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Preaching as One-Way Communication: An Interview with Gabe Campbell

by Parker Rossman

Mr. Rossman has written on “Computers in the Church,” “Videotape and the Church” and, in The Christian Century, “The Church and the Forthcoming Electronic Revolution” (December 14, 1977). This article appeared in the Christian Century October 10, 1979, p. 970. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In preparation for a lecture on “Electronic Communications in the Parish: Year 2000” at an Ohio University conference on technological communication and the churches, Parker Rossman sought out Gabe Campbell, pastor of First Congregational Church in Stamford, Connecticut, as one involved in the use of new technology. The New York Times and New Catholic World have previously reported on some of Campbell’s work. He will become pastor of First Congregational Church in Akron, Ohio, on January 1, 1979.

Rossman: The April 1979 Futurist surveyed radical changes that are coming as a result of the “microelectronic revolution” -- such innovations as home computer centers, “intelligent” telephones, and learning centers. That magazine quotes you as saying that the computer-consensor has helped you “to recognize and address issues and concerns that have special meaning” for your members, and that this opinion-surveying gadget enables your people express themselves on matters of faith and action when many of them would otherwise have remained silent. How did you come to feel that this consensor and other electronic communications devices may play an important role in the future of religion?

Campbell: The Stamford church, founded in 1635 was slipping when I came -- as are many downtown churches -- and it became clear to me that communication, especially two-way feedback, was required to turn the congregation around. I first looked to TV and radio, wondering why the mainline denominations had allowed the fundamentalists to dominate such communications. In The Electric Church Ben Armstrong reports that 130 million Americans listen to fundamentalist broadcasts each Sunday -- more than attend all churches in the country on a given Sunday.

I began a 15-minute radio program each Sunday noon in an effort to reach people who never come to church. I had to buy time at first, pledging the funds I would receive for weddings, funerals and counseling. Now I have three broadcasts a week, one with the largest audience of any program on the station. This broadcasting success has had an impact on church attendance because we invited the radio audience to share “who they are” with us instead of insisting that they “be like us.” Our telephone call-in show gets feedback and would be even more significant if we could broadcast at a time when we would reach more young people.

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Rossman: Say more about your conviction that church and society need more such two-way communication.

Campbell: It has seemed that the fundamentalists were going to dominate the electronic age in religion. Their style of mass evangelism and one-way confrontation has been most adaptable to TV and radio. It has almost seemed as though they were thus the “modernists” and the mainline churches were the “new fundamentalists,” insisting on old-fashioned reliance on print.

Now I think the mainline churches are going to have their turn on the electronic stage as two-way communication becomes increasingly possible on radio and TV, and as cable TV and videotape enable ordinary people to make more use of, and to regain some control over, electronic communications. The church has extensively utilized the telephone, for example, because that has always been two-way, a means for obtaining feedback. Soon our TV cables will be two-way also, with audiences pushing buttons to respond to TV programs. The center of power in religious TV will shift away from national studios as parishes begin to employ two-way communications. It worries me, however, that more parishes aren’t experimenting already, at least with more telephone call-in shows.

Rossman: Why aren’t they?

Campbell: Perhaps pastors and laity are so conditioned to one-way media that we are not yet well enough prepared for two-way communication. Most preaching is still one-way, despite all the talk about dialogue sermons; yet Protestantism becomes feeble whenever its laity become passive merely listening and watching instead of praying and doing. Christian communication must always be two-way. That is why much use of radio and TV has limitations.

William Simmons of Applied Futures, Inc., of Greenwich, Connecticut, has developed the consensor -- an electronic device that facilitates discussion in meetings by helping a group arrive at quantified representative conclusions or decisions. After seeing how business used this consensor, I became interested in its potential for feedback in church after a sermon or business meeting. The consensor is a small computer with a terminal on which an individual can register an opinion by turning a knob to any one of 11 selections (0 to 10). The results are visible on a TV-type monitor so that everyone present can see where people stand. Many people seem much more willing to express opinions when they can do so anonymously, and they are more willing to speak when they see evidence on the screen that they are not alone in their views.

