John had noticed that his pastor, for quite some time, had been excited.  A longtime churchgoer, John had never seen him quite this enthusiastic.  For several months the pastor had been talking about how the deacons were working on a “special project” that had been funded by a large, private gift.  Though the exact nature had not been made known, the announcements surrounding this project made notable promises.  John had heard such things as “greater participation in worship is guaranteed,” “will make the youth eager and excited,”  and “more direct interaction with God will be enhanced.”  Finally the Sunday arrived for the project’s unveiling.

When John came to church that day, he was excited though a bit apprehensive.  He wondered, “What have the deacons done?”  Upon entering the sanctuary and taking his seat in the pew, he did not notice anything different at first.  As he laid his Bible at his side, he sighed with relief that the carpet had not been changed.  But then he began to hear around the sanctuary the young people saying, “Wicked!  Awesome!”   As John looked around to see what they were noticing, it dawned on him that the change was right before him.  There in the pew rack, where the Bibles and hymnals used to be, he found that they had been replaced with iPads.

The pastor then welcomed everyone, excitedly encouraging the congregation to pull out the iPads and tap the “Bulletin” icon.  As John drew out an iPad, he noticed several other icons on the screen, such as ones for Bibles, youth events, the pastor’s bio, and the church directory.  As he opened the bulletin, a fancy document appeared.  John raised his eyebrows as he saw on one side interactive announcements that gave a hovering calendar with an attendance form you could fill out that would be emailed to the organizer.

As the service began, John saw that on the other side of the virtual bulletin the order of service appeared, with hyper-links and icons scattered throughout the elements of worship.  The pastor instructed everyone to touch the opening song number, and when John did so the hymn appeared on the screen.  During the children’s sermon, a series of pictures, controlled by a deacon the pastor was now calling “the technician,” popped up on the iPad’s screen. The pictures would fade as the next one came up in time to highlight the story the preacher was telling.  At the time for the collection, John noticed a small offering plate icon.  While a recorded prayer from the deacon was heard over everyone’s iPad, a tap of the icon gave written instructions on how to give electronically by credit card or automatic withdrawal.  When the time for the Scripture reading came, the pastor, laughing nervously as he said that he wished he had a voice like James Earl Jones,  then took a step away from the mike as James Earl Jones’ actual voice was heard reading the scrolling text on the screen.  During the message, a PowerPoint presentation appeared that used more pictures and even a short clip from a Bourne movie to illustrate the message, which was entitled “Rediscovering Your Identity in Christ.”

Upon ending the service with the doxology, John replaced the iPad in the rack and reached down to pick up his Bible.  It looked worn and dated to him.  But then his eye was drawn to his embossed name on the cover.  As he looked at his middle name of Calvin, he wondered what his predecessor would have done.


For some the only thing far-fetched about the above story is that John is still sitting in a pew rather than theater seating!  After all, the use of screens, smartphones, ATM’s, video clips, and computers are already being employed in many worship services.   Churches are beginning to find ways to use iPads, as this article and this one and yet another one show.  Something like the above scenario cannot be far off.  Yet for all the thanks we can give to God for the amazing technology He has given to man, should we not pause before we employ it in worship?  Why not think for a moment about how a Protestant church figure, such as John Calvin, might speak to this issue.   What he might have said may not be as hard to imagine as you might think.  I believe he would emphasize at least the following four strong warnings, taken from Scriptural principles, against using iPads and similar technology in worship.

Do not seek to beautify the gospel with human inventions.  In Exodus 20:25, the Lord said to Moses, “If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool upon it, you will profane it.”  In bringing sacrifices to God, ancient Israel was not to attempt to beautify their worship by taking decorative license with an altar.  After all, what is an altar but a place where a sinner is showing his blood guiltiness and his need for an atoning substitute?  How can you beautify that message and the worship that is to accompany it?  Calvin in his Sermons on Deuteronomy says that the Lord  “takes no pleasures in the inventions of men…Moses is concerned with something else, which is that there should be but just one altar to sacrifice to God.”

The danger of using iPads in worship is that the very technology that enthralls us with its power and man’s abilities can distract us from God and his power displayed in the gospel.  Men and women in the pews do not need further stumbling blocks to the cross purposefully cast in their path.  The Westminster Confession of Faith Larger Catechism, in commenting on the second commandment, states part of what is forbidden in worship are “all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever…”  It is one thing to use a microphone to enhance the proclamation of the gospel.  It is quite another to use an image-creating device as a means of making the gospel more appealing.

