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.