VISH MISHRA surprised himself recently when he scanned the files of his software company. He had 11 churches as customers.
"I was amazed," says Mr. Mishra, president of Ace Software Corporation. He didn't expect religious institutions to buy his easy-to-use database program.
If you think computers are secular machines, think again. Churches, ministers, Bible students, and even Sunday School teachers are gravitating toward the new technology. It's not a new age of electronic evangelism. But it's clear evidence that the computer skeptics are wrong.
Michael Dill was preaching in Washington state in 1985 when he put his computer to religious use.
"It didn't take a rocket scientist," he recalls. "If I could find a way to computerize some of what I do, I could accomplish a lot more." So he began typing the church bulletin and his sermons on a computer. As computers got more powerful, Mr. Dill expanded into desktop publishing for his bulletins, computerized Bibles for his sermons, databases for his parishioners (Dill uses Ace Software's AceFile), and fancy compression software to squeeze all that data onto his hard disk.
Church members wondered about all this. "Some of them are ho-hum. Some of them think: `Oh neat, that's exciting!' And others look at you with a jaundiced eye," Dill says. But after six months in his new location, the Church of Christ in Benicia, Calif., members started coming to him for computer help. When his machine broke down two years ago, members came together to pay the $300 repair.
Religion's embrace of technology is nationwide. This fall, a committee of the National Council of Churches is holding a special meeting on computer use. There's already ECUNET, a computer network for church people to share ideas.
"Many, many volunteers have exposure to the machine," says Kathleen Waters, managing director of F1 Software in Asheville, N.C. As they use them at work, they're finding new ways to use them in church.
"Instead of the computer being something for computer buffs in the church, it's seen as a routine tool used by many, many churches," adds Neil Houk, editor of Church Bytes magazine, based in Durham, N.C. "I don't see the articles anymore wondering whether the computer is ... a tool of the devil."
Religious software is also coming into its own. Ms. Waters's company sells office-administration software called PowerChurch Plus. It tracks budgets, donations, visitors, and just about anything else related to church activity. It has some 5,000 customers in more than 40 denominations.
Computer Bibles are also moving into the mainstream. Delmer Hightower, president of NASSCO, used to have trouble finding the market for his CompuBible. Now, he's seeing larger players, such as Bible publishers, jump into the business.
Sunday school software (yes, it exists) is not as developed.
"We have a lot of inquiries from all over the world," says Marydel Frohne. She runs Church School Software with her daughter out of a Bensenville, Ill., parsonage. "But the sales have been exceedingly slow."
Sunday school software parallels general education software. There are programs for drill and practice, simulation (What would you do if you were Moses?), and creativity (how to write a prayer; how to write a hymn). Fewer than 50 titles exist today, Mrs. Frohne estimates. She expects interest to build as Sunday school software begins to take advantage of emerging technologies such as computer video, animation, and sound.
It's clear computers can speed up church work. Do they change it?
"I think I'm a more resourceful preacher," says Leon Schrei, a Church of Christ minister who once took a loan out on his car to get a computer. "I have access more quickly to things such as concordance and Bible-study tools."
But would St. Paul have approved of all this? "In Paul's day, he walked, he took ships," Dill says. "I'm sure if they had airplanes, Paul would have flown. Paul was out to preach the gospel.... You use the tools that you can use to get the job done."
Amen to that!