Guard against placing undue focus upon the visual.  The worship in the New Covenant age is to be primarily spiritual and auditory, not physical and visual.  Paul said that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  The author of Hebrews was exhorting his listeners – Jews wanting to return to the lesser glory of the visible Old Covenant worship with its high priests and temple in Jerusalem – in a different direction.  He urged them to a faith that was a “conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), a trust in the greater glory of having an unseen heavenly high priest in the heavenly temple in the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 4:14-15; 9:11-12; 12:22-24).

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin takes on the idea promoted by Gregory the Great who said, “Images are the books of the uneducated.”    In other words, Gregory thought and taught that the common people of God could not understand the bare Word of God.  Instead, they needed help, and the icons of saints, stained glass pictures, passion plays, etc., were the church’s means of teaching them.  Calvin minced no words about this philosophy:

“The pictures or statues they dedicate to the saints – what are they but examples of the most abandoned lust and obscenity?  If anyone wished to model himself after them, he would be fit for the lash.  Indeed, brothels show harlots clad more virtuously and modestly than the churches show those objects which they wish to be thought images of virgins…Therefore let them compose their idols at least to a moderate decency, that they may with a little more modesty falsely claim that these are books of holiness.” –Institutes, I.11.7

Calvin went on to say “that by the true preaching of the gospel Christ is portrayed and in a manner crucified before our eyes.”  In worship we need to behold Christ with eyes of faith, not images with eyes of flesh.

Strive for purity in devotion to Christ.  In battling against the concept of the Catholic mass with its teaching that the bread and wine became the visual body and blood of Christ, Calvin used as one of his arguments that this teaching corrupted pure worship.  He said that “another iniquity chargeable on the mass is that it sinks and buries the cross and passion of Christ” (Institutes, 4.18.3).  Our God desires “compassion and not sacrifice.” When we make human offerings with our technology that result in obscuring the gospel and the power with which it should fall on human hearts, we are in danger of leading people away from Christ rather than to Him.  How careful we should be!

What should enthrall us in worship is the word of God, not the works of men.  Our hearts should yearn  to behold Christ and burn with His knowledge as He is revealed in His Word (see Luke 24:25-32).  That is why the Sabbath Day is one of a call to holiness in the sense that we are set apart from our normal responsibilities and pleasures to seek God more purely.  Reading a Bible on an iPad in a devotional setting makes that near impossible, for our sensual minds cannot have all the other apps in such close proximity without yearning for them.  In worship we need holiness, a healthy separation of the sacred from the secular.

You may be neglecting the poor with your investment in human technology. One area too few of our modern church leaders seem to consider is how their vast investment of resources in buildings and technology are diverting away those same resources from the poor and missions.  In commenting on how the Catholic church used the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with costly perfume to justify their extravagant expenditures, Calvin stated:

“They suppose that He took great delight in incense…splendid decorations and pompous exhibitions of that nature.  Hence arises the great display which is to be found in their ceremonies; and they do not believe they will worship God in a proper manner if they do not immoderate in expense.” –Commentary on Matthew

Calvin then called the church to spend its resources on preaching and ministering to the poor.  “Do we wish to lay our money on true sacrifices?  Let us bestow it on the poor, for Christ says he is not physically with us, to be served by outward display.”  Will Judgment Day not be a sad affair when the Lord points out those church leaders who did not take care of their brothers in need because they were too busy trying to impress them with technology?

Not too long ago the only concern about pads in pews was that of cushioning bodies against the hard wood.  I fear this generation may be unknowingly using iPads and other devices to cushion themselves from the hard words of the gospel.


  1. Al Hartman December 6, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    An outstanding and most important perspective.
    Thank you Brother Barry.

  2. Denita Ruhnow December 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    Wow, such a convicting and humbling observation…I wish people were less focused on our fancy technological whingdings and more focused on the timeless message of the Gospel–which needs no embellishment.

  3. Jared Olivetti December 7, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Helpful stuff, Barry!

    Here’s a follow-up question I’ve wrestled with, but don’t have an answer to: at some point, certain technologies become absolutely unavoidable. We all have lights in our church buildings because to worship by candlelight is impossible, at least culturally if not practically. Most of us use electronic means of amplification simply because that’s how the rest of the world conducts large group meetings.

    My question: at what point will our congregations change the way we handle tithes & offerings? For the majority of people in our congregation, the tithe/offering check is the last one they write, instead conducting most of their financial dealings with zeros and ones. I can only imagine that sometime in the near future, checkwriting will go the way of the dodo. Some churches have switched to online giving, even passing cardswipe machines up & down the pews. While my kneejerk reaction is against this, it seems mostly logical.

