Feeble Knees

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hi-Tech Fleecing of the Flock

Before I start on this rant I'm about to go off on, it is only fair that I disclose that for years I made my living working in high technology companies - usually software companies. The software was and still is my bread and butter, it's what puts a roof over my head. We're admittedly geeky people, Mr. F and I, and we love nifty gadgets or cool new technological innovations just as much (if not more than) the next person.

So you could maybe assume that we'd enthusiastically support the use of all sorts of hi-tech wing-ding gadgets in the church. You could assume that, but you'd be %100 wrong.

The Boston Globe just recently published this article about the growing use of technology in mega-churches. It primarily profiles a mega-church not too far from here in Lexington, Massachusetts (yes, that Lexington - where the shot heard 'round the world unofficially kicked off the American Revolution).

The article describes many of the technologies used by large churches across America these days - Microsoft® PowerPoint® slides and projectors for praise and worship lyrics, sophisticated audio equipment for recording and burning sermons to CDs, web servers for streaming sermons on the Internet, digital cameras and pagers in Children's church, etc.

I've seen where these things can be useful, and perhaps even concede where technology really does make things run more smoothly. I'm thinking of a certain mega-church located smack dab in the middle of a major metropolitan city, where security is a major concern and the pastoral staff has their hands full managing a service full of well over two thousand people at a time. Even though I believe the pastoral staff preaches in concert with the heart and spirit of God, and that they do everything with a humble, servantlike attitude, all the gadgets still make me a bit uncomfortable. I look around and see dollar signs on everything, and I can't help but wonder, did they really count the cost here? Will my offering go towards helping the actual ministries of the church, or will it just defray the costs of their Web hosting fee this month?

Anyway, so it comes as no surprise to me that there are churches out there throwing all sorts of money out the window on laptops, projectors, networks and software. I knew that already. What particularly caught my eye in the Globe article was this little tidbit about a Texas mega-church:

Fellowship Church, a congregation of 20,000 in Grapevine, Texas, spends 15 percent of its $30 million annual budget on technology. There were just 5,000 attendees in 1999 when church member Terry Storch quit his job as sales manager at an Internet company to take a full-time job at Fellowship. Back then, ''there was no technical infrastructure here," said Storch, ''There was no network."

Today, as Fellowship's chief technology officer, Storch manages 400 desktop computers, a cluster of 30 network servers, and 15 terabytes of networked data storage. While the church uses standard computer hardware, Storch wasn't satisfied with the church management software then available. So Fellowship invested $1 million to create Fellowship One, a program created especially for mega-churches. They even set up a business, Fellowship Technologies, to sell the software to other large churches.

(all emphasis mine)

Ok, now I've heard everything.

I've worked in software for ten years. I've taken on the role of product manager for at least one software product, which means I acted as the liason between the customer and the developers to communicate what a new product should be and what it's going to cost to build in terms of time and resources. Mr. F writes code for a living. So between us, we're well acquainted with nearly every aspect of the business. I'm not writing this as a technology outsider or casual home computer user who just blogs every now and then. I've also been a member of a church who dutifully participated in church elections and voted on bylaws and proposed projects. I have a clue about such things.

So you'll pardon me for the following outburst:

This church spent A MILLION DOLLARS developing a stinking piece of software?? And now they're HAWKING IT TO OTHER CHURCHES? I'm sorry, this makes me hopping mad, and I'm disgusted beyond words. This is complete and utter vanity.

I used to think the worst most terrible thing in the world were the snake oil word-of-faith preachers and evangelists who promised financial blessing to people who sent them money for "prayer cloths" and other such garbage. I reserved my greatest disdain and disapproval for such types who shamelessly ripped off pensioners and unemployed or underemployed people of much needed cash.

But this is disturbing on so many more levels, it's hard to know where to start. In my mind's eye I can envision Jesus himself ripping out cables and pushing over towering racks of network and file servers.

First off, who was the jackal or jackals who convinced the church they needed said million-dollar church management software? In my time in the business I've seen far too many software sales executives talk customers into buying millions of dollars of features they don't need. It sickened me in the business world. It enrages me to think someone's doing it in the church world.

Who are the developers who undertook this project? Wonder how they're sleeping at night on mattresses stuffed full of church money?

Who are the complete rubes in the churches of America who are falling for this garbage and think they need it? This is fiscal irresponsibility at its absolute worst. We are supposed to be good stewards over all that God has given us. I completely, wholeheartedly, utterly fail to see how any church board could justify such an expenditure for "church management software". Whoever you people are, you were just sold a total bill of goods. Don't think you won't answer for it someday.

The apostle Paul employed himself as a tent maker so that he could support himself and not sponge off the church community. How on earth then can this Mr. Storch justify his position as full-time CTO of a church??? What, maybe he couldn't he cut it in the commercial business world? Did he decide instead to jump ship and be a big techie fish in a niave little church pond? Does he enjoy convincing his congregation to spend thousands of dollars on stuff that becomes instantly useless in the event of a power outage? (Which makes me wonder: do they cancel church when the network goes down???)

I can imagine the arguments that were used to justify this project. "Why give money to Oracle or Microsoft for database software? Wouldn't it be so much better to develop a highly-specialized database for recording membership lists, and then sell it to other churches? See, we'd be doing something for the church, not giving money to those big greedy corporations!" I cringe to think they went out and found a team of Christian developers - thereby assuring themselves that the whole thing will bless God's people all around.

What a crock. A total, complete, rotten stinking crock.

What is especially disturbing about this article was that it was published in the Business section of the Boston Globe. Not the Religion section, not the Living section. The Business section. So what that says to me is that a whole bunch of software executives in the Boston area (and you can't throw a rock without hitting two of them at once around here) are getting the brilliant idea that they should start targeting church and religious organizations as potential sales customers (if they haven't already). The article proves that there are churches that rival the size and influence of many private and public corporations, the traditional target customer base for enterprise class software. Moreover, unlike many public and private businesses, these churches have a steady supply of recurring revenue in the form of tithes and offerings. Doing business with such a rich institution would sure beat having to wrench money out of a venture-funded firm that's just about exhausted what's left of their last round of funding.

If I'm a software, networking, or hardware sales executive reading this article, I'm thinking to myself Holy Cash Cow! and before I even finish reading the last line I'm already jotting down a memo in my Palm Pilot to start looking up congregations in my sales district and to give them a friendly little courtesy call to see if I can help them with any of their technology needs.

Don't think it isn't happening. Don't think it for a minute.

I've said it before, I'll say it over and over and over again: I don't think this is what Jesus had in mind when He told us all to build His church. Why is this so hard for so many people to figure out? Shouldn't it be obvious?

Shouldn't it???

In Mark 6 we're told that Jesus instructed the apostles to go out and preach, and he specifically told them what to pack for their assignment:

And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits;

And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no scrip, no bread, no money in their purse:

But be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats. Mark 6:7-9

This was the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ. This is how it began. A bunch of broke, hungry guys wearing sandals talking to people they encountered along the way about this Jesus and the kingdom of God. Nothing extra, nothing extravagant, nothing showy. It was these folks of whom it was said: "[they have] turned the world upside down."

But today we think we need networks and servers, databases, projectors, streaming video, podcasts and who knows what else.

God forgive us, and God help us.
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