The Old & New Dawning


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.

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9 thoughts on “The Old & New Dawning

  1. Nice work. I especially love the connection you made in the following: “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.”

  2. Dean, I am a 64 year-old Disciple layperson with no theological training, and the ideas about church that you describe “dawned” on me a long time ago. They also have “dawned” on quite a few other laypeople in the church where I am a member. You can no doubt discern that I don’t think that “dawn” is quite the correct word to describe the way that I arrived at these understandings about what church could and should be. It took study and thought and observation. I was not particularly aided by the ministers in my congregation in this process, indeed I was often frustrated by their lack of response to my ideas.

    Perhaps the problem with transitioning/emerging is not entirely with the church members, as it seems to me that some of the ordained persons who post on this site suggest. I wonder if many DOC minsters are not not fully sharing the benefits of their training and insights with their congregations because they are fearful of what might happen to them (an idea related to a very good previous post titled “Stop Tarrying with the Negative.) Althought many of the posts from ministers on this site are eloquent, preaching to each other ain’t gonna get the job done. And being snarky (okay, maybe I am overreaching a bit here) about your congregants isn’t gonna get the job done either. I suggest that ministers with emerging/emergent/intentional church passiosn ask around in your congregations. You might be surprised at what you find.

  3. Well said. My church is in the midst of this very struggle. We share our facilities as often as possible, we carry our mission outside of our walls. It’s not enough; the millstone of bricks, and air conditioning and fussing about who-used-the-kitchen-last is slowly pulling us under. We’d love to be free of the burdens of ownership.
    And yet, we also love those who love “our” place, don’t we? How do we be gentle, in this new no-place place that the world is coming to, with our elders (and some not-so) who choose freely the constancy and comfort that heritage supplies? Is it cruel to pull the rug out from under Grandma?
    My city has a church that also dramatically burned. The new construction has come to a halt at the giant-steel-girders phase. I wonder when I pass it whether it is right or wrong in God’s eyes for it to ever be finished, or whether it’s just one of those decisions that only matters in the aftermath when the fruits of it are laid upon the altar. Impassioned arguments inform both points of view. What to do, what to do?

      • I had not read it, but as I did a phrase popped into my mind. “Flash mob caritas.”
        A church with virtually no structure at all. Any affiliated person sees or hears of a need, calls, texts, posts, or tweets, it spirals out through affinity groups, and at the appointed hour a crew of like minded servants appear, either supplies in hand, or to form a working group with a short term goal of solving the problem or filling the need.
        Begin and end with prayer, share bread and wine in communion, and part to meet again in another incarnation on another day.

        Whoa, I scared myself.

  4. I’m glad to hear from laity. You are the real leaders in our denomination. I’ll share my personal view of congregational leadership. (I’m clergy.)

    I believe in empowering the congregation to know their history and use it to build a vision for their present and future. I do not believe in coming into a congregation and putting my vision into place. I believe in empowering a congregation to come up with their own vision and see it come to fruition.

    I’ve only served one congregation as the solo pastor. I tried to put the above into place. I failed, but I tried.

    I know other clergy see a congregation as an opportunity to put their vision into practice. I respectfully disagree. The congregation was there long before we came. Hopefully, it will be there long after we leave. The head is Christ. The leaders are the people of the community. It is not their responsibility to live up to my vision.

    Of course, there is always a shadow side. The shadow side to my approach is that it can lead to little more than being a people-pleaser. I’m OK with that risk. I find it preferable to the alternative. Besides, I have empirical evidence of people were not pleased with my leadership!

  5. Brian, Thanks for your comments. I have some ideas about what you wrote, because I have been thinking about this stuff quite a lot. I have weekend visitors, so I can’t respond now; however, I will respond to your comment soon. I hope that you will check back for my comments sometime after Monday evening.

  6. Brian, I very much agree with you that the ideal situation would be that a well-grounded congregation formulates and implements their own vision with support and encouragment from the minister. I also agree that this scenario can lead the minister to try to “become all things to all people” and not much good happens as a result of this. I also think that some ministers have a vision, or at least an agenda, that is not not overtly expressed. Although they say that they want the vision to be the congregations, and they mean it on one level, their agendas can be sensed even if they are not articulated. This situation can be confusing to the laypersons who are working on visioning, but also want to be sensitive to the minister’s needs and aspirations.

    Sometimes for a chemical reaction to take place, you need to have not just the appropriate substrates present in the appropriate quantities; you need a catalyst to make the reaction happen. In a congregation, it seems to me that only rarely will the right substrates for change fall into place without considerable pastoral work, and it is unlikely that the correct layperson catalyst be in place at the right time without considerable pastoral work. If you are pastoring an established, institutionalized congregation, and a vision is desired, this has to be a very high priority both for you and the congregation, unless you are fortunate enough to be in a somewhat atypical congregation. I would think that a good place to start would be with an emphasis on individual, family and congregational spiritual development/devotions. Then some study, maybe in small groups, of books like “The Authentic Gospel of Jesus” by Geza Verma (I may not have the title and author of this book correct, but I suspect that you will recognize the book that I am suggesting). There is another very readable one out currently authored by a Canadian scholar — can’t remember the exact title. I have read snatches of it while browsing in Borders, and hope to buy it soon. It has some of what I thought were really good comments about creeds (like pointing out how the Nicene creed (at least I think it was the Nicene) doesn’t say anything about what Jesus actually taught, and it had some nice suggestions for what might have been alternative creeds. You undoubedly know of other that you favor, and that may be better for your congregation, but take care that they are readable by and inspiring to laypersons, because some of the authors favored by emergents, in my opinion, may not be the best ones for laypersons. As pastors, you need to free you congregations to use their inherent curiosity and creativity. Once this happens, you can do visioning. It takes sermons to perpare the ground, but I think that it takes a lot more than sermons. I would expect ministers to have better ideas on how to do this than I do, but that doesn’t stop me from offering my two cents worth!

    If you read this, thanks very much for listening!

  7. Layperson – I’ve been checking back now and again for your post. I’m glad to read it.

    Ministers are most likely going to have a vision. I do. Heck, all people have some kind of vision. I don’t mean the minister should not express her/his vision and passion. To do so wouldn’t be helpful.

    The approach I wrote about involves much work. Indeed,it is more work to appear “passive” than it is to assertively promote one’s own vision. I agree with many of the posters that write from the perspective that God does not rule using unilateral power, but instead, God uses relational power….collaboration. I dislike seeing that theology being preached from the pulpit, but not practiced in the boardroom.

    That said, there are great leaders who ramrod through their vision and leave every seven years to do it all over again. There are great leaders from of all personality and stylistic stripes. You sound like the kind of lay leader that would be a real catalyst for a congregation.

    Thanks again for talking with me about this. I appreciate your thoughts.

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