    I realize this is a tangent from the point of your post–but it’s a question on my mind so I thought I’d throw it out there for some thoughts.

  4. James Faris December 7, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    Barry, I agree that this is very helpful, and it hits the mark in spirit. But, I have some of the same questions as Jared. For instance, your first point could have easily been made against those who first used codices in worship. Ironically, today those who use their iPads are in some ways more like Jesus than those with physical books: they actually ‘scroll’ through the text!

    As a father sometimes holding a baby in church, it’s far easier for me to read Scripture or sing Psalms from my phone than from a book. That said, I know the temptations that come in the worship setting with such devices. Ultimately, it’s a matter of the heart, and those who choose to use their Bible and Psalter apps in worship need to bring their hearts in submission to the King. There are practical ways to help too – using the “Airplane Mode” while at church goes a long way to restricting the phone to a clock, Bible, and Psalter.

  5. Barry York December 7, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Thank you to those above for your feedback.

    Jared: We agree that the use of technology itself is not forbidden, as my microphone and your light illustrations show. The question is if it is being used in a way that diminishes the gospel, violates clear commands, and/or hurts others in the body.

    Regarding giving to an electronic form, I can see nothing wrong with a church having a means of doing so outside the worship setting, such as on a website for instance. In the sanctuary, however, it does get more tricky, doesn’t it? Though I cannot speak definitively, here’s a few considerations.

    Electronic giving could make distinctions between the rich and poor more pronounced, as the poor often only have the few tangible mites in their pocket to offer. My experience is that the fancy technology often makes the poor feel inferior. Homeless men who have attended big community churches with a heavy reliance on technology often express to me how it made them feel separated from others and inferior to them. So great care would have to be taken in this area. Do these cardswipe machines have slots for cash or coins? We are called to work hard to avoid class distinctions in James 2:1-9.

    Another consideration is that we are to put aside our giving for the Lord’s Day offering (I Corinthians 16:2). Again, the idea of holiness enters in. The seamlessness of electronic giving would seem to make it far more difficult for you to come with your gift in hand so to speak, creating an inability beyond a mental desire to have it separate and set apart unto the Lord. Ease and convenience can often lead to carelessness and laziness in our Christian walk.

    Finally,I’m not sure we will go totally digital and paperless anyway. Perhaps I’m wrong here, but it still seems that we are seeing a multiplication of medians with shifting to various forms rather than simply a replacement of old ones with new. For instance, electronic documents still have not kept our church copier and printers from running overtime. More magazines and newspapers are going online, yet there still seems to be some demand for the printed form. Many if not all of us still use cash and checks in some form. Ways to give with these means should still be provided.

    • Kim Jansen December 8, 2011 at 12:35 am #

      Quote: “In the sanctuary, however, it does get more tricky”. In the sanctuary? The New Testament knows nothing of physical or temporal santuaries. Through Christ all of life is sanctified, all days, times and activities are to be used for God’s glory. The Church is the body of believers an so tecnology whether lights, data-projectors or iPads are either used to glorify God or not. We might have personal prefererences and pragmatic concerns, but whether we use iPads or leather-bound Bibles to read God’s word is not to me an issue, but rather whether we submit to what it says and share God’s good news with others.

  6. Jared Olivetti December 8, 2011 at 8:23 am #

    Barry, thanks for the helpful thoughts. I especially appreciate the call to not diminish the gospel or hurt others in the church. We’re certainly not ready to make any sort of these technological changes, but at the point where they become important or necessary, those surely are the biggest concerns. I also appreciate the note about putting aside our giving for the Lord’s Day–this seems to me to be something worth thinking through more. I’m not sure many Christians view their tithes & offerings this way.

  7. Andrew Schep December 8, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    Hi Barry – I actually wrote a response to your article to someone else who posted it on facebook, not realizing you wrote it! So, in case it’s helpful (I haven’t read the other comments, so I might be repeating other things that have been said), I offer this with all due respect….

