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The following article appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of “Monograph,” the quarterly publication of the International School of
Theology, a seminary affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ.
“C O M P U T E R T E C H N O L O G Y A N D T H E D E F E N S E O F T H E G O S P E L”
by Rich Poll
Twenty-three years ago Christian Research Institute (CRI), founded in 1960 by the late Walter Martin (author of The Kingdom of
the Cults), sponsored the All Europe Conference on Computer Technique for Theological Research which “brought together thirty-five stellar European theologians and Christian leaders to discuss the establishment of an international computer network to aid the Church’s apologetic task.” Within a year of that conference CRI published the small book Computers, Cultural Change, and the Christ, asking aloud:
“The Christian church, since it took second place to secularism in the 18th century, has not been particularly noted for standing at the forefront of movements for positive social change or for the introduction of new methodologies. Generally, in fact, the church has been dragging her pews. What will she do in the computer revolution?”
With the hindsight of two decades, the answer to this question is that little in contrast to the accelerating need has been done. What began in the late 60s as an idea is only now becoming a reality. The following is a preliminary report from one observer’s narrow perspective. The computer revolution is so wide in scope today that no one person can know all that is taking place relative to the topic of this paper.
AN IGNORED FIELD FOR MINISTRY
Few fields of Christian ministry have fallen so far behind due to today’s Information Age as has that of apologetics. The explosion of general knowledge has been aided by electronic breakthroughs in printing and publishing as well as the computerization of mailing lists. The cults have kept up with the times in the utilization of computer technology to propagate their teachings. As a result the church is increasingly behind in responding to the cults. While computer Bibles have been available to the Christian church for years, the cults have also published their scriptures on disk. As the complexity of the Information Age falls upon us, the time is passing for the church to utilize the computer as a tool to track and supply precise responses to myriad false messiahs and teachings.
MEANS OF DATA ACCESS
There are two basic ways to access computer data for the average personal computer user. Most computer software is obtained through retail sales at a computer store or through the mail, involving the purchase of a computer disk. The other standard option for data access is the world of computer telecommunications. It is an activity which uses common telephone lines in connection with a peripheral computer unit called a modem. This new world of communication carries its own mystique. Nothing can prepare one for the compelling draw of personal time that the novice computer bulletin board user experiences in the discovery of this uniquely intimate dialog.
There are two distinct areas within the world of computer telecommunication that traffic apologetic activity. The first is
commercial. It is typified by huge distributed mainframe systems marketed under names such as CompuServe, GEnie and Delphi. Users of these systems pay a monthly service fee, a rate charge for connection time on line with the system, and a varied additional rate charge for the database subfile being accessed or the data that users download to their own personal computers. The user of these systems has access to such databases as current stock market quotations and wire service news. There are remote sales networks through which the user can make hotel reservations or purchase anything from tickets to furniture. And there are live forums in which the user interacts via the computer keyboard with other users regarding a multitude of topic-specific subject areas.
The Computer Bulletin Board
A second area of computer telecommunication is that of the electronic Bulletin Board System, (BBS). Most of these computer
bulletin boards in the Christian world are managed by volunteers on a non-profit basis with no charge to the user. The larger commercial systems mentioned above also have the following traits in common with the typical BBS. First, the medium which has perhaps made computer telecommunication most popular is the message roundtable or conference group. Different from the live forum above, here a user’s message is added to a constantly changing collection of other messages posted for general observation and response by anyone else using the system. The activity is much like that with a cork bulletin board covered with notes that any passer by can read and respond to at will. These conferences are related to individual topics which cover the full spectrum of human interest including, of course, religion. In addition to conferences (and sometimes within the structure of certain conferences) the user has the option of using private messages also known as electronic mail. Finally, a BBS often has a section dedicated to software that may be downloaded by users for their own computer.
APOLOGETICS DATA CURRENTLY AVAILABLE
Information on Disk
At the time of this writing the author is aware of only three sources of published, professional-level apologetics data on disk.
