We live in a Chipotle world. Especially in America, the air we breathe is consumerism; the guiding principle is the consumer knows best. We celebrate our right to design a burrito exactly as we prefer it, thank you very much. Our media environment is iEverything—emphasis on the “i.” The pleasure of personalization is a higher value than the inevitable indigestion caused by our ill-conceived culinary combinations.
This approach has strongly influenced the way we conceive of church. Just as we pick and choose from our preferred proteins, beans, and vegetables in the Chipotle line, we think about church as a thing we can design according to our various tastes and hankerings. If a church stops catering to our particular appetites or begins causing us stomach aches (pastor says something disagreeable, worship music becomes nauseatingly emotionalist, someone speaks in tongues), we simply move on. There are dozens of other places to get a burrito in town; surely one of them will meet all (or most) of our checkboxes of likes, dislikes, and allergies.
And our lists are long. My generation especially has a knack for endless opining about what we want the church to be, or more likely want we don’t want it to be. It’s too trendy or not trend-savvy enough. Too cerebral or not intellectual enough. Too masculine or too feminine. Too homogenous or trying too hard to be diverse. We bristle at the music, the preaching, the politics, the pastor. We lament the church’s apathy about the arts or anemic theology of singleness. We complain about the Costco coffee, the way communion isn’t done communally, the awkward “college and career” class, and so on. There’s always something.
What We Want Is Not What We Need
This isn’t to say these things are all unimportant. But if we always approach church through the lens of wishing this or that were different, or longing for a church that “gets me” or “meets me where I’m at,” we’ll never commit anywhere (or, Protestants that we are, we’ll just start our own church). But church shouldn’t be about being perfectly understood and met in our comfort zone; it should be about understanding and knowing God more, and meeting him where he’s at. This is an uncomfortable but beautiful thing. As 19th-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once said:
If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.
What we think we want from a church is almost never what we need. Peter and others had ideas of their “dream church” (taking up the sword against Rome, excluding Gentiles, and so on), but Jesus had other plans. However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure. Eventually Peter came to see this too. It’s not about finding a church that fits perfectly around me and my theological, architectural, or political preferences. It’s about becoming like “living stones” that are “being built up as a spiritual house,” focused on and held together by Jesus, the stone the builders rejected who became the cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:4–7).
Giving Up the Dream
Contrary to the wisdom of consumerism, we’re better off giving up the “dream church” ideal and the “perfect fit” fallacy. I’ve seen this firsthand in my current church experience. Whether because of its music (louder and more contemporary than my tastes), its emphasis on spontaneous prayer in “groups of two or three around you” (I’m an introvert), or its openness to the wildness of the Holy Spirit (I grew up Southern Baptist), much about the church makes me uncomfortable. It’s far from the “dream church” that meets all my preferred checkboxes. Yet it’s a church where my wife and I have grown immensely and been used by God. It’s a church that has shown me clearly that “how it fits me” is exactly the opposite of a healthy approach to church.
Rather, church should be about collectively spurring one another to “be fit” to the likeness of Christ (Eph. 4–5). And this can happen in almost any sort of church as long as it’s fixed on Jesus, anchored in the gospel, and committed to the authority of Scripture—even in churches different from what we would “design” in our proverbial Chipotle assembly line.
You may have noticed Chipotle’s “customizable” approach to fast food has recently caught on in the genre of pizza. Within walking distance of our home in Orange, California, for example, there is a Blaze Pizza and a Pizza Press, both vying to be the “Chipotle of pizza.” As appealing as they are, though, I’m often disappointed with my “build-your-own” creations. The abundance of options and combinations at my creative disposal rarely results in exceptional pizza. On the other hand, one of the best slices of pizza I’ve had recently was from a place in Berkeley known for offering only one option each day, dreamed up by the chef based on the day’s available produce and seasonal ingredients. The pizza offering on the day I visited included toppings I never would’ve willingly chosen (pea tendrils and cauliflower), but to my surprise the result was delicious.
I wonder if this might be a better way to approach church. Instead of a la carte Christianity driven by fickle tastes and “dream church” appetites, what if we learned to love churches even when (or perhaps because) they challenge us and stretch us out of our comfort zones? Instead of driving 20 miles away to attend a church that “fits my needs,” what if we committed to the nearest non-heretical, Bible-believing church where we could grow and serve—and where Jesus is the hero—however uncomfortable it may be?
Developing New Tastes Together
Commitment even amid discomfort, faithful relationship even amid conflicting preferences and disparate tastes: this is what being the people of God has always been about. Imagine if Yahweh had bailed on Israel the minute they said or did something offensive, opting instead to “shop around” for a new people (Canaanites? Philistines? Egyptians?). Imagine if God were as fickle and restless as we are. But he isn’t. God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, even when the relationship is messy and embarrassing, should be instructive to us. A healthy relationship with the local church is like a healthy marriage: it only works when grounded in selfless commitment and non-consumerist covenant.
Is this approach uncomfortable, awkward, and stretching? Absolutely. But that is the point. We don’t grow spiritually from Chipotle-style “build your own” comfort faith, consuming church as it suits our hunger and hankerings. We grow by committing to a community that pursues Jesus, developing together a taste for the bread of life.