I grew up attending Baptist churches in the Midwest—the kind where men’s quartets sing gospel songs as “special music” but no one dares raise their hands during a worship song. For most of my 20s I attended a Presbyterian church where things like Maundy Thursday and Advent candles were a big deal. These days I consider myself Reformed and read books about Thomas Cranmer for fun. My ideal church service would involve the Book of Common Prayer, an organ, the eucharist, and a sermon out of a Pauline epistle that referenced everyone from Augustine and Spurgeon to Marilynne Robinson and N. T. Wright. In my dream church, the “peace” would be exchanged every Sunday, ashes imposed every Ash Wednesday, and G. K. Chesterton discussed in the high school youth group.
The picture I’ve just painted of my “dream church” looks nothing like the church where I’m now a member. The local church where I now serve is non-denominational, meets in a renovated warehouse, and has no liturgical bent. The music is loud and contemporary. It’s Reformed-ish but Holy Spirit-focused, with impromptu “words” from the congregation and quiet prayer in tongues a not-uncommon occasion. To be honest, the worship services often make me a bit uncomfortable.
And I’m perfectly happy with that. I love my church.
Talking about one’s “dream church” is—increasingly, I’ve come to think—an exercise in not only futility even but flat-out gospel denial. The church doesn’t exist to meet our every need and satisfy our various checklists of tastes and “comfort zone” preferences. If anything, it exists to destabilize such things. The church should draw us out of the dead-eye stupor of a culture of comfort-worship. It should jostle us awake to the reality that comfort is one of the greatest obstacles to growth.
The three years I’ve belonged to my current church have been difficult and full of discomfort, but also probably the most spiritually enriching three years of my life. There’s serious wisdom in the familiar adage to “get out of your comfort zone.” Nothing matures you quite like faithfulness amid discomfort.
For too long the mantra in Christian culture has been seeker-sensitive and “have it your way.” The mentality has been consumer comfort. Find a church that meets your needs! Find a church that feels like home! Find a church where the worship music moves you, the pastor’s preaching compels you, and the homogenous community welcomes you! If it gets difficult or uncomfortable, cut ties immediately; a dozen other options await!
But this model doesn’t work. Not only is it coldly transactional (what have you done for me lately?) and devoid of covenant commitment (seeker-sensitive church attendance is basically a Hollywood marriage without a prenup), it’s also anti-gospel. A true gospel community is not about convenience and comfort and chai lattes in the vestibule. It’s about pushing each other forward in holiness and striving together for the kingdom, joining along in the ongoing work of the Spirit in this world. Those interested in mere comfort and happiness need not apply. Being the church is difficult.
In Love in Hard Places, Don Carson suggests that ideally the church isn’t composed of natural “friends” but rather “natural enemies”:
What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says—and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’s sake.
Taking up the challenge of committing to a church is incredibly difficult but decidedly biblical. You don’t have to read much of the New Testament to see how messy things get when natural enemies commit to being unified family (Gal. 3:28). It’s inevitably uncomfortable but undeniably important.
Young People Want Depth
Young people today resonate with this perspective. They’re sick of being sold spiritual comfort food. They want to be part of something that’s not afraid of a challenge, something that has forward momentum and doesn’t slow down so that the fickle, oh-so-important Millennials can decide whether or not they want to get on board. They want a community so compelled by the gospel and so confident in Christ that they pay little heed to target demographics and CNN articles about what 20-somethings today are saying about their “dream church.”
The college students I know aren’t interested in a church with a nice shiny college ministry. They want a church that’s alive, bearing fruit and making disciples. The young professionals in our life group don’t meet week after week because hanging out with a diverse array of awkward personalities after a long day’s work makes life easier. No. They come because there’s power in living beyond the comfort of one’s own life. There’s growth when believers help each other look outside themselves to Jesus.
What Being the Church Means
Looking outside of yourself. Serving someone beyond yourself. Putting aside personal comfort and coming often to the cross. This is what being the church means.
It means worshiping all together without segregating by age or interest (e.g. “contemporary” or “traditional”). It means preaching the whole counsel of God, even the unpopular bits. It means fighting homogeneity and cultivating diversity as much as possible, even if it makes people uncomfortable. It means prioritizing the values of church membership and giving, even if it turns people off. It means being fine with the music even if it’s not your favorite style. It means sticking around even when the church goes through hard times. It means building a tight-knit community but not an insular one, engaging neighbors and launching members when mission calls them away. It means bearing with one another in love on matters of debate yet not shying away from church discipline. It means preaching truth and love in tension, even when the culture calls it bigotry. It means focusing on long-term healing rather than symptom-fixing medication.
None of this is easy or comfortable. But by the grace of God and his Spirit’s help, uncomfortable church can become something we treasure.