November 24, 2007
West Virginia Church Automates Message of Salvation
By Tom Breen
HURRICANE, W.Va. -- The telltale pause after you answer the phone usually means you're about to hear a fuzzy, prerecorded message offering unbeatable deals on satellite TV or trumpeting the virtues of a political candidate.
But for about 800 people every day in West Virginia, one message - - delivered in a warm, friendly voice -- makes a different offer: eternal salvation.
"We want to tell you how you can have heaven and know it, and cause true revival in Amer-ica," the voice says.
The 90-second message gives Bible quotes and an invitation to pray, and concludes: "God bless you is my prayer." You can also leave a message after the beep.
The gentle tone belongs to Art Hage, pastor of the Hurricane Bible Church, who says people want someone to take an interest in them.
"And that's what this is. We're not asking them for anything. We're giving away the love of Christ," Hage said.
Prerecorded voice messages -- technology popularly known as "robocalls" -- are used by everyone from debt collectors to political parties.
Churches and other organizations commonly use them as phone trees, informing members about upcoming activities or schedule changes.
But Hurricane Bible Church has taken the rare step of using robocalls to spread the gospel.
"I don't know anybody else doing it in the country," Hage said at a recent Wednesday night worship service at the brick church about halfway between Charleston and Huntington.
Computer technology that can make hundreds or even thousands of calls a day is ubiquitous and relatively cheap. Autodialers can cost between $1,500 and $2,000, but simpler setups also are available. The equipment in Hage's office resembles nothing more elaborate than an old personal computer and a telephone.
And yet robocalls are an evangelical novelty. The reason? People don't like robocalls for any reason.
"Why would a church use something like robocalls?" asked Mara Einstein, a professor at Queens College and author of the book "Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age.""What churches do well is community and personal connection, and robocalls are sort of the epitome of this modern disconnect between people."
In fact, measured in terms of new worshippers at the Hurricane Bible Church, the robocalls haven't been much of a success.
Brian Johnson of Milton, a church member since 2005, said curious people occasionally drop by the church after getting a robocall, but he couldn't recall any who had become regular worshippers.
Yet Hage said the church doesn't measure its success by that standard. The simple act of distilling the church's message of salvation into a 90-second phone call can have surprisingly profound effects, from brightening someone's day to convincing people to commit their lives to Christ.
Church member Jim Butterbaugh keeps a list of people who have called the church to offer thanks for the phone message. There are about 1,000 names on the list, and it grows nearly every day.
Butterbaugh joined Hurricane Bible Church before the robocalls began but he was attracted to the church because of its evangelism, which includes a radio program, camp meetings and basketball for children.
Before, he belonged to churches that tended to confine evangelism to passing out small pamphlets.
"The Bible tells us to go forth and spread the word," Butterbaugh said. "The church I was going to didn't really reach out, and I thought, maybe the Lord wants me to reach out."
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