For computer-savvy clergy in the hinterlands of North America, the Rev. John Sharp has been a godsend.
Sharp, the minister of Govans Presbyterian Church, is the founder and "editor" of an international computer service called Sermonshop. Each week, up to 125 Christian clergy and lay people in the United States and Canada sign on to the service to share ideas about upcoming sermon themes.
"Imagine you're a minister in some far-off rural area and you want to get to a theological library to research an idea," Sharp says. "It's just not a physically easy thing to do if you're in the boonies. Through Sermonshop, you can send out an SOS and get feedback from ministers of about 15 denominations in two large countries."
Two weeks ago, for example, the pastor wrote on Sermonshop that he was seeking suggestions about the readings scheduled for March 3 at most Christian churches -- Psalms 19:7-14, Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 and John 2:13-22.
A Salem, Ore., minister signed on and advised Sharp to read an essay by theologian David Bartlett. The essay, from a recent issue of Christian Century magazine, touched on the Exodus and John passages. Sharp was able to work it into his March 3 sermon.
Users of the service must subscribe to a Connecticut computer network called Networking World Information Industries, which operates Sermonshop with Bizlink software. They pay about $7 an hour to use the service and must sign on for a minimum of $9 each month.
Sharp runs Sermonshop from desktop and lap-top computers in his office at the York Road church and at his Idlewylde home. He likens the service to "a room where a theological seminar is going on. You sit down and listen to others, and then you can make your own contribution to the discussion."
The Revs. Curtis and Kathleen "K.C." Ackley, a husband-and-wife pastoring team at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Corning, N.Y., have used Sermonshop nearly every week since it was established in 1984.
"It's a very helpful tool," Curtis Ackley says. "We get ideas from it, and we give ideas back. We also like it because all the people from the U.S. and Canada give the service a strong cultural range."
Now Sharp has set Sermonshop on an ambitious new course by hiring renowned theologians to write detailed commentaries for certain weeks.
The first of these special commentaries appeared on Sermonshop during Advent last December. Now Sharp has obtained a $3,000 grant from the local Institute of Christian-Jewish Studies to pay about a dozen theologians to write pieces for Lent. The series will examine, and try to defuse, the historical and theological tensions between Christians and Jews.
The pieces -- by Walter Harrelson of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; James Brashler of St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park; Clark Williamson of the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis; Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer of Philadelphia; and others -- will appear on Sermonshop this month and in future Lenten seasons. Sharp says he hopes to print them in book form next year.
Brashler, dean of the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's and a Sermonshop user for two years, says he values the service but thinks it may be too high-tech for most clergy.
"There aren't that many pastors who are as handy with computers as Jack [Sharp] thinks there are," Brashler says. "It may be another five, 10 years before the pastors catch up with this technology and make full use of it. But it's like those services where people are starting to bank and shop by home computer. The potential is enormous."
Although the number of pastors using Sermonshop is small, Sharp offers anecdotal evidence of the service's extensive reach.
Three years ago, he says, the son of a Govans church member was attending a service in Nashville. The pastor of the church there, preaching on steadfast faith in the face of theological trendiness, mentioned a Baltimore parish founded in the mid-1800s, a time when many Christians believed that Christ's second coming was imminent. The name of the church, said the Nashville pastor, was Govans Presbyterian.
After the service, the young man from Govans approached the pastor and asked him how he knew about the Baltimore church. "From this computer service called Sermonshop that the Govans minister runs," the Nashville pastor answered.
"It turns out that that minister in Nashville was a regular Sermonshop user," says Sharp.
So was a pastor at a church in Terrace, British Columbia, which Sharp visited last December. The Terrace pastor, who had met Sharp before the service, credited a passage during his sermon to something he recently had read on Sermonshop.
Sharp quotes the pastor as saying, "I'd better credit Sermonshop because the man who runs it happens to be in church with us today."