Bibliographic Database Files. The Apologetic Research Coalition (ARC) in Trenton, Michigan, offers a bibliographic database application, for MS-DOS/IBM-PC-compatible computers only, designed specifically for apologetics and countercult ministry. Database files of cult literature for use with this application are also available from ARC. Of all the apologetics ministries the author is familiar with, ARC has the greatest expertise in the MS-DOS operating system environment.
Text Files. The computer text files of the Personal Freedom Outreach Newsletter are available for $30 (again, for DOS computers only). PFO is one of the four largest evangelical countercult ministries in the United States. The PFO Newsletter, eight to twelve pages in length, has been published on a quarterly basis since 1981. It should be noted that PFO prohibits any reproduction of its computer data files, including BBS use.
Resource Abstracts. Currently the only software available from the Christian Research Institute is a free database consisting of
abstracts from literature pertinent to apologetics ministry, much of it uncommon to most libraries. Christian, secular, cult, occult, atheist, and world religion publications are covered. The data structure is modeled after the “FYI” column in CRI’s quarterly, the Christian Research Journal.
Telecommunications Apologetic Data
Though there are large Christian computer BBS networks such as Computers for Christ, this writer has been aware of no professional- level apologetics data “published” for telecommunications use until recently. The defense of the gospel, as the task of all believers to give reasons for the hope that lies within, has been ongoing within the telecommunications environment since the earliest days of the BBS, circa 1981. However, the remaining evidence of these efforts often does not fairly represent the work of skilled apologists. Eric Pement, System Operator (Sysop) of the Jesus People USA (JPUSA) chapter within the Computers for Christ (CFC) network, reports that many and perhaps most BBS files of an apologetic nature include text keyed in by users who simply copied, often with spelling errors and no source credit, from Christian literature. The recently launched JPUSA BBS is this writer’s choice for the best on-line apologetics resource at this time. Mr. Pement, an experienced apologist, is a member of Cornerstone magazine’s editorial staff and has regularly contributed to the expert apologetics work which comprises a significant portion of the publication’s well deserved reputation for a balanced application of Christianity to popular culture. In addition the Saints Alive (Ex-Mormons for Jesus) ministry has recently joined the Computers for Christ system. Within the commercial telecommunications area the GEnie system’s “Religion Roundtable” appears to have more activity of interest to apologists than that of the generally larger CompuServe system.
Echo Communications: A Resource for Interaction and Evangelism. Care must be exercised by the reader to understand that any lack of “published professional-level apologetics data” should by no means detract from the value of telecommunications sources. One prime example is the Cult Watch echo area within many religious BBS systems including Computers for Christ. A BBS echo area can be described as a message relay. In an echo a message left by a user is automatically distributed to other BBS nodes. This often makes a message available in cities across the nation. Instead of many people calling long- distance with their computer to access one BBS message, one long- distance call by a network manager relays many messages to another BBS. With each BBS node taking part the cost is shared among the members of a network. This results in a lower long-distance telephone charge or even no long-distance charge for the user at all. The echo transmission itself is usually automated by the host BBS computer which collects all new message files since the last collection was made and passes them on at predesignated times. The current standard form of electronic “echo mail” first began in 1985.
Cult Watch. The Cult Watch echo was originally designed to aid Christians in the prompt identification and understanding of cults
with which they had come into contact. The echo provided a means for detailed, quick interaction regarding a user’s questions. Today the Cult Watch echo is also received by non-Evangelical boards. Some of these are linked to cult BBS networks. There are many cultic computer bulletin boards across the country. Those that are connected to the Cult Watch echo are often characterized by vigorous interaction with Christians. An intriguing irony is that invariably most cultists who use the echo do not consider their organization to be a cult. The definition of the term “cult” is frequently a major subject of discussion. In this unique forum a Christian can dialog with a diversity of non-Christians in the complete anonymity offered by BBS communication. Such anonymity inspires boldness for both sides of religious issues. Interaction is often heated. However, observes Daniel Segard, Co-moderator of the Cult Watch echo, “this is an unparalleled opportunity to reach people with the gospel who you might otherwise never meet.” Segard has been involved with Cult Watch since its beginning in 1987. He estimates that today roughly 60% of the echo’s use is by non-Christians, half of whom are specifically neo- pagan occultists. The other half of the non-Christian user group is comprised of a wide variety of convictions. Atheist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Moonie, Scientologist and Hare Krishna are just some of the worldviews represented. In addition one may find a multitude of theologically aberrational views which claim to represent an orthodox Christian perspective. Segard says that of all the changes in Cult Watch that he would like to see most, he wishes more trained apologists would become involved.
