THE MECHANICAL MINISTER

Gaylon Embrey

n "The Automated Church" (as described in an earlier piece printed in this paper) one important fixture was left out. How this could have happened is beyond me. Whether fully automated or not, we all know that any fully equipped Church has to have a "Minister." It will be no different in the "Futureworld" of Faith. As a matter of fact, we have not seen anything yet. When things really get to be sophisticated, the Minister, like everything else in the Automated Church, will be fully mechanized. In that day every Church worthy of the name will have at least one Mechanical Minister. Some will have several. If you but try, you will be able to visualize how it will be. Here is the picture.

Unlike robots presently at work in modern factories, a Mechanical Minister is absolutely lifelike. The computer system is cleverly housed in a manikin that is incredibly natural looking. The most widely used and copied model is from Inspiration's Best Ministers (IBM), a Texas based Company highly successful in the field of turning out Ministers for Church use. It is molded and made on the order of a youthful forty year old, perhaps slightly paunched, with a sprinkle of gray in his hair and a pleasant look on his face. "He" (if I may use that word) looks almost human, and sometimes even acts that way. One little lady, a faithful Church member for years, swore she once saw a tear trickle from the eye of her Mechanical Minister; but this undoubtedly was a mistake. While they are built with the ability to look solemn, especially when activated on Sunday, Mechanical Ministers do not have real feelings that make real teardrops.

A Mechanical Minister is easy to spot once you enter the Sanctuary. If it is "before time to start" worshipping God, you will see him bustling about the place, smiling, nodding at everybody in general, or perhaps being "worked on" at the last minute by one of the Officers in charge. When time to start arrives he will always be down front, usually seated on one of the high-chairs next to the pulpit. His primary function, of course, is to deliver the Sunday sermons. He has been purchased and placed in the Automated Church for the specific purpose of preaching. And preach he can! Why, it is unbelievable how real he looks and sounds. He speaks (naturally) in a strong deep voice, and with a divine sounding diction. He paces up and down, and sometimes shouts. He even gestures, usually in the right place. Near the end of the sermon his voice gets soft and sad. The average Mechanical Minister is programmed to speak for twenty-two and a half minutes, though on special occasions the Church Programmer will add a couple or three minutes for good measure. In any event, at the end of the program the Mechanical Man will waddle quickly up the aisle to the front door, where he will position himself for awhile. He will stand there and shake hands with everyone who comes close, and with each shake will say, "Thank you, thank you very much." Some of the mischievous members have been known to walk by and say, "You know, you sure are an ugly critter." The Mechanical Minister does not hear this of course, but warmly replies, "Why, thank you so much. And come back when you can."

There are never any surprises in the sermons delivered by the Mechanical Minister, which is nice. Everyone knows exactly what to expect and is never disappointed. Now there was a rumor that one of the advanced models was beginning to do a crude kind of original "thinking," and as a result had begun to come up with some strange sounding talk, very unlike the familiar phrases of a correctly programmed Automation. He was quickly taken into the shop and "repaired" however, and the Company which owned the copyright on this model promised it would never happen again. Anyway, the Mechanical Minister does such a good, consistent job of "bringing the lesson" each week, no one even misses the real live instructors in righteousness like they used to have.

Under normal circumstances the Mechanical Minister seems to work out very well. He is always there. He is always the same. He never acts tired or grumpy, nor does he ever show the slightest discouragement no matter how many or few show up. Occasionally those "in charge" will have to ship him off for a few days to get reprogrammed with some new stimulating sermons for members who are getting a little restless. Otherwise he seems to be a happy solution to the great "Preacher shortage" in the Church-hood. Having a Mechanized Man to work in the local Church allows the real live preachers, with talent, to move on UP the ranks of the Church system to higher positions of power, influence and service. Many of them now work at IBM, or one of its competitors. True, in some cases replacing man with a machine does not work too well. But as you can see, the mechanized Minister is the exception to this rule.