    The iPad is just technology. It always seems inherently shocking to ponder what place new technology might have in the future and what it might replace, but I think this theological fire is misdirected. The application of Exodus 20:25 to the devices we use in church is too direct, not Christological. Everything in our churches is “hewn,” the product of human industry. Christ is the unhewn Rock anticipated in the Old Testament! And the arbitrary devaluing of the visual (as opposed to what? everything we’re doing right now is visual, our thought mediated through the symbolism of letters that form words that rely on metaphor and stimulate visualization) needs to be worked out better philosophically, regardless of what theologians can be quoted. Our culture is every bit as much into auditory idolatry as visual, but Christ redeems every sense, and all can serve Him reverently. It goes without saying that God is very visually oriented! He even fills churches with images of deity every Sunday (when people show up). The second commandment is not a preference for one sense over another, but is eschatological – God Himself would incarnate His image (in Jesus, and, through Christ, in His people), and, one day, we will no longer look in a dark mirror, but see Him face to face, and will be like Him! The author’s warning about what should enthrall us in worship is good, but is something to guard against regardless of what level of technology we’re capable of. Also, the ethical use of resources (poor vs. technology) is a biblical principle, but applies to iPads no more than to anything else.

  8. Barry York December 14, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Thank you to others who have commented. I appreciate your responses, and even expected disagreement as all of us are seeking to work out proper parameters in this new digital age. I also understand that it would be easy to read what I wrote as comparable to the Amish not allowing electric lines to come to their houses. Please note carefully I was only speaking to the use of iPads and their imitators (the iPad I’m using symbolically) in the pews for public worship. Certain uses of computers even stodgy old me utilizes, as for instance they control the recording of our sermons, the heat in our building, or the typing of minutes in a recent ordination. In my little parable and warnings, I was speaking to technology’s use in mediating the worship experience. This is where, in my mind, the danger lies.

    Travel and church matters delayed a response, but here are a few more thoughts to add to yours.

    James: In comparing “codex technology” to my thoughts on the iPad, I’m not sure you are seeing my point. Perhaps I was not clear. I am not against the use of technology, but against allowing technology to distract from Christ. A codex or a modern printed Bible had/has a more singular function, which was only to give access to the Word of God. This makes fulfilling the Great Commandment much more possible. The iPad in the pew has so many other allures that I cannot see how its full access can keep our hearts, the constant idol factories they are, from being pulled away during worship. As you indicate, having them on “airplane mode” (or “church mode”!) could help toward that end. Yet on my latest flight we were told in no uncertain terms to turn phones and electronic devices off completely, as they could interfere with the performance of the plane. Having observed and studied the impact of visual technology on the mind, I still cannot help but think that “off” is the best airplane or church mode in the pew to reduce interference with hearing the Word of God. Some device, such as a Kindle, for just reading the Bible would be far less dangerous in my way of thinking.

    Kim: By sanctuary I was referring to the place where the assembly of the saints gathers, so you could substitute assembly there. Though I agree all of life is to be used to God’s glory, I would encourage you to consider that we glorify God in different ways depending on different settings. For instance, certain things we might do to glorify God in our homes would not be appropriate in the assembly of the church for worship. Also, I would respectfully submit that comparing lights and iPads is an apples and oranges comparison. I would encourage you and other readers to read Tim Challies’ book The Next Story or Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows to consider how greatly we are being affected by digital technology. It’s the very seamlessness that modern technologists are striving for that concerns me with respect to worship especially. We are losing the sense of being set apart.

    Andrew: Certainly I’m not arguing for worshiping with our eyes closed! We need to enter into God’s presence with both our spiritual and physical eyes wide open. In my section on the visual, you pressed my intent upon its bound in that I was speaking of the elements of worship, not the environment of it. I was not “arbitrarily devaluing the visual,” brother. Rather, in the context I was speaking of how the “Protestant worship ethic” does not rely on visual gimmickry such as candles, icons, etc. which some of our technology can push us into if we be not guarded.

    And I absolutely agree with you that Christ is the unhewn Rock, and Amen heartily all that you say about Him above. Yet do not sell that point short. It is exactly that I was seeking to apply Exodus 20:25 in a Christological way that I wrote. For the Scriptures not only uphold Jesus as the primary eschatological fulfillment of the OT types, but also His body, the church, in union and worship of Him as such in a secondary way. For instance, Christ is the chief cornerstone, and so Peter and the other apostles in union with Him are a rock and foundation as well. Or He is the temple, and by His uniting Spirit so the church has become so as well. Thus, the command in Exodus has to be fulfilled by His people in some manner than only by stating He is the unhewn Rock. We must worship Him as such. Disagree with my application of the verse, but the stress I was making is that unless we are very careful our technology will lead our hearts away from this. Just as you have seen a texting teenager unable to concentrate on the person across the table in front of him, my concern is that the iPadding worshiper may be missing the fire from the Altar of God.

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