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Zooming to the rescue in the face of COVID-19


Former General Assembly Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow shares how he and his flock practiced social distancing Sunday by worshiping online

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow is pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California.

LOUISVILLE — On Monday, pastors and other leaders from dozens of churches were eager to share their most recent virtual worshiping experiences from the day before, and the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow was up to the task.

The moderator of the 218th General Assembly is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Calif., which like hundreds of PC(USA) churches across the country used Zoom or another meeting or streaming platform to enable members and friends to worship from home Sunday while maintaining the social distancing required by the coronavirus pandemic.

Reyes-Chow also used the Zoom platform to explain to the 100 or so people on Monday’s call how he and his flock made not-in-person worship somehow personable.

For communion, for example, Reyes-Chow asked worshipers to bring a liquid and “something edible” to the virtual worship service. He prayed and said the words of institution, holding his own elements above his face. On cue, everyone broke their food item, dipping it in their liquid and partaking together.

“It was English muffins, toast — it was interesting to watch,” Reyes-Chow said. “It felt lovely. It felt right and good, and we will do it every Sunday.” Reyes-Chow said the Sunday online services from First Presbyterian Church could well go on into the month of June.

Some churches are using live-streaming platforms such as Facebook Live to bring worship to church members and friends. Platforms like Zoom are for more interactive experiences, Reyes-Chow explained. During worship, he muted most worshipers, asking them instead to provide feedback in the platform’s chat room. “I told them, ‘This is your time to blatantly talk during the sermon,” he said. “I also told them, ‘This will not be perfect, but expect grace in this.’”

After opening worship with the ringing of a chime, an opening prayer and a time for confession, it was time for the passing of the peace. Reyes-Chow unmuted everyone at once, asking them to “say hi” and express the peace of Christ to their fellow worshipers.

“It had been only a week since we had met, but this was the first time people had seen each other in a while,” he said. “You could see people weeping when it happened.”

Reyes-Chow didn’t employ the lectionary passages Sunday, instead electing to use Acts 2:1-4, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Acts 2:42-47, a description of life in the early church. Worshipers used Lectio Divina, reading the words on the screen, reflecting on them, then reading them again.

Reyes-Chow’s homily lasted only about five minutes. He encouraged people to communicate in the chat room while he was talking. During the prayers of the people, worshipers “raised their hands” using a Zoom tool. Reyes-Chow called on them individually, unmuted them so they could voice their joy or concern, and then went on to the next item for prayer.

He did a closing prayer and a charge, then invited worshipers to stay afterward in the chat room — “just like a normal Sunday service,” he said.

In a question-and-answer session that followed, Reyes-Chow said he thought about doing the service from the sanctuary, “but I’m not encouraging anybody to be in church. We are staying at home, and I think there is some real legitimacy from doing it in whatever space you’re in.”

Some pastors participating in Monday’s forum said they experienced technical problems trying to get worshipers to sing along with provided accompaniment to chosen hymns. Reyes-Chow said that with varying internet speeds going out to worshipers and flowing back to the origin, “music is rarely smooth enough to sing to. We gave up music. Rather than not have it be [a good experience] for everyone, we just pulled it out.” As for music recorded ahead of time and live-streamed, “that’s different,” he said.

He said he recommends Zoom’s $14.99 package, although attendance is limited to 100 people. Larger churches can pay $50 extra so that more people can join the service.

Reyes-Chow said his church uses “tech deacons” to talk with worshipers experiencing difficulty accessing the service. “Find people who are calming but can teach well,” he said. Among their responsibilities: monitoring the chat room during worship so the pastor or worship leader doesn’t have to.

The Rev. Rob Dyer, pastor and head of staff at First United Presbyterian Church in Belleville, Illinois, said his church held a practice session Saturday. One success was the extra effort on the part of the church’s Christian educator director, who during the week “called everyone she suspected was not well tech enabled,” reminding worshipers they could participate using Zoom’s call-in feature through their telephone. As a bonus, the church “picked up about two dozen people for our email list just by making those phone calls,” Dyer said.

The Rev. Kari Olson, pastor of East Falls Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, said she taught people worshiping online Sunday to say a Presbyterian staple — “and also with you” — in sign language.

She said she was surprised by how many people “went for the discussion in the chat room. Few people would have done it that way in the sanctuary.”

“We are on Zoom and it’s all new,” she said. “There’s no, ‘But we’ve always done it that way.’”

Reyes-Chow said Sunday’s worship service did not include taking an offering. The church uses the Presbyterian Foundation’s online giving program, which he called “an easy, well-done system.”

As for future worship online, Reyes-Chow said he’s considering asking a participant to “share a testimonial reflection this week.”

“I would say, strip your service down, with 3-5 things you really want to do,” he said. “We are going to be on this platform for quite a while, and so we have time to build this out.”

“There are very few times,” he said, “that we are given this kind of grace around our services.”

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