Hold On and Let Go

Hold On and Let Go: Being Faithful in a Post-Modern, Culturally Creative World

Bruce Reyes-Chow
Organizing pastor, Mission Bay Community Church NCD, San Francisco

Presentation to the 2003 Covenant Conference
November 7, 2003
Washington, DC

(This presentation included slides and videoclips that are not shown here.)


Today we are going to talk about the church we are going to be and become in a broad way and looking at society and this whole idea of what it means to look at the post-modern world and our churches.

I ask you to think, what is the church that you dream about? What does it look like? Who is in this church? Who gets to decide who is in the church? This conference has been a really exciting time, because it has been a reaffirmation of what many of us believe. In some ways, though, I think we need to think about who we are. As I think about the church and what I hope it is to be, I think about my children. I have three wonderful, perfect girls who are the joy of my life. When I think about the church, I think about a church that they will have when they grow up. I hope that church is an exciting place to be, spiritually, physically, emotionally. I hope it is a place where they understand and experience God. When I look at our church today, when I look out here today, this is not the church that I dream about.

It is not very often that I can be in an entire conference and count the number of Asian-Americans on one hand. This place has some work to do. I go to conferences that maybe are a little more evangelical or conservative, and I bond with my Asian-American brothers and sisters, because they are there. Is it purely theology? I don’t think so. It is about approach, attitude, and posture. When I look at this group, and you hear that quote over and over again, “The Christian Church is one generation away from extinction,” that ain’t far from the truth.

Many of you have been faithful servants. Thank God for the roads you have paved for many of us. But look twenty years down the road, and many of us will not be here. This is not the church that I dream about for our children. I dream about a church that is whole as many of you do, but what that means for us in a larger picture. The Christian church has to be really bold, not just bold in the places that we are comfortable talking about and fighting about, but bold beyond all of it, because God has said to us, “All God’s children are God’s children.”

Let us pray. Holy and gracious God, may your spirit be with us this afternoon. May it be able to lift our hearts, our souls, and our spirits to you so that we may be open to all that you have gifted us with.

With all that wonderful introduction of why this church isn’t any good for you, let me begin by telling you a little about my background and why I feel like I can talk bad about the church.

I am your fault! So, you have no one else to blame but yourselves. I am born, raised, baptized Presbyterian. I come out of a small, multi-ethnic congregation in Stockton, California, a historically Philippino-American church founded out of the Central Valley farm workers strike — always a very social justice-minded church. It was very clear that my faith was about being active in the community, being connected to somebody, treating my neighbor as I would want to be treated. It was about being kind. It was about justice. It was about compassion. I was raised by the progressive part of our church — although I am finding out I am not as progressive as I used to think I was.

Now, as I look at our church and the way our church is moving, it is not lining up with the way the world is. Most of the time we would say, “Good!” but now it is to the detriment of our church. The world has gotten more progressive than us, and that scares me.

I think about that because I am in a church that is brand new. We are two years old, Mission Bay Community Church, and yes it doesn’t say Presbyterian, and no we are not tricking them into coming into the denomination. Many people say that we should put Presbyterian in the name, and I respond “Why?” It’s not like we hide it. We are a congregation that is hard to describe. I am one of the oldest people there every Sunday. I am 34 years old. Sixty people come on Sunday. There are about five people older than me. We have to do church differently. I cannot be the same kind of pastor I was when I was at a church that was predominantly 60- and 70-year-olds.

The church that I am in is focused on evangelism, the great E word of our church! David Bailey has the best way of talking about progressive evangelism. He says that in most churches it’s like, you are welcome to be in our church, but you have to cerebrally know that you are welcome. The congregation that I serve doesn’t let us get away with that. The congregation I serve is unapologetically about sharing the Good News of Christ in a variety of ways. This has been my struggle with evangelism in the more progressive part of our church. The most support I got for doing new church development in San Francisco Presbytery was not from the progressive churches. They are supportive in “Hope it goes well”; but when it came right down to it, our four biggest funders from our presbytery were all the most conservative churches. Funding a well-known progressive pastor. Would progressive churches fund an NCD for a well-known conservative evangelical church development? Probably not. 

