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Churches adapt high-tech means to old-time religion


In the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Jesse Lee’s computer automatically downloads his minister’s Sunday sermon to his Apple iPod each week. The 30-year-old systems engineer then plugs the tiny, portable media player into his car stereo and listens to Bruce Black’s lesson — for a second time — on his Monday morning commute.

In Memphis, Tenn., Mark Parker drops his attendance card in the collection plate each Sunday — but no cash or check. The White Station Church of Christ member gives automatically through an electronic bank transfer.

From podcasting to e-tithing, Churches of Christ increasingly are adapting high-tech means to an old-time religion.

Even ministers who “don’t have a tech bone” in their body, as Chris Seidman of the Farmers Branch Church of Christ in Texas describes himself, are seeing the benefits of embracing the 21st century versions of stone tablets.

“I can barely use the microwave,” he joked. “But God has led some wonderful people here who do have a clue about cyberspace.”
Besides posting podcasts of Seidman’s sermons online, the congregation develops e-mail postcards, which members use to invite friends and relatives to services.
Since 2001, the church’s attendance has doubled to about 1,500, Seidman said, crediting the church’s technical experts with helping spark that growth.
“For all the damage that can be done these days in cyberspace, it’s nice to know that it can be redeemed for kingdom purposes,” he said.
IN SEARCH OF TECH-SAVVY CHURCHES
In Terrell Sanders’ view, churches that fail to embrace technology risk losing out on an entire generation: Young people raised in an age of blogs and instant messaging expect tech-savvy congregations.
“The more ways that a church uses technology, the more comfortable these young families are,” said Sanders, whose Main Street Enterprises helps churches improve Internet communications.

“The podcasting, being able to download sermons and songs and play them in their MP3 players, that’s very natural for them,” added Sanders, a member of the Quail Springs Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. “They don’t see that as being high-tech.”

Lee, a member of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia, said he hears Black’s sermon the first time on Sunday morning. But often, his two children prevent him from listening as closely as he’d like.

“You get a good message, but listening to it again throughout the week is a huge reinforcement,” he said.
Even before adding the podcast format, the Fairfax church made sermon recordings available online. But in the month after the podcasts were launched in July, the number of sermon downloads quadrupled to more than 1,500, Black said.
Podcasting is, of course, just one example of the role of technology in modern church life. Power Point sermons and big-screen song lyrics aside, other varied examples include:

• The West-Ark Church of Christ in Fort Smith, Ark., has a “prayer pager” ministry.

Eight-year-old Taylor Anders, for example, received such a pager when he faced brain surgery last year. The pager on his tummy vibrated and hummed every few moments, a reminder that someone, somewhere, was praying for him.
“It was such a blessing for us,” Taylor’s mother, Christy, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

• At some larger congregations, such as the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City and the Edmond Church of Christ in Oklahoma, a computerized swipe-card system generates tags to make sure children don’t leave the nursery or Sunday school with someone who isn’t approved to take them.

• Hundreds of ministers and church members discuss doctrine and daily life in the millions of online community forums that comprise the “Blogosphere.”

“Mike Cope’s blog,” one of the most popular Church of Christ blogs, drew 327,363 “hits” in the last year.

“This one started two years ago -— ancient by blogging standards — and, of course, won’t go on forever,” the minister of the Highland Street Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, wrote in a recent post. “But for now, I still have a few things to blather on about: more about baseball, guacamole, grief, joy, faith, parenting and music.”

• Sermon outline sites operated by church members attract thousands.

Austin, Texas, minister G.E. Watkins’ Preachersfiles.com drew nearly 29,000 users in July, said Kevin Cauley, one of the site’s contributors and minister of the Berryville Church of Christ in Oklahoma.

ExecutableOutlines.com, meanwhile, is the No. 1 “sermon outlines” site on the Internet on several major search engines. Mark Copeland’s site offers more than 1,200 free sermons and Bible studies.
More than 2.8 million people have visited the site since the early 1990s, said Copeland, who preaches for a small congregation in Kissimmee, Fla.

• Many congregations, including the Northwest Church of Christ in St. Petersburg, Fla., use a computerized telephone program to update members on everything from fellowship meals to hurricanes.

NOTE TO CHURCHES: MEET ME IN CYBERSPACE
For young families seeking a church home, easily downloadable sermons on the church Web site are essential, Sanders said. That way, they can check out a congregation online before visiting in person.
Likewise, they want e-mail bulletins, online event registration and, yes, electronic giving, Sanders said.
“A lot of people in their 20s rarely handle their money,” Sanders said. “They’re paid by direct deposit and they pay their bills electronically. Even the concept of writing checks is a little outdated for them.”
For Parker, a father of two young children who is assistant executive director of the Harding University Graduate School of Religion, e-tithing means never having to worry about forgetting his checkbook or missing a contribution while traveling.
“Since giving to me is a theological act — sacrificing in a way -— I lose the power of giving that gift,” he said.
But he added, “For me, the discipline of making sure my gift gets to the right place outweighs the loss of the ‘sacrificial’ experience.”

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