THE SCOPE OF TELECOMMUNICATIONS MINISTRY
The telecommunications media of computer use obviously represents a unique environment in comparison to that of disk media alone. The aforementioned Computers for Christ (CFC) system represents an informal network of BBS chapters that may become a major player in the potential development of a sophisticated tool for the defense of the faith in years to come. Overseen from his CFC chapter’s BBS in Illinois, Doug Moore manages the unstructured development of CFC in his spare time. Moore is aware of five other major Christian BBS networks. At the time of this writing the author is aware of no Christian BBS network that is larger than CFC. CFC chapters have no rigid organization or formalized management structure. The signing of a doctrinal statement is the main criteria of accountability. The 46 nodes that currently make up the CFC network are unevenly spread not only across the North American continent but are also found in England and China, with a South African node due to link up soon. Moore estimates that of the near 600 registered users of his CFC chapter’s BBS, just 40 to 50 individuals use the network on a weekly basis.
Harold Robbins, Sysop of the Christian Fellowship Net out of Austin, has a listing of about 300 boards with a Christian (loosely defined) emphasis. Robbins feels there are many more that he is not aware of yet. These boards cover the globe including in part: New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Germany, and even the Soviet Union. Robbins is working with other nets such as CFC to build a unifying “backbone” system for all the major Christian boards. As it stands Robbins reports that he can leave a message that will end up in places on the other side of the globe in less than 24 hours.
While all of this has striking ministry potential, the reader should be aware of two things. First, the author has elected to limit
the scope of this writing by not including a comparable amount of work being done within the closely related realm of Christian missions. Second, while this article may leave one with the idea that there is a great selection of Christian boards, let the reader understand that Christian boards make up only a very small fraction of the total number of systems in operation today, most of which are non-religious.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The computerized defense of the gospel is still in an immature stage of development. A great contribution waits to be made by
trained apologists. Much work remains to be done in the area of Christian BBS networking. This environment holds great potential for both the proclamation and the defense of the faith. In the late 60s CRI proposed a planned, centralized network. Since the days of CRI’s proposal other centralized networks have been attempted. This author is aware of several similar efforts now being undertaken. However, none of these current projects have shown signs of surpassing the doomed startups of their forgotten predecessors. What is taking place that may survive has occurred for the most part at the local level across the country. Only recently has a national orientation in network strategy among these local settings begun to fall into place. It appears that today lasting networks may be forming. They have not come from CRI. There is no one organization in charge. The networks are decentralized, perhaps moving toward centralization, their synergy unplanned by human invention, perhaps resulting from providence.
1. John Warwick Montgomery, “Automating Apologetics in Austria,” Christianity Today, 8 November 1968, 57.
2. John Warwick Montgomery, Computers, Cultural Change, and the Christ (Wayne, N. J.: Christian Research Institute, 1969), 15.
3. The author regrets that he has not found this article written years ago and updated annually ever since by others more qualified
than himself. Lord willing, the readership of this work will respond to the author and yield an improved future version. Also, the author is indebted to Eric Pement of Cornerstone Press/JPUSA for counsel received in the preparation of this manuscript.
4. For an idea of what the author is describing see: David L. Gonzalez, “Very Personal Computing,” Newsweek, 28 August 1989, 64; Jim Shaver, “Matthew Blau of Zanesville Ohio,” Christian Computing, June 1990, 11; and Cecilio Morales, “This ‘Electronic Church’ Has No Walls,” The United Methodist Reporter, 24 August 1990, 5.
