The Church and the Computer -- Then and Now
by the Rev. Charles Austin (November / December 2004 • Volume 20 • Number 6)
I’ll bet that on the day in 1979 when you took the first issue of Lutheran Partners out of your mailbox, you did not have a computer in your office. That year a few electronic hobbyists might have had computers, but the world of bits and bytes was foreign to most of us.
WordStar, the first popular word processing program, had just been introduced, and we were starting to learn an operating system called CP/M. IBM, the only name to know in the computer world, had not yet chosen MS-DOS as the engine that would power its computers.
The Early Years
I bought my first computer in 1982. It cost $5,000 and had about one-tenth of the computing power that you can buy now for less than $800.The screen displayed fuzzy green letters, and when I wanted to print out a five-page sermon, the dot-matrix printer would clatter away for about 12 minutes, providing the paper didn’t jam.
When the Lutheran Church in America went “on-line” — a new word then — in the early 1980s,we could see only text (more fuzzy green letters), and it took a full five minutes to obtain (we weren’t saying “download” then) a page of copy.
Five years later, when I bought a laser printer, I thought it was a miracle to be able to have varied typefaces and black-and-white pictures. But the printer cost $1,200 and couldn’t do one tenth of what an $89 inkjet does today — in full color.
Some friends thought I was insane to spend my time wrestling with modems while trying to get on-line. In the mid-1980s, the LCA was an initial member of “Religious Associates,” the nation’s first on-line religion news service, which ran on a primitive, pre-Internet service called The Source. And the only information on-line was what a few of us tried to put up there.
Today, 83 million American households have a computer. Two out of five homes have Internet access, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the number is growing. The fuzzy green letters are gone. Our screens dance and sing with bright colors, video images, and music of all types.
Connections are easy and at lightning speed. Millions of organizations from the scholarly to the silly have their information on-line. During a recent hospital stay, I had a touch-screen video with full Internet access on an arm I could swing over my bed. When a doctor would leave, I could go on-line and research any symptom, disease, or treatment mentioned.
It is hard to imagine how an active congregation could get along without a computer or how a pastor could work without an online connection, although I suspect some do so. The Internet increases the amount of information and inspiration available to us; it helps us keep in touch with congregational leaders, and makes the sharing of our ministries with others a thousand times easier than before.
But what does computer technology and accessing cyberspace have to do with winning the world for Jesus Christ? In one sense, nothing at all; for it is individuals who witness to the gospel, and it is individuals who respond to God’s call. And although the Internet has created some new types of communities, it is individuals who must gather around Word and Sacrament and then go out to serve their fellow human beings. Robots or Web sites cannot replace personal witness.
There have always been “new” technologies. In a previous generation, the traveling evangelist or gospel singer didn’t replace the local pastor, but the pastor could not ignore the fact that people flocked to these other displays of the faith and were affected by them. We are becoming a cyberworld, where people obtain information, interact with others, express opinions, and seek inspiration and community through various forms of technology. We should hope that the technological does not replace the personal, but this can happen.
We do not yet have an adequate “theology of technology.” For some, computer technology is simply machinery, allowing us to do some things in better ways. But so was the steamboat, the Bessemer converter, the sawmill, and the telephone, and it is not hard to see how those developments changed travel, steel making, construction, and communications. Is machinery morally neutral, with all the responsibility falling upon the user? Or does technology itself lead us, corrupt us, or impose its own mark on society apart from any action of the user?
Scripture shows us a little about what it meant to be faithful in a Roman-dominated society, where Christians were initially despised and persecuted. Believers have always been in a struggle with the powers of the world, sometimes using those powers for the sake of the gospel, sometimes falling prey to the temptations of power. There are massive issues related to technology, cyberspace, justice, love, and witness to the gospel that we have not even begun to study.
And when we do, I suspect that we will not find some magic formula for “Internet evangelism,” though we are already learning dazzling ways to use technology to spread the gospel. We can send e-mails to our friends to invite them to church, but unless they sense a depth and conviction in our personal faith, expressed in our daily lives, the e-mails will be little different than the spam from a drug company or bank.
The first issue of Lutheran Partners, published 25 years ago, was its own form of “new technology,” making use of the magazine format to connect and minister to pastors and rostered lay ministers. The pages of the magazine didn’t replace the pastoral care of bishops, the collegiality of friends in ministry, or the interaction between pastor and parishioner. We still had to do that personally.
Today, technology can expand and enhance all those things, and we must learn to live fully in the Internet world. But the Great Commission was not given to a magazine or machinery; it came to individuals who acknowledged Jesus as Lord and would risk all to share that faith with others. We are still called to go out into the world — and that includes the cyber world — and we will do so with our powerful computers. But we will also go out to witness and serve as flesh-and-blood individuals, powered not by an Intel chip but by the Holy Spirit.
Charles M. Austin is an ELCA pastor who is a reporter for The Record, a daily newspaper in New Jersey.