GNU believers


Author: Don Parris

If you look around the pews in your church next Sunday morning, you may see a few GNUs in the pews. They are software developers, system administrators, and church leaders. They believe in God. They believe in Jesus. And they believe in free and open source software.

The appearance of Web sites, growing number of participating believers, and the growing number of free and open source software applications for church and missions
organizations are all evidence of a new movement afoot among Christians. They are looking to build their churches’ technology infrastructure on a GNU foundation. While it’s difficult to put numbers on the growth, the free and open source software movement is gaining ground among Christians.

Free and open source software for the religious

GNU’s roots lie squarely with an atheist named Richard M. Stallman. Yet, GNU — meaning GNU’s Not Unix — was born out of the Golden Rule — a biblical precept that strikes home with pretty much every Christian. While Stallman’s Kantian ethics would clash at various points with Christian theology, the Golden Rule is common to both. In fact, in personal correspondence, Stallman told me he believes the Christian Church should be one of the major advocates of free software.

Indeed, religious folks of various faiths have been on the free and open source software pilgrimage for some time now. SourceForge has been hosting software projects for Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims since 1999. Browsing through SourceForge, one can find nearly 200 applications and development libraries pertaining to religion. At least 83 of those have cropped up since the beginning of 2003, and roughly 30 launched this year.

There are a number of reasons to migrate to GNU/Linux and open source applications in general. Many believers and churches are seeking alternatives to expensive, proprietary applications that frequently do not live up to expectations. In addition to having a low-cost, technologically superior platform, many Christians are happy to discover that they can legally pass a copy of GNU/Linux and the free applications that run on it to their church, as well as to their neighbors down the street.

Most churches like “canned” applications that run out of the box, or at least require minimal technical skill to install and configure. Church leaders — whatever corner of the world they live in — can choose among many applications that frequently run on multiple operating systems. Bible, church management, and worship applications are just a few of those available or under development.

The SWORD Project is a cross-platform development library for Bible study applications. The project provides different Bible translations, commentaries and lexicons, and other important Christian documents as
modules. Developers basing their applications on the SWORD Project can allow users to add modules at their pleasure. J-Sword is a Java-based Bible that runs on any platform — GNU/Linux, Mac, or Windows — and is easy for the newest computer users to install.

Joachim Ansorg and Martin Gruner currently lead the development of BibleTime, the KDE Bible project David Hagedorn Started in 1999. The GNOME version, GnomeSword, launched the following year, and is currently maintained by Terry Biggs and company. Users can perform searches and keep notes, as
with most other Bible study applications. Both have a small footprint — less than 1.5MB to download and roughly 4MB installed. BibleTime and GnomeSword combined have been downloaded nearly 100,000 times.

Perl Bible is a Bible study application available in Czech and English for GNU/Linux systems. One of its great strengths is the ease with which it can be installed and used. The developer, Ondra Masak, designed the simplistic interface for non-techies. Aside from Czech translations, it offers the King James Version as well as the Darby and Young’s Bibles. The World English Bible, a public-domain Bible in modern English, is also available.

InfoCentral, currently headed up by Christ Gebhardt, is a membership management application in use by at least 500 churches. According to the site’s FAQ page, InfoCentral has been used by a church with more than 2,500 members. Originally developed for Central Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, InfoCentral now appears to be splitting into two projects, the
new one aimed at churches with up to 20,000 members.

There are even applications for the Worship team. Asaph was developed by Daniel Azuma, a worship leader in a small Seattle church. It’s a full-featured music database
and lyrics projector with plenty of control over the fine details. Right now it’s in beta testing stage, with the first production release due out in the next several months. It currently supports GNU/Linux, Mac, and Windows systems — you just need the Java Virtual Machine.

OpenLP and OpenSong both offer the ability to project song lyrics on wall screens for Mac and Windows systems. OpenSong also offers chord and lyrics sheets. Timothy Ebenezer, a young developer in England, started the OpenLP project in February, and already has quite a following. More than 400 churches are using OpenLP. Both projects support multiple languages and plan to port to GNU/Linux.

An earlier article I wrote for my church’s Web site, “Penguin in the Pew,” inspired two evaluation CDs to help churches evaluate the GNU/Linux operating system and the various church-related applications. They are great tools for demonstrating the capabilities of
free and open source software to “non-techie” church leaders, many of whom have never even heard of GNU/Linux. Both will include various Christian-related applications and have choices exemplifies GNU’s flexibility.

Preston Boyington of Dothan, Alabama, is heading up the Knoppix-based Apologetix (a.k.a. Linux 4 Christians) CD project. So far, quite a few locals are signing up, and two local radio stations will be discussing the project. Davey Mitchell, an Englishman, is the sole player in the Christian Linux LiveCD, which will weigh in at about 100MB and include J-Sword. Both projects are very promising, and could be a boon to
consultants who work with churches.

Add to this mixture LightSys Technology Services, an organization of professional IT missionaries to missionary organizations. These consultants specialize in free and open source software. They have developed Centrallix, an application server, and Kardia, a management application that runs on Centrallix. They are also behind the Christian Open Development Network, a site bound to become a one-stop resource for Christian developers.

Many believers have been gathering at the Freely Project, a Web site run by Scottish believer Ben Thorp. Freely is preparing to offer ticket-based support to churches and also has an IRC channel on FreeNode (#freely). The project is fairly new, but has been growing steadily over the last two months. The site offers a few articles and forums for discussing various aspects of free and open source software.

Linc Fessenden, a former pastor, runs the Linux 4 Christians site, which
has been listing Christian-related Linux applications since 2000. They also
boast an email list of 65 members, many of whom have joined within the
last two months.

The range and professional quality of many of the applications available for churches and other religious and non-profit organizations is impressive, and the number of languages and operating systems supported by the various projects is amazing. The Christian Open Developer Network, the Freely Project, and L4C are part of a web of information for any Christian or ministry interested in using or developing
free and open source software.

Don Parris is pastor of Matheteuo Christian Fellowship, a small house church in
Charlotte, N.C. Don is also author of “Penguin in the Pew” and “IT as Ministry.”
He is interested in hearing from readers about their interest in and use of free
and open source software.


  • Free Software