Science in Christian Perspective



Towards a Theology of Church and Computer
Stephen R. Daniels
127 Grijalva Drive
San Francisco. California 94132

From: JASA 34
(June 1982): 110-112.

The initial focus of this study was to investigate whether or not the local church should purchase a computer. The essential and underlying question of this investigation was whether a computer could enhance the ministry and functioning of the church, and if so, was its cost justified. In the beginning, this study was entirely devoid of theological implication. In fact, the question should the local church purchase a computer seemed straightforward: the church 1) should purchase a computer if it could perform meaningful tasks on a cost justified basis and 2) should not purchase a computer if it was either frivolous or not worth the investment. However, as with most issues or concerns related to the church, questions of theological relevance inadvertantly arise. Questions once simple become complex; easy solutions require additional thought.

Briefly, the focus of this report shifted from should the local church purchase a computer to the theological necessity for purchasing a computer. While this may seem initially as mere academic semantics, the difference in focus is quite real. The value of a computer for the church shifted from a mere information storage and retrieval system to a tool capable of not only enhancing the ministry and functioning, but as a vehicle in and of itself for communicating the "good news".

In 1977, Theodor Nelson wrote, "The United States-indeed the world-is about to be totally changed by a revolution . . . (a) computer revolution" (The Home Computer Revolution, 1977, p. 10). 1982 has arrived and the revolution has indeed begun. Computers directly and indirectly affect millions of people each moment. Computers can be found regulating the efficient burning of gasoline in Datsuns and Chryslers; monitoring the security of a home against fire and break-in; teaching deaf children to speak; monitoring cashflow and inventory for small businesses. Everywhere one looks, computers are being put to work. Perhaps the primacy of the computer in today's world is evidenced best by the fact that advertisements for computers can be heard on top 40 "rock stations," seen on "Monday Night Football," and given away on "Hollywood Squares." The computer has invaded-most people have been taken by surprise.

Perhaps the only invention that can rival the computer for restructuring life as it is known on planet Earth is the printing press. The printing press radically transformed the world view. The invention of movable printing changed drastically the status quo of society, societal interactions and most important the communicability of the Gospel. Directly attributed to the invention of the printing press was the demise of the feudal system. Learning, reading, knowledge, information of other places and people was no longer limited to an oral tradition or painstakingly slow written communication. Serf, peasant, lord, all became more exposed to ideas, new ideas, old ideas rephrased. The ability to exchange information rapidly and to a diversity of people is an accomplishment to which Christians are deeply indebted. The impetus and strength of the Reformation was directly related to the quick and broad dissemination of ideas espoused by Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. Like no other emancipator, the printing press unshackled the masses and decentralized power. Precious and sacred to Christian tradition is the ability of the masses to directly and individually study Scripture-in one's native language-a feat realistically improbable prior to movable type.

Not until the invention of the computer, and more specifically the small, home computer, has there been an invention to rival the printing press. The computer with its speed for handling information, its ability to process diverse information, and its flexibility for specific situations, will not only change the course of history, but will be instrumental in restructuring the interaction and communication between human beings.

You are not alone if the word "computer" conjures up an image of a large windowless room filled with huge metal cabinets and eratically spinning wheels of tape. While this may have once been an appropriate mental picture of a computer, it is no longer accurate. The most striking characteristic of the computer today is the variation in size, shape and form it exists in. The diversity of the computer is appropriately matched to the many tasks for which it is used. Computers exist everywhere; seemingly in almost everything: in traffic signals, washing machines, and children's toys. Computers stress-test airplane fuselages, mix drinks and produce full-length feature cartoons.

A computer can be most efficiently defined as a passive instrument, whose unique characteristic is the ability to follow exactly a precise set of instructions. The computer is basically a blank, "intelligenceless " device (a true tabula rasa). The plan, any plan a computer follows is not self-generated. It comes from outside the computer; it is called a program. The author of the program a computer executes is a human being. A human being puts together a finely detailed list of steps necessary for a particular function to be performed. The computer, on cue, executes these steps rapidly.

Since the computer is simply a passive device whose most salient feature is its ability to rapidly execute a function according to a specific plan, it is a too] lacking intrinsic purpose. Nelson (1977) writes:

Just as a typewriter may be used for either commerce or art, to type sad words or happy words, a computer can follow lists which direct it to draw pictures, send out bills, or select the names of political enemies for dire treatment. It is not the nature of the computer to do any of these things. It is merely the nature of the computer to follow instructions. (p. 54)

Purpose for a computer is defined entirely by the user. The user creates a list and the computer follows this list. Because the computer is essentially an "all-purpose" machine, capable of being hooked-up to any electrical device, the number of functions an individual can program a computer to perform is practically infinite.

For the purpose of the local church, the word "computer" should create the image of a small series of components occupying less space than the top of a desk. These components technically make up a "computer system" although it is common to refer to this system as a "computer". The essential elements of a computer system for the church consist of:

(1) a central processing unit (CPU), (2) a keyboard, (3) a screen, -~4) external storage units (disk drives), and (5) a printer.

