When is it going to dawn on people that the essence of the beloved community that Jesus created and inspired is not about nice, formidable, comfortable buildings but instead about relationships and serving others? How much of the Gospel is spent inside a sanctuary or a synagogue or a Temple? The times we find Jesus there he’s ticking people off. Jesus spends a lot of time building. But its relationships he’s building. And when it comes to people, he’s not as concerned with the comfortable becoming more comfortable as he is the broken being made whole. So many of our churches are ringing their hands about shrinkage. Think George Constanza. Left with large facilities, hardly filled and now deteriorating, the focus continues to be on maintaining the space in which they were married or baptized or brought up. As we pay more and more in utilities to heat and cool these decaying structures, one would think that the faithful would recognize the mere futility of that.
We look at church budgets and the amount spent on energy costs and building maintenance shames that spent on mission and service to others in the community and beyond. It is sad. Like watching older, unemployed actresses and actors turn down roles meant for people half their ages because they have such false, inaccurate images of who they are and what they look like. To hear them complain that they can’t get jobs is this side of morose.
Church occurs where people develop relationships. It doesn’t matter where that might be. Church occurs where people can find ways to worship God and lift up voices in song and praise. To be hampered by the space in which that occurs is to acknowledge the insincerity of the act of worship.
I have learned that heartfelt, spirit-filled, wide-open worship can occur right inside a prison where the doors are locked and bolted and the walls are made of razor-wire; where getting dressed for “church” means putting on a different wrinkled, khaki shirt—one worn yesterday and the day before; where going to church means walking in the pouring rain across an open field watched by guards whose rifles are ready to quell anything out of the ordinary; where the worship service occurs in a chapel that is used by every type of religious group or faith you can imagine—from Wiccans to Buddhists to Native Americans to fundamentalist Baptists to Unitarians. Same space. Same seating. Same keyboard. Different spirit.
I liked the letter to the editor written recently by Rev. Mark Bourlakas, Dean of the Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, in downtown Louisville. He was responding to the burning of greater Dayton, Ohio’s version of “Touchdown Jesus.” The fifty-two foot high statue was struck by lightning. As a consequence, this monument to our need for oversized idols burned to the ground. The church and its pastor pledged to rebuild this $300,000 tribute to our hubris with more durable, fireproof materials. Rev. Bourlakas, struggling himself with an aging Cathedral needing a lot of repair and scarce resources, pondered what the message might be to those lost to the church if the cost of repair of the statue or even the Cathedral went instead to meet the needs of people suffering here and now. He wrote, “If all churches concentrated on mission instead of institutional maintenance, people might actually be encouraged to join us instead of walking away from us shaking their heads.”
Good thoughts. Radical thoughts. Filling old wineskins with new wine perhaps. What would that be like?
by Dean Bucalos
Dean Bucalos is an ordained Disciples of Christ pastor and a graduate of Lexington Theological Seminary and The University of Kentucky College of Law. He currently serving as the pastor of Luckett Luckett Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the only Disciples of Christ prison congregation in the United States. He also is an adjunct professor at Bellarmine University where he teaches cross-culture studies and leads a senior seminar exploring issues of social justice in the context of the Christian faith. Dean has served churches in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. He is married to Anne Browne Bucalos and has two adult children, one grandchild and one grandchild on the way.