Rossman: There are cable TV experiments in which the audience, by pushing buttons, can change the outcome of the program. Can your congregation do that during a sermon?

Campbell: No, we do not have enough terminals for the congregation to react to a sermon while it is being preached. Those who wish to react must go to the terminals in groups of 16 after the service. But I have found it stimulating to use the consensor as I speak elsewhere, learning from the screen whether the audience is with me or has questions. One does not have to speak so long, since there is no need to belabor a point once everyone registers agreement on the consensor. The device also draws out controversy, clarifying actual points of disagreement. With the consensor, everyone in a business meeting can immediately react to a statement. If there is broad disagreement, then the group can quickly proceed to isolate and discuss the real issues.

Rossman: You found that church people became more involved and excited about theological and biblical discussions.

Campbell: Yes, the level of involvement began to increase dramatically with the use of the consensor. Most pleasant for me was the intense interest in the sermon and the suggestions that were made for the next sermon. Members could dialogue through the consensor, as a third party, without confronting anyone or feeling that they were criticizing their pastor. We were in this evaluation together, and all sessions included good humor and quick comments. People then talked about the sermon and their responses during the week.

One member, for example, who had been reluctant to express his theological opinions because he thought no one would agree with him began to talk theology a lot when he learned that others shared his interests. Another man, who had taken pride in being “way out” in his views, found that his “way out” ideas were majority opinion in the congregation. He had to move further to the left to keep his radical reputation.

More important, as I have written, “In trying to reach a consensus of the faithful, the key to bringing persons together is in sharing opinions, ideas, dreams, hopes, doubts, feelings of despair or joy, and those normal human expressions that make us who we are.” Somehow the consensor seems to help with the search for better ways to create and to nurture the sense of community.

When the New York Times interviewed members about this process, the person who had been the only one to register a No on the question “Do you believe God has a mission for you?” said: “I was startled to be the only one. We all like to think that we are original thinkers, but when we find out we really are, that’s a shock.” And he added a comment to summarize what many in this congregation thought about the use of the consensor: “It’s a marvelous vehicle for starting conversation.” Another member told the Times reporter that the consensor was the first step toward breaking down the walls that prevented closer ties and trust among church members: “The thing most people care about is being involved with others,” One man told the Times that he had his first theological discussion with his father after the consensor showed that members held widely varying views on hell. Another member said she was helped to discover that other members also had feelings of anxiety about their children.

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Rossman: And you have experimented at Stamford with another type of electronic feedback.

Campbell: Several members of our congregation became interested in holistic health -- the scientific medical examination of the relationship between body, mind and spirit in healing. We opened a biofeedback training center in the church. I paid for the initial equipment, about $2,600, myself. Our center has worked with the Menninger Foundation, New York University, and the Gladman Center for Psychosomatic Medicine in exploring new relationships between science, religion and medicine.

“Biofeedback” is a term that describes the use of electronic instruments to monitor biological and physiological responses to emotional stress. This feedback enables people to learn to control their physiological reactions to mental stimulation -- which, as Jodi Lawrence says in her book Alpha Brain Waves, provides “you with instant information concerning your inner state, a kind of electronic mirror to see into your mind.” Basically it is a way to learn relaxation techniques, which in religious language are often called meditation and prayer. Scientists who have experimented with biofeedback have become interested in Christian mystics such as Ignatius Loyola. We use the electromyrograph (EMG) to measure muscle tension and the galvanic skin response indicator (GSR) -- almost a sort of lie detector -- to chart emotional swings, and other instruments to measure brain waves (electroencephalograph -- EEC) and body temperature.

Rossman: For spiritual purposes?

Campbell: To open people for counseling, for example. A woman comes for help because she has had tension headaches. She watches the meter as she talks, and her muscle tensions tell her what thoughts heighten her tension or relax it -- for example, an antagonism toward her mother that she has never before been willing to admit to herself. It is ironic that many Americans are more receptive to what they see on the screen than to verbal efforts to bring out their problems, perhaps because they are used to electronic equipment in hospitals. The machine does not replace counseling, but it opens people to personal spiritual ministry previously rejected.

Rossman: And in parish education?