The revolution of the computer is not its suddenly being mass produced and affordable by large segments of the population (Apple Computer Corp. sold over $160 million worth of personal computers in 1979; as of September 1980, Radio Shack had sold more than 250,000 personal computers). The personal computer is revolutionary because it will reshape society and societal interaction. It will change the capabilities of human communication in style, form and quantity. The small home computer is a multidimensional machine capable of communicating with the four month-old as well as the forty year-old. The computer has opened up new horizons. Things impossible to imagine or improbable to perform have been made possible with the advent of the small computer. Children can learn to write prior to having the motor skills necessary to coordinate a pen or pencil. A single letter can be sent to all 500 plus persons in Congress or 500 plus letters to a single person in Congress from 500 different individuals in mere moments of time (the actual time constraints are dependent upon non-computer equipment, like a printer). News around the world can be instantly available at one's finger tips without leaving one's home or office. Newsprint, hardback and softcover books, even the postal service may become obsolete, extinct, relics of bygone eras. There will be no need for printed material as it is known today.

The essential elements making the computer the powerful changing force in society presently are:

(1) The immense quantities of information accessible (storable, retrievable) and the speed with which it is accessible.

(2) The new medium for communicating this information is not written words, like books and magazines, but electrical impulses.

(3) The demand for specificity.

Of the three, in many ways the demand for specificity is probably the most earthshaking. The computer is entirely a passive device. It is capable of producing only what it has been programmed to produce. If the means for accessing a particular program is a seven-digit number, of which one digit is a blank space, and the blank space is omitted, the program is not accessed.

Specificity has existed for many years to some extent in the more rigorous scientific fields. Nowhere was this more evident than one day several years ago, when my good friend Ken and I decided to plant some corn. After momentarily glancing at the back of the box at the instructions, I immediately began planting. Ken on the other had, trained in the biological sciences, went and obtained a stick twelve inches long and made a mark two inches from one end. He proceeded to put a hole in the ground exactly two inches deep and twelve inches apart. In the meantime, while he had been reading the instructions and marking the stick, I had finished planting my three rows of corn. Three months later the results were obvious. There was no difference between my rows and Ken's; both patches produced equally. In other words, specificity did not matter than, but it does with the computer. Today, sporadic Stephen and methodical Ken, while equal in their planting corn skills, are widely disparate in their ability to program a computer. Why? Ken has learned the importance of being specific, exact.

Being exact is becoming a way of life not just for the sciences and the scientific, but for the general public. National and international relations have demanded common standards which allow for efficient trade and communication. Clarity and specificity are the hallmarks of these endeavors. The changing over to the metric system in the United States is one example of the push for common, clear and specific standards worldwide. The rise of consumerism is another. People want to know what they are purchasing, how much it will cost, how it compares to other similar products, and when it will need to be replaced. The consumer of today can read from a grocery store shelf the exact unit price of a particular item (a can of corn) and compare it with another. The demand for specificity can be further observed in the increase of premarital contracts defining relational roles, private and community property, and what steps will be taken in the event of divorce. it is clearly evident that the need for specificity is not limited to interacting with computer. Specificity, exactness, precision, once relegated to rigorous science, is being implemented by society today.

The printing press not only restructured society and societal interaction, it changed the church, the people in the church. The computer, like the printing press, will change the church. The church reflects very sharply the people it embraces. The church of the middle ages figured very prominently in the development of the printing press. The Gutenberg Bible, famous as being the first book ever printed by movable type, exemplifies the involvement of the church with the printing press. The church of the middle ages changed. The printing press put Scripture and various other works in the hands of people. The church began educating on a larger scale people of all classes; teaching them to read and write, The Reformation, built upon the ability of people to read, espoused the notion Scripture could be read directly without interpretation: theology changed, people changed. The crucial fact is the church played a role in the development and use of the printing press. The church of today, stands in a similiar position to the church of the Middle Ages. The church has the potential to provide leadership and guidance in the application and use of such a powerful instrument. A machine that has no built-in purpose has the capability of great harm as it does great good. The computer can continue to be developed primarily by the military for military purposes, or it can be developed by the church for the service and ministry of Jesus Christ.

The church has a potential for becoming proficient in communicating to the people of the computer age. The people of this age are different. For many, an unintentional dualism is developing between the world of work (education) and the world of faith. It is not that these people lead dual lives in the sense one is evil and the other good, but dual in the sense one is precise. the other inexact. The dualism is one of communication: specificity. Those who have grown up in the church are generally more capable of straddling the fence between these two worlds. The church loses those who are foreign to the church. Every year, more and more people are brought into this world who will most likely never darken the doorway of a church. Statistics increasingly show church and formal religious experiences are becoming less common, mom a phenomenon of the past. The domain society relegates to the church is becoming increasingly smaller. The church is losing its influence and its relatability. The tradition and heritage of the Reformation and the New Testament is the communication of the Gospel to all peoples. The use of the computer becomes a theological issue because the computer changes human interaction.

The church is not called to revolutionize the world of today or tomorrow. It is called to be faithful to the witness of Jesus Christ, with which it has been entrusted. The world around the church is changing. In order to maintain the relevance of the gospel the church must continue to change. The challenge is not whether the church will change, for it will, but whether it will be in
the forefront as a force changing society.

(Ed. note. This manuscript was printed by a computer.)