August 14, 2001

Tech-savvy religious leaders are increasingly using personal data assistants such as the Palm Pilot to evangelize, prepare sermons or even compute sunset times for Jewish Sabbath festivals.

Hand-held computers have typically been marketed to business professionals. But a growing number of software programs available on the Internet are mingling the Gospel and other holy texts with appointments, telephone numbers and to-do lists.

Paul Oehler, an engineer who helped design the process for making the Palm V, said the increasing ability to beam information was bound to change the hand-held computer's uses.

"We suspected it would have some impact on their lives, simply because it's portable. ... It's a good way to share information," he said.

And God beams in mysterious ways.

Personal data assistants enable users to send information across short distances through infrared signals. Some people are using that ability to evangelize.

Russell Lake, president of HeartSpring Media in Keller, Texas, is publishing free evangelistic software at Gotlife.org. With it, the faithful can touch a button and send possible converts a short lesson on apologetics--the defense of Christian beliefs based on science and other evidence.

Problems transmitting data between the two major personal data assistant operating systems--the PalmOS and Windows CE--will limit who can send and receive HeartSpring's message. The current HeartSpring program is only for the Palm, but an evangelistic message is being developed for the Windows version.

Forcing unwanted transmissions, called spam, on Palms is not part of the company's plan.

"You have to ask them whether they want to accept it," Lake said. "You can't receive random beams from outside parties."

Pay Web sites offer several versions of the Bible, including the King James and New Revised Standard versions. Also available are applications such as JesusTracks, which offers Christians a virtual tour of the Holy Land.

Tools for other faiths, as well as their holy books, are available on palmgear.com for free or for a nominal shareware fee. Hindu stories and a translation of the Koran can be downloaded and transferred to hand-held computers.

Rabbi Ned Soltz of the Arlington, Texas, Congregation Beth Shalom, has read the Torah on his Palm Pilot while attending Orthodox ceremonies.

He said a Hebrew operating system offers a Jewish calendar, readings of the Torah and another program that uses latitude and longitude to compute sundown for the beginning and end of Sabbath festivals.

"I would say at least of the Reform and Conservative rabbis, the Palm Pilot is considered essential rabbinic gear," he said.

Likewise for a minister or priest on the go.

William Attaway, director of technology for North Richland Hills, Texas, Baptist Church, said his personal data assistant enables him to jot down a note or access part of the Bible that he might be trying to recall while preparing for a sermon. He said he has also read about missionaries who use the hand-held computer when a laptop would be cumbersome.

"I wouldn't suggest trying to put a whole sermon together on it," Attaway said. "It allows you to compose on the fly ... in places where you can't fit a laptop. It's good for quick notes and even some composition."

In more direct ways, church services may increasingly take on a Palm Pilot Sunday feel.

Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, is developing its Web site to include software for personal data assistants, said Curtis Harris, director of the digital ministry. The devices may also help register some of the 13,000 people who attend Sunday services at the church, he said.

The Web site fellowshipchurch.com, which receives about 3 million hits a month, may also offer a downloadable daily Scripture reading for personal data assistants.

Eventually, church members could download the site's frequently asked questions about faith and beam them to other members, Harris said.

But he said he doesn't think that the church will use the beaming feature to proselytize.

"I doubt we would ever do that," he said. But being among the first churches to offer the software could give the church more exposure.

"An awful lot of people take advantage of Palm tools," Harris said.

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