational] group is safe from the computer revolution,” Hexham said. In the long term it will create jobs, but there will be a period of job displacement, even in occupations (such as accounting and law) unaccustomed to such shocks. This can be called another revolution, Hexham said.

As the new industrial revolution gains steam, computers remain prohibitively expensive for smaller churches. Most companies agree churches need at least 700 members to begin considering computers. Systems sell for as low as $8,500, with most clustering around $10,000 to $15,000 and the peak reaching $50,000.

Thus far, only one denomination has begun exploring the religious applications of the computer. Not surprisingly, it is the evangelistically concerned Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Sunday School Board has developed the Church Information System, now being tested in two churches in Tennessee and Georgia.

The pitfalls of predicting the future are well known. In 1955, Life magazine foresaw the development of guided missiles to “haul both passengers and mail to safe destinations within minutes.” Instead, the development of the jet proceeded, making rocket travel superfluous.

The sheer pervasion of society by computers, however, leaves no doubt computers will change the way Americans live and think in ensuing decades. The church, mindful of the bounties in the original Eden, is already appreciating the Apples (Qantels and IBMs, too) hanging before it in the twentieth-century garden. The same church, above all other institutions, is likewise aware of the perils of the original Eden. It will not only enjoy fruit, but must confront snakes lurking in the new, “electronic Eden.”

RODNEY CLAPP

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