For me, evangelism has been one of the most difficult things because we don’t always know what it is. For Presbyterians it has been even worse. There is this old story about the evangelism conference where the pastor is standing up front and asks the question, “What have Presbyterians contributed to the cause of evangelism?” and the whole conference is silent. Asked again, “What have Presbyterians offered to the cause of evangelism?” Nothing. Finally a gentleman in the back stands up and says, “Restraint!”

I grew up with a strong sense of my community. The communal aspect of my faith was ingrained in me. Every service ended in a circle; at every major event in anybody’s life the community gathered. But never once in my upbringing in the church did I talk in real language about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. We in the church have forced ourselves to choose between community and evangelism. We must be able to do both.

Some of you have heard this whole phrase about post-modernism. What the heck is that? Well, post-modernism in its essence is indefinable, but we are going to try. Post-modernism is that whole movement from a modern society of mechanics, of black and white, of structure, to a post-modern society which is generally a younger society that is into collaboration, that is about fluidity, that is about a life of chaos.

If you look at the dot.com industry where I pastor, that whole area, everybody would say the dot.coms don’t contribute to society. But those dot.coms, most of them, had a kind of family care within their company. They had all these things that had been fought for, but they weren’t talked about in the same way. That is from our Sixty’s parents’ upbringing. We are the generation of the divorced parents. Lives are unstable. Relationships are no longer set in stone. Vows of commitment are treated differently.
There was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a year ago that said dating is just practice for divorce. Sadly that rings true. The generation has a hard time looking for anything long-term. When I talk about being in the ministry for eight years, congregation members’ jaws drop. “Like, the same industry?” Yeah! “Not the same job, though, right?” Well, no.

Our young pastors are part of this post-modern generation that is unstable. It is a stressful time, but very exciting because it is a spiritual community. It is holistic. One of the wonderful things about post-modernism is this going away from rigid organizational hierarchy toward something closer to ordered chaos. If you look at the commercials, if you read business books, you see that marketing is going towards a post-modern culture. It’s addressing the rise of what they are calling the cultural creatives, 50 million people supposedly in the United States. It is a generation to which our churches will either say, “You are welcome and this is how we show it,” or “Really, you are not.” In the congregation that I serve, we try to do that.

Today I want to talk about a few ways that we as a church may do that. My first interest is about how we go about connecting people to God through our congregations. How do we live out this faith and worship in a way that may or may not bring folks into involvement? I want to talk about a few of those things, and they are not tools.

Post-modern ministry is not about what kind of music you do. It is not about whether you have coffee in the sanctuary or not. It is not about how tall your pulpit is. It is not about specifics at all. Our church in our modern way of thinking says, One plus one equals two, so we do this to reach this group. A post-modern way of thinking says, Well, this plus this over here might mean this, but on this end might mean this over here, so anytime we try to put something down you’re going to miss. We don’t talk about tools and skills. We talk about posture, approach, and being. What are the ways we are so that folks know that we are welcoming?

Two of the churches in San Francisco that I believe reach the highest number of people under 35 — what kind of worship do you think they have? Traditional! High church! Calvary Presbyterian Church, Laird Stuart’s church — Laird is a wonderful pastor, a great preacher — his church is high church, and they have a great number of young adults there. And post-modern! Our church probably has the second number. We’ve been around for two years. There are 18 Presbyterian churches in San Francisco, so that’s not so good. I offer to you these things not because I think I am any kind of expert, because in our denomination it doesn’t take a lot to be an expert on this.

When we talk about the struggles of the church, it is not about me saying here is how we need to change or here is how we are doing it, so you need to copy it. Nothing like that; it’s about us engaging in God’s journey together, and how in these brief moments we see glimpses of this amazing Kingdom of God that we will experience at the end of time. I offer you these things not as a way to say how bad your churches are or how great the one I serve is. It’s actually kind of sad that we have probably been one of the most successful in our denomination at reaching in any kind of big number — which is 60 — this generation of folks in a new way. These are not recycled Presbyterians. These are not folks who are transferring cities and looking for the nearest church. These are folks who as adults are experiencing Christianity for the first time. So I say to you, Gosh, this is really exciting for us. Maybe you can figure out a way to bring this excitement and amazing gift to your places of ministry.

