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Buying a Computer

Choosing a computer and software is not the most crucial one a church will ever make--and that's the first thing to remember. A computer is merely a tool to assist your ministry, and no more. The right one will not bring the eschaton, and neither will the wrong one!

Nevertheless, they are expensive, so you might as well exercise some good stewardship and get something that will help you rather than annoy you. And you should take the steps to make it a useful tool, or at any rate one more useful than a doorstop.

Index to this page:

What is this thing good for?

Computers are good at a few things: they remember fiddly small bits of information well, they rearrange and redisplay information well, and they can be corrected easily. They also deal with numbers reliably. Increasingly computers are used for communicating, at which they are not as efficient as some other devices, but they are improving rapidly. Even now some communication elements are becoming more likely to aid a church's ministry.

These traits mean computers are certainly useful for the following:

  • Mailing and membership lists, from which the same information can be displayed in different ways: mailing labels, church directories, and committee lists
  • Worship bulletins
  • Newsletters
  • Church calendars
  • Financial records

The development of the Internet has also made computers useful for communication--at least once they are connected via a modem to a telephone line. Nearly any computer purchase today will get you a modem with the ability to send and receive faxes. The addition of an on-line service account adds electronic mail and the ability to use some electronic reference material. You can also gain the ability to create your own site on the World Wide Web, like this one.

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What should a church look for in purchasing?

The first thing to remember about buying a computer is that anything you buy today will be obsolete tomorrow. Just resign yourself to it, make a choice, and work with what you have. That said, it is also a good idea to buy the most capability you can afford right now, because it will serve you better and longer.

Make sure you have these basic components:

  1. A Central Processing Unit (the working part of the computer).
  2. A keyboard.
  3. A mouse (or trackball, or trackpad, or other pointing device).
  4. A color monitor (it's nearly impossible to get black and white anyway, and color provides more working information).
  5. A fax modem.
  6. A CD-ROM drive. A lot of software is shipped on CD-ROM now.
  7. A good quality printer. The printer is a primary limiting factor to how good your documents will look, and how fast you can prepare them.
  8. A word processing program.
  9. A customizable database program.
  10. A spreadsheet program (you never know when you'll want to put numbers in columns).
  11. A calendar generating program, if that would be useful (it usually is).
  12. A disk utility program.
  13. Communication software: Fax, email, and Internet.
  14. An on-line account for email and Internet access, or for a Web site.

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What about hardware specifications?

For your sanity's sake, ignore the terms below (megabytes, RAM, etc.), but don't forget the bold words or numbers. That's the information that will help on the sales floor.

  • Processor: For Macintosh, the fastest PowerPC you can afford. For Windows/Intel, the fastest Pentium.
  • RAM (Random Access Memory, the working memory of the computer): at least 32 megabytes, and as much more as you can.
  • Hard drive (storage memory): at least 1 gigabyte, and as much more as you can.
  • Printer: I recommend either a laser printer or inkjet. Lasers provide more dependable results on many papers in black and white, while inkjets often offer color but will run on many cheap papers. For most church use, I think a laser is preferable.
  • CD-ROM: a 12X drive.
  • Modem: at least a 33.6 kbps data/14.4 kbps fax modem.

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What about the great Operating System debate?

First of all, the Operating System (OS) is the software that the computer uses to store and find information, like the letter you wrote but didn't finish last Tuesday. Contemporary OSes are designed to be easier to use, and look a good bit alike. But there are differences...

In the end, I simply have to recommend the Apple's Macintosh OS over Microsoft's Windows 95. Why? Well, in my opinion:

  • The Mac OS maintains its lead in ease of use and consistency.
  • The Mac OS has consistently required less training time of its users--and what church has a lot of time for its staff to learn how to use the computer?
  • Major leaps in the Mac OS have always run the vast majority of programs written for the previous system, reducing the need for new software.
  • On the other hand, major advances in Mac application programs have not required major changes in the OS.
  • Windows 95 handles fonts strangely. Sometimes what you print doesn't look as it should.
  • Mac systems have maintained their usefulness much longer than Wintel systems.

That said, I acknowledge Microsoft's advances with Windows 95, and the truth that there are a lot more titles around for it than for the Mac OS. But... have you noticed that the leading programs in Windows are also available for the Mac, and in the rare instances that they're not, there are perfectly viable alternatives? And how many word processors were you planning to use, anyway?

EvangeList For More Information on this subject, try Guy Kawasaki's EvangeList.

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How about special programs for churches?

Personally, I don't like them. They often have lots of space for information you don't care to keep, and no space at all for that one vital piece of information you do. I usually recommend going with a database program and designing it yourself to meet your needs. As those needs change, you can adapt the file: add new committees, delete old committees, create new kinds of lists, sort by different criteria, etc. Church Management Systems programs bind you to what the programmer(s) thought was essential. Your database allows you to make that choice.

The disadvantage is obvious: somebody has to design it and work on it. Fortunately the databases most appropriate for churches are quite simple to set up and use, and become more powerful the more you work to understand them.

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What else?

Train the staff. Train the staff. Train the staff.

Is that clear enough? There is no tool in the world, including the hammer, that doesn't require learning--and the computer is simply a tool. With training, a pastor and/or secretary can make that collection of silicon produce marvels. Without it, they have an expensive typewriter, or worse, a doorstop.

And don't forget to evaluate and purchase the software. Carelessly bought programs can be overly expensive, overpowered, or completely inadequate. And for pity's sake, don't copy programs from somebody's work. That's theft. I seem to remember a commandment about it somewhere...

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Contact Information

Computer Seraph
Eric Anderson, Principal Consultant
5 Brainerd Dr.
Portland, CT 06480-1517
(860) 342-1155

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http://www.computerseraph.com//Howto.htm Last edited: 11-Mar-98
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