5. For more information write ARC, P. O. Box 168, Trenton, MI 48183; (313) 562-4600.
6. PFO, P. O. Box 26062, St. Louis, MO 63136; (314) 388-2648.
7. Named CRI TEXT, this free database has been available, in Macintosh computer format only, on the nationwide GEnie network since June 1990. The MS-DOS version of the database (each comes with its own retrieval engine) should become available through GEnie and Computers for Christ nodes (beginning with the JPUSA BBS) near the time this manuscript is published. In the event that the reader does not have telecommunications access, or would prefer this other route, CRI TEXT can be received by mail. To do so, send enough FORMATTED blank media (any standard disk size or density) to receive up to two megabytes of data with your request and an equal size, self-addressed, postage-paid return envelope to “CRI TEXT Software Offer,” CRI Library, P. O. Box 500, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693. (PLEASE remember to state either “Mac” or “DOS” with your request.) There is
no charge for this, though CRI reserves the right to keep unused disks at its discretion. CRI will not be responsible for the return
of surplus blank media or replying to those who neglect to include a postage-paid return envelope. CRI cannot promise prompt response to each request. However, every effort will be made to insure timely turnaround. CRI TEXT, though copyrighted, may be freely distributed. (In fact, it is prefered that you have others get their copy from you once you have it rather than asking them go through CRI.) No phone calls on this please. CRI has no computer bulletin board and offers no other software at this time. The main database file of CRI TEXT 1.3 is 175,000 words in size and includes indexes to the Christian Research Journal and the Christian Research Newsletter.
8. From a February 6, 1991, telephone interview with Pement. The phone number for the CFC JPUSA node in Chicago is (312) 878-6030.
9. Cornerstone, 920 West Wilson, Chicago, IL 60640.
10. Contact the Saints Alive BBS in Issaquah, WA, via modem at (206) 277-8813. It should be noted that the Saints Alive BBS is in contact with at least one LDS echo area.
11. This is in reference to FidoNet, from a February 7, 1991, telephone interview with Daniel Segard.
12. Pement has a nationwide list of occult boards. In addition, Pement includes a listing of Christian BBS systems which have an
apologetics emphasis in his Directory of Cult Research Organizations available through Cornerstone.
13. Neo-paganism is a popular term incorporating worldviews such as native American Indian shamanism and modern witchcraft. Often the pagan/Wiccan dialog on Cult Watch centers on epistemology. Belief in ultimate reality is commonly challenged on this echo. Pagan beliefs spurn absolute values and dogma. Segard can be reached via modem at the Midrash BBS, a Messianic Jewish board (part of the Messianic Jewish Computer Network in addition to Midrash being affiliated with CFC) in Denver, CO, (303) 289-6864.
14. The other five major Christian BBS networks: New Life Net out of Maryland; the Computer Aided Ministry Society of Canada (CAMSOC); the Canadian American Computer Society (CACS) which covers Canada as well as the U.S.; the Christian Fellowship Net (CFN); and the United Christian Computer Network (UCCN) originating out of Australia but with a node in Michigan. The above listing is a very difficult call. Perhaps no one person has a complete picture of the current scene at this time.
15. From a February 5, 1991, telephone interview with Moore. Moore can be reached via modem at the CFC Chapter 11 BBS, (708) 362-7875, or through the mails at 335 Cherry Valley Road, Vernon Hills, IL 60061.
16. For more details contact CFN via modem at (512) 452-6350.
17. For perhaps the best place to begin looking into this area contact Mark Patterson with Global Mapping International’s BBS (a
collaborating agency with the U. S. Center for World Mission) via modem in Pasadena, (818) 798-8077.
18. “SENT/EAST: a Christian computer network,” a brochure published in 1969 by CRI (Wayne, N. J.). The project is also presented in the “Road to Recovery” chapter of Walter R. Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1977), 354.
The author, Rich Poll, serves as Resource Manager at the Christian Research Institute.
UPDATE, June 22, 1991:
After making the final submission of this manuscript to the publisher the author learned that Alpha and Omega Ministries (P.O. Box 47041, Phoenix, AZ 85068; office,  265-4844), launched a new BBS, Pros Apologian, at the beginning of 1991. Their BBS number is (602) 264-9927. The work of Alpha and Omega is well regarded by CRI.
End of document, “CRI Monograph,” release 1.1″ R. Poll, Christian Research Institute, July 1, 1999