I. The first thing is this. Be confident in Christ, confident in the saving power of Christ in our lives both physically and spiritually. One of the biggest deals for our folks is the instability of their lives. Every Sunday we pray for five or six people who don’t know if they are going to have a job. These aren’t folks in low-income industries. These are folks who have money for six months – but then what? These are folks whose parents are probably divorced. They themselves might have been divorced ,or are struggling with what it means to be in relationship these days. They’re struggling with theological issues, struggling with so much stuff, and we have to be able to offer Christ as a calming presence in the chaos. The reason I believe my brothers and sisters in a more evangelical setting are growing so well is that they are adjusting to this far better than we are. It is easier when our theology is black or white.

But the gift of the progressive part of our church is that we value and celebrate the gray. We look at our faith as a struggle. I never grew up seeing that as a gift. When we offer it to people we say, “You know what? Take comfort knowing that Christ is with you as you wander around.”

“Pastor, I’ve always thought about this. I’ve always questioned this. My last church didn’t let ask me this.”
I respond, “Alright! That’s cool! Let’s talk!”

For us it is about finding this common presence in the midst of a world that is stormy. If you approach Christ in a way that we have been taught, our strength can be that calming presence for a whole generation that is experiencing nothing but chaos in their life. It saddens me that people are amazed that I’ve been married 13 years. It’s the best 25 years of my life I tell my wife, and she laughs — most of the time. It is amazing because in their lives, in their experience that seems like a really long time. Yes it is, and the journey is hard; but there is stability in the midst of that relationship just as there is stability in your relationship with Jesus Christ. Claim it! Own it!

I used to forget that. When people come to the Presbyterian Church for the first time, believe it or not, they are really not looking for community in a sense that we offer it. Most of the time they want to know if we actually talk about Jesus Christ. In San Francisco, as you can imagine, our greatest strength is the diversity of our spirituality, but it is also our greatest struggle. I have people coming to our church all the time saying they came here because you actually said God in your mission statement, and there are Christian churches that don’t. We could go to the Church of John Coltrane. We could go to the Wiccan thing down here. We could go to the Unitarian thing over here. We could go to the Methodist thing over here. 

I used to be in that whole Seeker movement. Take all that out! The new generation of folks are saying, Tell us what you believe. Claim it! Our weakness as progressives is that we often haven’t done that well. Folks come to the church looking for a connection to Christ, looking for a definitive understanding of how we live that faith out.

I was taught that by a lady at my first church, Covenant Presbyterian. It was an older church, and it combined with this younger group from the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown. They wanted to grow in this area that was growing with mixed ethnicity.

I was 26 years old when I was ordained. The vibrancy we bring as young pastors is a gift. The vibrancy combined with the arrogance of some of us that come out of seminary is not so much. I remember one Monday, there was a knock on the office door. Martha walks in, and she folds her arms. I know I’m in trouble. “Bruce,” she said (and I wanted to say, “That’s Pastor Bruce,” but she didn’t go for that), “do you know what happened Sunday?” I said “No, what happened Sunday?” — I’m thinking, oh no, did I swear in my sermon? Did I put the coffee on the piano again? “Bruce, the flowers were in the wrong place on Sunday!” I’m sitting there. Here’s what not to say. “Martha, I don’t care.” You know, it is one of those things where you say it (Oh God, bring it back!), and you can imagine her face if you watch cartoons – you can cook eggs on her head it was so hot.

I turned to my computer. “Dear Session. I quit.” I erased that and said instead that I have discerned God’s calling in my life. As Christ has guided my spirit…, and I called up my mentor, Cal Chinn, and I say to him, “Cal, I’m quitting.”

