Beyond buildings, borders and geography

Bruce Reyes-Chow encourages pastors to build a theological understanding of the future church

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Bruce Reyes-Chow’s conversation this week was presented by Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministries as part of its“The Scattered Church” project. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — During a fast-paced two-hour Zoom conversation this week, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow led more than 100 participants in a discussion on “The Scattered Church: Pastoring in a Time of Pandemic.”

Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008), Reyes-Chow currently pastors First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California.  He divided his presentation into three sessions, moving those gathered from:

  • Enduring to Embracing: This COVID-19 Pastoral Leadership Journey.
  • Congregational Chaos to Communal Life: Best Practices for Zoom Life.
  • “Here” Church to Hybrid Church: What we Might Become.

During session one, Reyes-Chow said pastoral leaders are being called in new ways to go into a space to teach and nurture, build and comfort, and be with the body of Christ in ways they never imagined — all while feeling the need to be equipped themselves.  Reyes-Chow said most pastors did really well going into “first responder pastor mode,” which he described as “I got this.”  Then came the “Dear God” stage, with many pastors over-functioning and being overwhelmed, and some of them panicking.

The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow

Even though he found himself in this stage over and over, First Presbyterian Church is now moving into what Reyes-Chow calls the “Taking a Breath” stage. There’s much more self-reflection going on now, he said, and a deeper commitment to being church differently. No longer driven by panic, members and friends are thinking about how to be church in the future, which he said is the “Ready, Set, Lead” stage.

“So much grace abounds right now. People are realizing what’s important and what isn’t,” he said.  “It’s an opportune time to dream and imagine what the future holds for us.”

Reyes-Chow began session two with a conversation about online versus in-person worship and how online worship needs to be reimagined, rather than replicating in-person worship.  It’s important, he said, for pastors and congregations to recognize this difference.

“They’re not the same and one isn’t better than the other,” he said. “But they do enhance each other and both are important in the life of the church.”

The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow has been engaged in online community for more than a decade, here is part of worship service he led on Twitter in 2010. (Screen shot)

When he hears people say, “In-person worship is so much better,” Reyes-Chow realizes they’re operating under the assumption that their in-person worship interactions and experiences were always good.

“But we know that isn’t true,” he said. “Sometimes in-person communities don’t know each other very well.”

And while there are things missing in online worship experiences, Reyes-Chow said worshipers and worship leaders are just beginning to tap into how they might use online services to connect deeply with each other.

First Presbyterian Church has more worshipers online now than it had before the pandemic, when worship occurred in the sanctuary. Some are coming to online worship from places in the U.S. and others from around the world, looking for a progressive church space. Reyes-Chow said he is considering starting a new member class for those who want to join the church but have never set foot in its geographic location.

Describing himself as a kid of the 1980s, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow came of age when typing classes were moving to computers and keyboarding. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Reyes-Chow)

In creating communal life online, Reyes-Chow repeatedly stressed that technology should not be a distraction. He encouraged those present to know their own technological capacity and that of their communities. Don’t do too much, he advises other worship leaders, but do try to translate his experiences into their context.

While giving tips for Zoom leadership and how to Zoom better — you can watch his presentation here — Reyes-Chow said leaders should  think of themselves as a “Zoom DJ.”

“You’re not a meeting host, but a curator who creates and tends to space that is meaningful and life-giving,” he said.

One way Reyes-Chow does this is by using the Zoom chatroom. The most interactive part of First Presbyterian Church’s worship happens in the chatroom as people respond to one another to a sermon-related question he provides. That interaction — and the ability to see faces and respond — is why he said he prefers the “Zoom live vibe” versus pre-recording the service.

In session three of his presentation, Reyes-Chow talked about creating a theological understanding of what it means to be a church beyond the walls of church. He’s thinking about the hybrid church of the future, where people online and people in physical space are worshiping together.

“Can you articulate and champion a theological understanding of and a calling to bring church beyond buildings, borders and geography?” he asked.

Reyes-Chow has been thinking about this question as it relates to the communion table and to the feast of Christ to which worshipers are called. He’s also been reflecting on all the times pastors have stood behind the communion table speaking metaphorically about the expansive nature of Christ — and how the communion elements were not just for those present, but for all.

Referring to it as “the expanded table,” he asked, “Is the table just for those people who stand around it? Or is for those who gather around this curated hybrid space — and the table is there?”

Reyes-Chow encouraged those present to consider how this pandemic time has informed their understanding of both the communion table and of the body of Christ and how people are connected to each other.

“Support and create your lived community now,” he said, “so when you do gather in person, people have no choice but to remember those gathering online.”

You can watch Bruce Reyes-Chow’s “Pastoring the Body of Christ in a Time of Pandemic” here. It was presented by Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency as part of its new The Scattered Church project.


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