About the only time the Mechanical Minister shows any aberrant behavior patterns (unless it would be during an electrical storm) is when several of these ministerial machines show up at the same place at the same time. Then they begin to act strangely, as if some of the circuits have messed up. For one thing, they begin to ignore almost everyone else and huddle only with other Mechanical Ministers. They especially gather around the more sleek, fancier models owned by the larger Churches. More bizarre than this, for some reason when put close together in the same room, all Mechanical Ministers will immediately turn their backs on one other. It is a strange sight. Experts have explained that this is not necessarily a malfunction of their computer system. It happens because Mechanical Ministers are all constructed in such a way that they automatically scratch one another's back. But this is only a minor malfunction, so the members overlook it.

While it is not always apparent to innocent bystanders, what makes the Mechanical Minister operate is money. The slot where the money is inserted is cleverly camouflaged so as not to attract attention. Nevertheless, money is the ONLY thing that will make a Mechanical Minister go. When money in the appropriate amount is fed into this spiritual slot machine it functions. When the money stops, it stops. This is why an adequate cash flow is so vital to the Automated Church. Without it, there would not be a Minister of the Church, mechanical or otherwise, to "minister" to the needs of anybody.

Although the Mechanical Minister is always on display down at the Automated Church, being the most visible of all its features, always high profile in and around the pulpit, he is by no means as independent as he looks or sounds. Actually this divine device is operated by remote control by the "Powers That Be" in the Church. Not that the local Church Officers themselves do any of the actual programming that dictates how a Mechanical Minister will behave. This is originally done at the Ministerial Manufacturing Company where the machine was produced. When it is time to procure a "new Minister," what the local Officers do is shop around and try to find the best one available, at the best price. Some of them come pretty cheap. The better models, however, the ones with a larger memory bank and more sophisticated capabilities, come much higher. But a well - oiled Mechanical Minister at most any price is a bargain. For the Automated Church simply cannot get by without one. So the Church Fathers must get busy and find out what is on the market. (That period of time "between Ministers" is the busiest that Church Authorities ever get.) Sometimes they will shop around and buy a brand new Minister fresh from the Factory, though more often than not they will try to locate one already in use somewhere, one with most of the bugs already out. As long as it was assembled in an "accredited" Clergy Center, they know it will be basically programmed soundly. All they will have to do is finetune it to their specifications. As soon as the Officers find the "right one" they will buy him, spend a little time and money displaying him, then install him into his "scriptural place" in the Automated Church. There they will put him into service. Everyone is naturally anxious to hear what new and exciting sermons have been put on his chip. The typical Mechanical Minister will have somewhere around two or three hundred "messages" stored inside, enough to last a couple of years or so before producing reruns. It is about this time that local Officials start looking around for a new one.

Everything that is mechanical or human fails after awhile. Mechanical Ministers are no exception. By and by even the best ones begin to have serious operating deficiencies, like scratchy recordings, slower recall, etc. A machine can only run so long. When one starts to give trouble, repeatedly breaking down, those who run the Automated Church have no choice. There is too much competition down the street. Something has to be done. Naturally they would prefer to try to make a trade first, but this is seldom possible. Worn out Mechanical Ministers, especially in the older models, are not much in demand, though occasionally one can be sold to a smaller Church that is only semi-Automated. On the open market they bring only junk prices, and they have no trade in value at all. In any case, whether the Operators of the Automated Church like it or not, eventually they are forced to discard their Mechanical Minister, just like they do any other machine that wears out. Of course a few members are always attached to the old apparatus and hate to see it go. They are sentimental about it, much like they are toward the old family car that has been so dependable for so long. This may be why in some places they will keep the old antique around the building for awhile, propped on a special pew, and will use it now and then for old times sake. Before long, however, it must be disposed of for good.

Please do not feel sorry for the Mechanical Minister. There is no need. For his feelings never hurt no matter what happens. How could they? Remember, he is not human. He only looks human. Besides, he served a very useful purpose in the Automated Church. It is safe to say that without his service the mechanized Church simply could never have functioned. Indeed, it may even be that a few souls will be in heaven one day because of some good thing the Mechanical Minister said on Sunday. In the end, of course, God only saves human Kind. He does not save machines, not even those that are good and useful. Therefore no place will be found for the Mechanical Minister in heaven. Let us hope no place will be found in hell.