You thought he was sleeping, that guy two pews ahead of you who is constantly looking at his knees during the sermon. But he's got something more on his mind, something that combines his love of electronics with his quest for the divine.

He's navigating through the New Testament.

Though you don't hear the pages turning, he's actually searching through the Bible, looking for that especially pertinent verse that just rolled off the speaker's lips. While he's at it, he may just jot down the date for that upcoming church committee meeting, add a number to the congregation phone list, or beam a wireless message to the bishop (see accompanying story).

The 1996 premiere of the personal digital assistant, better known as a "PDA" or hand-held computer, has given another technological twist to theology, putting hundreds of pages of holy writ — and lots of associated commentary — literally in the palm of one's hand.

Guttenberg never had it so good.

Add that to the PowerPoint sermons now being added as a regular feature for selected congregations, and you have the continuing metamorphosis of wired worship, spawned during mid '90s as the Internet came into general use. When the Internet revolution first began, few clergy knew anything about a Web site. Now there are no major denominations without one, and many individual churches have created sites specific to members of their own congregation.

For many churches, historically known for their tendency to maintain tradition rather than follow societal trends, the transformation toward incorporating technology looks to continue unabated.

Just ask the Rev. Corky Seevinck, senior minister at Salt Lake Christian Fellowship in Sandy, where about 500 Sunday morning worshippers are

treated to something of a "techno-sermon" on a regular basis.

"We do use PowerPoint," an electronic graphics program plugged into a laptop computer that can be projected onto a large screen. A familiar tool for business presentations and in college classrooms, Rev. Seevinck uses the device periodically to illustrate his sermons. A recent example was his discussion of "before and after," picturing a car that was wrecked in a heap of many disparate parts, followed by an image of the car that had been restored, illustrating how God can create order out of confusion if he is given the opportunity.

Another service featured a church member who teaches art at a local public school. As the congregation watched, he painted a picture of the cross with hands from the bottom reaching up toward heaven. "It was very effective at incorporating something visual with speaking, song and music.

"We try to recognize the kinds of stimuli that people have today with things like TV, movies and so forth," Rev. Seevinck said. "It grabs their attention. . . . We have a strong emphasis on relating to young people, and a lot of the things we're doing relate to them in the cultural setting where they exist."

So-called mega-churches, most prevalent in the South and California, use similar technologies with lots of sight, sound and action built into what have become Sunday stage productions in churches that hold up to 15,000 worshippers simultaneously. Video clips, wireless microphones and live bands add to the appeal for young worshippers cultured from the cradle toward technology.

John Erickson, assistant to pastor Roger Anderson at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, said while his church hasn't incorporated PowerPoint presentations yet, "we've definitely discussed it. One of the things that is said a great deal and I agree to some extent is that we have people nowadays who are used to receiving information in 30-second soundbites. Yet on Sunday morning, we in churches still rely on them listening to a 15 minute monologue called a sermon. A lot of church gurus are saying you need to have some multimedia even during your sermon — something that assists people in being able to understand what you're telling them."

As some churches readily embrace the concept, both in administration and during services, others are more comfortable keeping their adaptations behind the scenes.

Deacon Elias Koucos of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, said the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is providing live Internet broadcasts of services as well as sermons and study groups that members can access via computer. "Anyone can get on through their Web page. I've done it. It's a marvelous tool, something I've used when I'm home in the evenings and either want to have a service or am preparing something from it." Parishioners frequently comment "on how wonderful it is for them if they missed a Sunday service and they can pick it up on the Internet."

Yet the deacon doesn't foresee any type of technological presentation during worship services. "During a special seminar or discussion group, definitely, but not as a regular homily presentation."

That sentiment is echoed by Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, who explains that his Orthodox Jewish congregation eschew any use of electricity or even battery power during their Sabbath.

Yet the rabbi said that doesn't mean his congregation avoids technology, by any means. In the Talmud, chapter 6 Mishna 11, it reads: "All that the holy one, blessed be he, created in his world, he created solely for His glory." Therefore, "everything that we find around us in this world was created to enhance and to glorify God's name. If by divine providence we find around ourselves satellite dishes, the Internet, Palm Pilots, Web sites, obviously we derive a lot of benefit from them, but we must say the main reason they were created was to exalt and glorify God's name. . . . It's incumbent on every Jew to connect modern technology with modern Judaism and to enhance modern Judaism with modern technology."

Still, everybody needs a break, the rabbi said, and the Jewish Sabbath provides a time for removing oneself from being engulfed by circuitry and reflecting on simple spirituality.

"Six days a week we do it, one day a week we don't."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com