“Don’t quit,” said Cal.
“No, Cal, this is it. I’m done here. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Bruce, don’t quit. Let’s talk.”
“No, Cal. The letter is written. I’m going to print it.”
“Let’s go have lunch.”
“No. I’m set.”
“I’ll pay.”

So, we go to lunch, and Cal asks what’s going on? He then says to put out my hands. So I put out my hands like this, and he says, “OK, in this hand put all the cruddy stuff they’ve done to you. Put it in that hand and tell me what it is.”

“Well, Martha came and yelled at me today, and they’re making fun of this, and they don’t like the way I do this.”

Cal then said I should put all the good stuff in the other hand. “Tuesday I went to visit Barrie who is 104, and she served me tea in little tea cups which is kind of cool, and then the other day Raina was born, so I got to go see her in the hospital, and that was pretty cool. We have a baptism coming up!”

Cal said, “See? It’s a scale!” Then I went, “Mentors suck! I hate them!” — Did I just say that from the pulpit? I’m sorry! — It was one of those times where God says to you to suck it up, man! It was that gentle reminder for me.

We began to talk more and more, and he said, “You know what? You are right! The flowers don’t matter. You don’t care, but Martha does. Don’t mess with the way Martha really loves God.” He reminded me that that was how Martha connected with God. She went to church to connect with Christ. Those flowers were important for her, because that was some stability for her. There were parts of her life that were unstable. You come into that church, you start messing with the flowers, you start messing with the worship experience and the way that they experience God. You may not care, Bruce, but they do.

When we approach the post-modern world we have to give the same value to the way people want to experience God. People don’t come to the church expecting to leave. They come to the church hoping there is a reason to stay. When we are open with our understanding of Christ and say this is what Christ means for us, despite the instability of the world, the grayness can be a comfort, then we have said to a world that is so chaotic, there is calm. There is peace of mind and spirit, and this is a place you can find it. We cannot forget to be confident in Christ..

II. This is about not just confidence in Christ but humility of the spirit. One of the hallmarks of the post-modern generation is there is no absolute truth in anything. As soon as people begin to hear absolutism they run. We cannot be so absolute in things that we ourselves begin to say the transformative power of the Holy Spirit cannot infiltrate that which we are so sure of.

I think about all the positions I have ever held about anything, and what I have become and where I have been. My mother is an extremely liberal democrat and a Presbyterian pastor. She was this incredibly liberal democrat and worked for the legislature in Sacramento, California for about 25 years, and when I was in sixth grade I wrote two papers. One was on my favorite President which was Nixon. My mother just about had a coronary when I brought this home, and in her gentleness said “What the __ is this?????” — “Err, I liked the dog.” The second paper I wrote was on capital punishment. At that point I thought it was more humane to kill off the prisoners than to overcrowd our prisons. Liberal democrat mom was happy about that paper, too! At that point in my life I was so sure about where I was. My mom was so sure that she had just messed up.

Just as I have changed, we have to be open to all the things we believe God is leading us to. I say to folks in our congregation we are very mixed theologically. All of our clergy is fairly progressive, but our congregation is very mixed theologically. We have two committed gay couples in our church, and we have many folks who just believe it is wrong. It is amazing, I think, how a post-modern generation is ready to be in the same congregation, let alone same denomination I say to them that this is where I am, and I am 99% sure I am right. There are three pastors who work with that multi-ethnic congregation — one Asian-American, one Korean-American, one African-American. We’re the only denominational church, I am sure, that has three racial-ethnic pastors in a church that is not deemed racial-ethnic. Every year I go to racial-ethnic events. Well ,why? We are not a racial-ethnic church. Well, because it is important to me, because the justice in our denomination still needs work, the justice and the racism in our world still need work. And I say to the congregation (I hope I’m right), when I talk about my own struggles around race and how that informs me, and how I raise my children, and what that means about what we need to do as a denomination and as a church, I hope I’m right. I hope that when I read scripture, whatever God’s Spirit tells me that I need to say that Sunday morning, gosh I hope I’m right.

