The Computerized Preacher

The preacher apologized. There would be no sermon this morning. It had been a busy week, and he hadn't finished his manuscript until late Saturday night. He'd typed it into his computer, and that's where it was now. By the time he discovered his printer wouldn't work, the repair people were all asleep.

As the preacher stepped down from the pulpit, the people stared, then started muttering…

The preacher looked tired. He had sat down late on Saturday afternoon to pull his sermon notes together on his brand-new computer. When he was all finished, he discovered there wasn't enough room on the floppy disk. He wasn't sure what to do. And he wasn't very happy at all when he discovered he had lost his sermon somewhere amid the bytes and chips and disks. He wasn't very happy as he sat there retyping his manuscript until 2:00 A.M. Sunday morning either. Now, as the congregation waited quietly, this newly computerized preacher glanced down at the sermon manuscript in front of him. The sermon was finished all right. It was even pretty good, he thought. But he was almost too tired to deliver it…

Why Bother?

Stories like these, whether real or imagined, are enough to discourage a minister who is thinking about buying a personal computer. After all, why use a computer for sermon preparation when so much can go wrong? But what the well-meaning storytellers who relate these tales either don't know or fail to mention is that most preachers who own computers wouldn't give them up for anything.

Computers, after all, are incredibly helpful machines—capable of doing far more than the traditional typewriter can do. So while the computerized preacher may have a few embarrassing moments—especially while he is getting used to his new machine— he'll very likely discover that the advantages of using a computer far outweigh the disadvantages.

For example, the computerized preacher often feels much freer in his writing than he did when he used, a typewriter. The typewriter produces hard copy—a page with words on it—every time. If you want to change the words, you must put a second page in the typewriter and begin typing all over again. Not so with the computer. The preacher's words appear on the screen. They have no reality except as electronic information stored inside the bits, bytes, and chips of the computer. Not until the command to print is given is hard copy produced from the printer. Until then, anything can be changed.

As a result, the computerized preacher can begin to type as fast as he thinks, without worrying about errors. When he gets to the end of his sermon, he still has the freedom to go back and add, insert, delete, or change any word, sentence, or paragraph he has written. Not until he has typed in every word to his satisfaction does he key-in instructions to print the first and final hard copy for the pulpit.

Better Sermons

Do computerized preachers preach better sermons? Yes and no. The computer works no miracles. Although it has the capacity for storing huge amounts of information, the computer is basically a dumb machine. Only when the user begins entering information and commands does the computer begin doing its thing—with lightning-fast speed. The old saying in the computer world is true also for the pastor's study: "Trash in; trash out." Type in a slow and dull sermon and guess what comes out of the printer?

In the same way, a computer will not make an Arminian sermon Reformed or a dogmatic doctrinal lecture an exciting evangelistic proclamation. But a computer can help to make a dull sermon more interesting. Available now are software programs that can be used to edit sermons for spelling errors, sentence structure, use of jargon, punctuation, and readability. One program, for example, examines the length of sentences; notes the use of technical terms, polysyllabic words, and repetition; identifies passive-voice constructions, misspellings, and unusual punctuation. The program then scores the manuscript according to grade-level readability. If the general population operates at a sixth- to tenth-grade reading level and your sermons come out at a twelfth-grade level, you might be encouraged, and guided, to make your sermon more understandable to the congregation. By replacing passive verbs with active verbs, shortening sentences, replacing technical terms, and removing unnecessary repetition, you will develop a sermon more likely to succeed in communicating what you want to say to your congregation.

One minister told me that shortly after he began using a personal computer one of his parishioners expressed appreciation for the organization of his sermons. He suspects the computer had something to do with that. While reading and planning his sermon, this minister types various notes and quotes into the computer. As he completes his reading and study, the computer allows him to easily begin arranging his collected information into a rough outline. He establishes his main points and subpoints and arranges them on the screen; then he begins to expand the thoughts, add the transitions, and work toward the completed sermon.

This same minister used to type each sermon on two sides of one page. If he found a mistake or wanted to make a change halfway through the second side of a page, he had the choice of marking through the lines with a pen, thus creating a messy manuscript, or retyping the entire page from scratch. Now it's just a matter of punching a few keys and moving sentences or paragraphs to any location he wishes before final printing.

So although the computer will not make a bad sermon good, a computer can definitely make a good sermon better.

Other Uses

The computer does more, of course, than just help prepare sermons. It can lighten the pastor's load in dozens of ways.

Weddings. How many weddings do you perform each year? The computer can help. Store your favorite marriage form on a floppy disk. When a wedding comes along, call up the form on the screen, add the names of the bride and groom, add whatever changes you and they wish to make, insert the names of the organist and soloist, type in your wedding meditation for that particular couple, and print out a copy of the wedding service. One minister who does this presents the copy of the service to the couple as a memento of their wedding.

Church Directory. The computer can also keep the church directory up-to-date. Along with addresses and phone numbers, the computerized membership list might include information on talents, gifts, abilities, and interests of the congregation. Such information can be used to match various members with various needs. Or the minister can use the computerized membership list to keep confidential records of his ministry to the various members.

Other Options. Sermon preparation, wedding services, membership records—all can be made more efficient with a personal computer. And if the minister wishes to supplement the word-processing software with other software, the computer becomes even more versatile. Many ministers will be interested in the programs that keep careful records of both the church's finances and the preacher's personal finances.

And, because all work and no play make the preacher a dull person, let's not forget PacMan and all the thousands of other computerized video games! When the books have been read, the notes have been taken, and the sermon is pretty well in shape, take a break, grab the joysticks, and challenge a parishioner to a computer game of one-on-one basketball or space cadets or spy-hunter. If no parishioner is around, try a game of chess against the computer. It doesn't always win!

Making the Purchase

What's the greatest fear of the potential computerized preacher? Probably the fear of being completely overwhelmed and intimidated by the whole personal-computer universe. After all, most preachers can't tell an Apple from an IBM from a K-Pro. A floppy disk makes them think of a worn-out frizzbie; a program, of something you buy a ticket to; and software, of something people wear under their suits. One preacher confessed to me he didn't even know what questions to ask the first time he went into a computer store.

For another thing, many preachers aren't sure they can trust the contraption. They're afraid that right after they've typed in the greatest sermon ever written, a bolt of lightning will reduce those inspired words to a blown fuse and a puff of smoke.

When it comes to computers, the ancient advice still applies: Fear not! Talk to someone who has one. Or visit a store, admit your ignorance, and ask for a demonstration. Many places will let you sit down and get hands-on experience. And most personal computers come with introductory programs that will teach you how to use the machine by simply following the instructions that appear on the screen.

When you buy your first computer, try to get a couple of Sundays off from preaching. It will take you a couple of weeks to learn your machine. After that, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. Word-processing can help the preacher process the Word.


A missionary writes:
Acquiring a computer for the first time is a little bit like getting married. There are days when you wonder what in the world you've gotten yourself into and then there are days when you wonder how in the world you ever made it before he, she—or it—came along. Fortunately for me, the latter kind of days have long since prevailed over the former!

Robert A. Meyering is assistant director of marketing and admissions in the accelerated program for adult degree completion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 3 © March 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.