COVID-19: First Presbyterian Church Houston is Going Back to the Basic's During this Season

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Senior Pastor, Jim Birchfield from First Presbyterian Church Houston talks about how his church is going back to the basics and, for this season, is entirely focused on three priorities.

"So, you had asked the question kind of in the context of, where are we doing anything unique? And as I thought about it, I realized, no, actually we're not. We are simply going back to what we believe to be the basics of church"

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First Presbyterian Church Houston




Tommy Rosson:

This is Tommy Rosson with Houston Responds. Thank you so much for joining us today. I've got Jim Birchfield with First Presbyterian Church Houston, and I'm so thankful he's joining us today. Jim, tell us a little bit about what Covid-19 has, how that has impacted your church, First Presbyterian.

Jim Birchfield:

Well, thank you Tommy, and I appreciate the invitation. It's wonderful to be with you and hello to all of my colleagues. I think like all of us, we're experiencing this as I heard or I read in one article, somebody calling it a blizzard. I feel like, we are experiencing it exactly that way. It is a season where we feel like we spend most of our time managing the chaos and just trying to respond to the ever changing environment. And, every time that I feel like I can sit back and say, okay, we've got a new normal and we can walk along that path. We get a new directive or a new change. That said, I do feel like, we are united as a church and are beginning to kind of move forward together.

Tommy Rosson:

That's great. Earlier we talked to you, you brought up three priorities that you're focused on and this idea of going back to the basics. Can you expand on that?

Jim Birchfield:

Yeah. So, you had asked the question kind of in the context of, where are we doing anything unique? And as I thought about it, I realized, no, actually we're not. We are simply going back to what we believe to be the basics of church. And, you know, it's funny we established about two weeks ago, which seems like two years ago, three priorities for this season. A priority number one is that we wanted to do everything we can to provide our community with an opportunity to worship and pray together. The second priority was we wanted to continue to find, opportunities to nurture the body, to build community and keep people connected. And then thirdly to look for ways of caring for our own congregation, but also reaching out and serving the community as we have the opportunity to, basically in our, obviously in our neighborhoods. And the funny thing is that we feel, several of us feel as leaders, that we are probably as focused now on the essentials of being the church as we ever have been. We're blessed to be, you know, one of these churches that's got a hundred programs going in a hundred different directions. And now for this season we are entirely focused on those three priorities.

Tommy Rosson:

Tell us a little bit about what that looks like in regards to each one of those principles. How is worship different? How is disciple-making different and how is caring for your community different?

Jim Birchfield:

Yeah. Okay. So, in the worship and prayer area, we are a church that, up until Covid-19, had four worship services and did have the privilege and the luxury of being able to live stream two of them. We are live streaming still, but we have gone to one church service and not just to conserve resources, but essentially to say to the church, Hey, this is a great time for us to be reminded that we are one body. We are one church. And, we're going to draw from the best of our worship expressions across the board. As probably some of you are also experiencing who are live streaming, we're learning how to transition from a simply, you know, filming, or live streaming, I should say, an existing worship service to now having to think through how we produce a service that is compelling for somebody who is watching, you know, kind of in a passive environment.

We're doing things that I think others are doing, which is sending out emails, sending out videos and devotions and things of that nature. The one thing that I wanted to mention, and we've only done it one week, so I don't want to create a national trend out of it but, we experimented last Sunday with virtual communion, which basically for us looked like this. I did the words of institution at the table and invited folks in their own homes to celebrate the Lord's supper themselves, if they were by themselves or with other members of the family to go ahead and have their own juice and their own bread and recognizing that there's some theological discussion around that, we made the decision that we would forego that for now and put a value on being together.

And we have heard across the board that the members of our church find that, that was the one part of the service that made them feel the most connected to the church. So, we're going to try it again, for the next couple of weeks and, and see what we learn and, and that we'll go forward from there. But that was a, that was a very interesting learning. As probably many of you are, we're learning as we go. In the area of nurture and community, we are probably like many of you, we are teaching our congregation to use Zoom and UberConference and some of the other tools that are available to us. We are a multi-generation congregation and I think one of the things that I have enjoyed the most is getting screenshots from people who are demonstrating that they're coming to grips with this new technology.

My wife is in a small group that has three 90 year olds in the group and they're all on Zoom and they're having a blast with it so far. One slight twist that we are doing with our small group ministry is we're not turning the small groups into house churches, but we are working with our leaders, our small group leaders to kind of see themselves less as Bible study or small group facilitators, and more as pastors/shepherds of a home church. Again, not a home church, but at least to go into it with that mindset, just as the early church worshipped in small groups, just as the persecuted church is worshiping in small groups around the world still, we can worship in small groups even if we can't be all together.

And then the last thing that I'll mention is we have gone back to the future in our caring and serving ministry and are using that old fashioned technology called the telephone. And it's just been a blessing, you know, just to get an army of folks, and it's growing every day, who are doing nothing more than calling our members and saying, Hey, we love you. Is there anything that we can do for you? And then connecting those that do have a need with an ever growing army of people who are more than willing to pick up groceries, fill a prescription, whatever might be necessary. We're also using some of the resources we have of course, to work with partners in the city that are, are serving those that are on the margins and that kind of thing. But, that's kind of a picture of First Pres. Nothing I think particularly unique. Certainly not going to be on the cutting edge of technology. But, kind of returning back to the basics and in saying, okay, at the end of the day, what does it mean to be the church and how can we continue to do that in this?

Tommy Rosson:

Yeah, I think that's such great input, this idea of returning to the basics and I love how you said that you're as focused on the essentials of church as you have ever been and how critical, you know, kind of might be a refining point to what is church and what really does define the body, especially during this period. Anything else you'd like to add or you'd like to say to your colleagues?

Jim Birchfield:

No, other than I think, again, and I hope you're hearing this everywhere you turn, that I have people in my life who love me enough to tell me that I need to take care of myself, that I need to be prayed up, that I need to be spending time with the Lord, that I need to be doing the things that we in ministry have a tendency to put aside in favor of supporting others. And I want to encourage all of my sisters and brothers to do the same thing. It isn't easy. We do feel like we carry a heavy load on our shoulders, but I would just remind us that the one we're yoked to is doing most of the work. So, let'