But I never say to them I am 100% sure, because when we take a 100%-sure stance on anything, we leave out that thing called faith. We leave out that possibility that God may say to us, “You know what? Change your heart.” We ask the other parts of our church to do that. We are in the business in this place of figuring out ways to change the hearts of these other folks. My challenge is not just around particular issues that we deal with here, but other issues in our church around who you see, who walks in, who is not there. Can our hearts be changed as well? Are we so sure of how we are to be as a church that we have left out and forgotten the transformative power of the Holy Spirit? Can we be humble enough to say, I may be wrong, but I have faithfully discerned that this is where God has told me to stand in this place and in this time? Can we be Esther in that moment? Can we also be the Pharisees who may change? Those who are converted? Can our experience of God also say to us sometimes that we may not always be right? We have to be humble in the Spirit.

Oftentimes we as a church, as a people, can be so stubborn, so sure of ourselves, that we allow ourselves to go on without any kind of experience of reconciliation. We are so unwilling to change in real ways. We never really say to God, “Change my heart, God. The transformative power that you carry is real for me, and I will live it out.” We have to be honest with the Spirit. When people come in, they want to know that we are not always so sure in our claims that there is no room for faith. Every time I say, I am here, and I am never budging, what does that leave out of my life and my faith and my experience of God’s amazing community? We have to be humble in the Spirit.

III. The last thing that I offer to you, in trying to make this church open to the community in which many of us live, is to trust in God. This is so simple yet something that I think we often fail to do and to show. Trusting God means to me that I hang in.

So often, my friends in ministry will come, and we will talk about the struggles they are experiencing, because the culture is one that says it is okay to move on after three or four years. In fact, if you are not moving on after three or four years, you are currently not wanted anywhere else. But the reality is that our churches will not thrive unless pastors stay. But my colleagues are leaving, and I remember going through that struggle with my first congregation. The Sunday I was going preach my last sermon, and trying to find some grace in the midst of it, my wife said to me — I’ll never forget it — Robin put her arms around me, and she said, “Bruce, just trust God.”

From that point on my ministry was never about how long I am going to be here. It was what am I going to do with the amount of time that God has given me to serve. There were no more risks in ministry because I trusted God. When we started this new church, with no people, no building, no money, folks would say to me it was such a risk. I said no, you know what? I trusted God has guided somewhere, so I’m not really worried about that! We have to be able to trust God. We have to be able to tell people in the same way they, too, must trust God. One of the worst characteristics of the generation and of the culture is this tendency to move on quickly. There is huge angst in the midst of any transition our young folks are making these days — job, family, church, relationships. We need to say to them to just trust in God: trust that there is something greater than you may even know right now.

The world is looking for us to say to them, Jesus Christ is real. The world is looking for us to say, we are really sure about this, but we are always faithful to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. And the world is looking for us to say, God is real, and you can rely on God. When we begin to approach this new generation of people who are all around us, some sitting in these very pews, when we really begin to live that out, that church that I told you about, that dream, then in twenty years, when my daughters are sitting in the chairs or the pews, or in the coffee house, wherever they may be sitting to have church, I will be able to sit back and say, “Ah! This is the church that I dreamed about.” When you all who will go on before some of us are watching over us, sitting with God, you can say, “Ah, I had a hand in the plan that brought about this church that we dreamed about.” When my children experience a church like this they, too, will be part of a church that says, in the future for them, this is the church that their children will be part of. When we do that, we are faithful to God. Be faithful to Christ. Be faithful to the transforming power of the Spirit. And trust in God. When we do that as a community faithfully, we are being faithful to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Let us pray:

Holy and gracious God, for the amazing spirit that comes upon each and every one of us, in the glimpses of grace, in the smallness of a child’s grin, the enormity of a thunderstorm, the wonder of a handshake from an enemy, the power of our own hearts being transformed, help us to see you, O God, in our lives this day so that we may live forth differently, that this amazing day you give us we do something faithfully. We do something joyously. We do something that transforms the world. We pray all of this in the name of Christ.  Amen.

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