Using computers in the Church
by STEPHEN IBBS
EXACTLY 60 years ago the chairman of IBM Thomas Watson, famously stated: "I think there's a market for maybe five computers." He might as well be right for the positive effect they have had in a lot of churches. The phenomenal growth of computers and the inter-net over recent years has provided a wealth of resources that stop at many church doors. Here we enter a dusty world where materials that would be rejected in our daily work are treated as acceptable: curledup notices and faded service sheets.
More depressing than this mediocrity is the waste of precious human resources. When asked why a church office was still doing everything manually, the response was that it is cheaper to use volunteers than to spend £50 on a particular computer program. It seems that too often the law of the Medes and Persians applies in church administration. Even though most members of the church council may have email addresses, the agendas and minutes will still be duplicated and placed in handaddressed envelopes. Even though Powerpoint offers tremendous scope for eye-catching notices — perhaps with a graphic or two — most will still be the inevitable A4 with black centred text in Times New Roman.
I know of a monthly calendar of events, prepared by a church leadership team. Leader one still clings to the outdated underline so his page is plastered with them. Leader two has little sense of grammar and apparently believes white space to be a sin, while leader three assumes that more fonts equals more effect. They each send their separate pages to a co-ordinator who, not allowed to edit, combines them together in Word on a fourth computer. The result is a booklet that proclaims loudly that four computers are worse than one and, more significantly, the leaders do not function together as a team.
With a little foresight, calendars and newsletters could be based on templates that bring unity of style and less work for contributors. Service sheets could be better designed to cater for people with visual impairments. Web sites exist with the full text ofaltnost all non-copyrighted prayers, Bible passages, hymns and songs (for example: www.st rim arysb a Id o ck. fsne t co. uk/ hymns) — surely it makes sense to utilise these resources rather than have a volunteer typing for hours preparing each service sheet?
Often churches are not aware of the range of software available to help them with administrative tasks. For more than 20 years the independent Church Computer Users Group has striven to promote and develop the use of computers within the church. This year instead of printing a newsletter they are publishing the articles on their web site (www.ccug.orgark). What an excellent move this is; it's cheaper, saves precious paper resources and makes the material instantly available to all.
Thankfully the visionaries are out there and when they embrace the technology exciting things happen. The BBC carried the news item of a church in Bath (www.stphil ipstjames.org) broadcasting services live via a web-cam. This was a marvellous evangelistic outreach and one that can be achieved by many churches with their existing equipment — hut why did it take so long for a church to realise the potential? Web-cams have been used for years to transmit everything from weather pictures to pornography.
Some churches are starting to appreciate the possibilities that the internet offers for communicating effectively within the local and wider community. Current news from overseas, web-chats with missionaries and live links with churches from other continents can be stimulating for congregations. One excellent resource is www.ship-of-fools, ctirn with light-heirted hut
often challenging material from around the world — like the parable about the one sheep that was found and the 99 that were lost.
recently attended a church near Stafford and it was a wonderful experience. For 20 minutes before the service started, notices and news items were displayed in a rolling presentation on a screen, so administration issues did not interrupt the flow of the liturgy. The video projector was also used during the sermon, displaying relevant quotes and cross-references while the preacher was talking. The notice-board in the entrance hall proved that the computer in the office was being used to gather and disseminate information in an effective way and people were being released from mundane chores to go out and spread God's word.
Of course, it was not just the computer; the worship was uplifting, the people were welcoming and the coffee was great. However it was clear that they had started to embrace the technology as part of their Christian lives, though their fledgling web site still needs work.
More churches are developing their own web sites giving details of activities — but one found yesterday detailing a forthcoming house party three years ago failed in its elfectiveness, Rather than each church developing its own site, why not work with other churches on a joint site? Have you realised how difficult it is to find out service times of churches when visiting an area? The churches in Darlington got together and developed www.churchindarling ton.org.uk where you can obtain this information and much more.
All of the main denominations have created central web sites which provide a wealth of information and it is fascinating to see the different web designs being employed.
We face awesome competition from the media, public relations companies and huge advertising revenues to catch the attention of people. If we as a Church are to communicate the one message that really matters, we must realise that mediocrity is not acceptable. The public expects high quality materials with up-to-date and thoroughly-researched information from around the world. We have the resources at our fingertips to provide this — why do we assume that second-rate is good enough for the Lord?
• Stephen lbbs Is Joint managing director of Data Developments (www.datadevel opments.co.uk). a company based in Wolverhampton that has produced software since 1985 covering membership, accounts and Gift Aid administration for churches and charities.