Campbell: I have just finished a dissertation on the work of Roy Burkhart of First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio. When I was his associate, I became most interested in his efforts to diagnose the unique needs of each person in the parish, as reported in the December 20, 1950, Christian Century. He used psychological tests to help persons deal with religious awareness.

Rossman: Why have so few pastors given attention to testing young persons’ spiritual potential as a basis for a tailor-made curriculum of experiences to develop that potential?

Campbell: Partly because we’ve lacked the tools, and also because in our time the church has been hung up on the left hemisphere of the brain, the intellectual side of religion. We have sometimes tested youngsters for what they know about the Bible and Christian history. But they can make an A on such an exam and still not be committed or growing in the spirit.

You should see how excited some of our young people become when they are turned loose in our church’s biofeedback center. People are hungry, I think, for a chance to know more about themselves spiritually -- for diagnosis, if you will. We have experimented with the use of EEG in prayer (watching the brain waves to discern a rise in spiritual consciousness), the use of the consensor with prayer groups, and the impact of certain kinds of music as observable with biofeedback machines.

One of the needs of this parish has been to build or renew the sense of mutual trust. Prayer groups have accomplished that, but the consensor has at times helped people break through their first lack of confidence, revealing their worries about being honest and open in prayer. It perhaps seems odd to say it, but we begin to see how to use electronic communications to repersonalize instead of depersonalize, to reindividualize and counteract the mass approaches and passivity that result from one-way TV viewing.

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Rossman: But what do your critics say? Isn’t all this electronic equipment terribly expensive --  another way of building luxurious cathedrals instead of feeding the poor?

Campbell: Costs will come down as more people make use of the equipment. There will soon be $400 home computers available. The consensor equipment now costs $16,000, so our congregation just borrows it; but state associations or clusters of churches could buy or rent this equipment to take to many parishes for demonstration. I wish a foundation would finance a demonstration for all denominational offices to show how much energy, time and money they could save in all their meetings. I’m sure the first printing presses were too expensive also; let’s not forget where our children are. The computer is going to be as central to their lives as the pen and pencil have been to ours. Video cameras are going to be essential for church work with children and youth. You should have seen our five-year-old students in Greenwich carrying around their cassette tape recorders to keep a record of their thoughts. They couldn’t write yet, but they could create plays and carry home reports to their parents and communicate with youngsters in other classes today -- and in other countries tomorrow.

Rossman: Biofeedback must have a tremendous potential for misuse and abuse.

Campbell: Charlatans are always attracted to a new fad -- for example, some sex therapists are now charging large sums to increase their clients’ sexual potency through biofeedback. People who use the technology must not only be carefully trained -- and untrained counselors don’t need machines in order to harm people -- but they also should consider the view of Arthur Gladman, a psychiatrist who says that anyone who uses biofeedback must be aware of its tremendous spiritual potential for self-transformation. There is the danger that some people may become dependent on the machine, but it is the purpose of biofeedback to help people learn how to exercise self-control, how to gain insight and free themselves.

Rossman: Jacques Ellul points to the demonic in all technology.

Campbell: We human beings have the capacity to abuse or misuse anything, but we cannot escape the major revolution that is coming in culture, in our churches. It is not merely a question of whether we will use TV, satellite communications, cable and computer, or biofeedback machines -- and whatever technology comes tomorrow. It is not only in medicine, in the elaborate diagnostic equipment in the hospitals, that modern technology is going to teach us a great deal about ourselves, but also in the development of our spiritual potential, in consciousness-raising, in transforming and uplifting human values, morals and character.

We have too often sought God logically in the “left brain” rather than expanding our use of the right hemisphere of the brain where intuitive, prayerful, loving, visual thinking occurs -- where we pray, believe, love and develop a consciousness of the total mind-body-spirit relationship. Through biofeedback we can see our brain waves as we welcome new wholeness into our lives, bringing the two hemispheres of the brain together as religious mystics have taught us to do in prayer. We don’t have to have the biofeedback machine any more than we have to have the airplane to go to the church assembly. We can walk. But I think that feedback is going to help us fly spiritually in the parish in the next generation.


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