How to Challenge the Consumer Culture of Your Church

How to Challenge the Consumer Culture of Your Church

A talk by Brett McCracken

Transcript

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Collin Hansen: Today’s podcast is a talk by Brett McCracken on embracing church even when it it’s not comfortable. It was recorded at our 2018 West Coast Conference in Los Angeles.

Brett McCracken: Okay. So today we’re gonna talk about “Embracing Uncomfortable Church: Challenging the Idols of a Consumer Culture.” I’m just gonna begin with kind of my opening claim, or my thesis statement, and then I’ll unpack it a little bit and get a little practical, hopefully, for how we address this idol in our church. And then maybe we’ll have some kind of Q&A interaction at the end. So, does that sound good?

Man: Yes.

McCracken: All right. Let me just open us in prayer. Father, thank you for this conference. Lord, thank you for the chance to gather the saints on the West Coast, in this part of the country, to just encourage one another to endure in faithfulness. Thank you for your enduring word that we have, for the gift of that, for the guidance of that. Thank you for the cross that unites us all from our diverse backgrounds, in a time and our culture where it’s uncomfortable to find unity across dividing lines and differences. We thank you for the unity that the Gospel provides. And we pray that we can lean into that today and in our churches and our context, however uncomfortable it may be. So just bless our time together today. In your name we pray. Amen.

Okay. So my opening claim is this: one of the most significant threats to the Christian Church in the west today, western culture, is comfort. And part of why I think it’s a threat, is that it’s internal and it’s not obvious as a threat. It’s not obvious as this kind of…we think of threats as like the external stuff in our culture. But comfort, I think, is an insidious idol inside of the church. We’ve become so thoroughly shaped by the consumer, individualistic culture around us that we don’t even recognize it as a shape. As a result, in western culture, we now take for granted that faith, like anything else, should fit within this consumeristic, comfortable path of least resistance paradigm. Okay?

So, essentially, we’ve lost a vision, I think, for a Christianity that is costly, a Christianity that is cross shaped. You know, we’ve lost a vision for the cost of discipleship, a faith that calls us to deny ourselves, to take up a cross, to be subject to persecution, to give up the creature comforts of home, family, to be willing to give up material possessions, to be crucified with Christ. In short, we’re suffering from the sickness of comfort, and I do think it’s a sickness. And it’s making many of our churches and Christians sickly and anemic at the very time that we need to be strong, given the external threats, the external challenges we’re facing, the challenges to orthodoxy and to enduring faithfulness in the 21st century.

So I wrote about this sickness of comfort in my book, Uncomfortable, which some of you may have read. Raise your hand if you’ve read the book or… Okay. The rest of you, it’s in the bookstore. Go get a copy. So it was published last year by Crossway. I’ll just give you kind of a background about why I wrote the book, because it’s partly personal, just sort of things going on in my personal faith, and then partly just observations I’ve made about our culture.

Okay. So just a bit about me and kind of my background. I’m a church kid. I was like the good, like, Sunday school, Awana kid growing up. I went to a Baptist church in Oklahoma. That was my first church. My Dad was a deacon, my mom was like the choir director. We went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night, that whole thing. We moved to Kansas City, got involved in a Southern Baptist church. I was just a really good Christian kid, and our church was a very comfortable, suburban, Southern Baptist church. And it was great. I’m not knocking any of that. But I lived a very kind of comfortable Christian existence. Faith was just an assumption. It was just assumed for me. It was a thing. I went to Wheaton College, which…any Wheaton people in the room? Love Wheaton College. For me, Wheaton College was a pivotal experience because it shook my faith for the first time, as any good Christian college does. I think it challenges your comfortable paradigms. But at the same time, it’s a very comfortable existence, right? Wheaton College, we joked about it being a bubble, like this Christian bubble. And the city of Wheaton very much is that way. Like, it’s the center of Christian publishing. “Christianity Today” is there.

So I went from kind of a very church upbringing, to going to a Christian college. Then I moved out to California. And I think, in California, the shape of Christianity is a bit different, but it still can be comfortable. And I was not under my parents’ roof anymore, so I kind of moved away from my Baptist roots and became a Presbyterian, went through a Presbyterian phase. I had one summer where I was an Episcopalian, because I love liturgy, and I went to England. And I’m a C.S. Lewis fan, so I just got into Anglican liturgy and all that.

So my church experiences growing up have been one of always…or recently, I’d say in the last 10 years, it’s been me kind of choosing the church that fits me and in the moment, just kind of like, “What’s the church for me in this season of life?” Which brings me to the church I’m at now, and this is where the story of the book comes in. So my wife and I, when we met, we were both going to different churches and we decided, you know, we’re engaged, we’re gonna get married, we should go to a new church together. So we started kind of looking around. We were gonna start church shopping. We went to a church called Southlands, which is in Brea, really close to here. There was some friends of ours that had gone there. So we knew it was a pretty good church, I knew the pastor. But it was a very different sort of church than either of us had gone to before. And it’s kind of a reformed charismatic church. So I had no experience at all with the charismatic side of that hybrid. In fact, I grew up in a church that was like no one ever raised their hands at all. And the people that did, you kind of looked at with suspicion. That was my upbringing.

And so, I brought that kind of baggage and that skepticism to Southlands. But, Southlands was the first and last church we visited. We stuck there, and we…I think my wife and I both felt that in that season of our lives, we needed to be challenged a bit. We needed to be stretched out of comfortable Christianity. My wife, as well, grew up in kind of a comfortable suburban Christian context, and it has been uncomfortable. Like, the church is very different from what I would paint as like my dream church. Is there anyone from my church here? Like, okay. I won’t knock it too bad, but… And I’m an elder there now, six years later. But, like, the music was very much different than like…like I said, I like liturgy, I like kind of hymns. I’m loving the music here at this conference. But our church is loud, kind of six guitars, at times, on stage, just like a wall of sound. Not my preferred style. The charismatic stuff, like, weirded me out at the beginning. It still weirds me out, if I’m honest, at times, and I still have a little bit of skepticism about it.

But what I challenged myself to do is to lean into the discomfort and to let my paradigm be shaken. And I knew that this church was solid on theology, on the Gospel. I trusted the leadership. And so I decided to stick with it. And so, in the process of my journey at Southlands, I realized that maybe there’s something that I can say to the broader Christian world to challenge people to do this in their own lives. If you’re in kind of a comfortable Christian space, what are ways that you can stretch yourself into discomfort? I realized that, you know, the beauty of Christian community is not in how easy it is, it’s not in how much it looks like you and fits you. The beauty of it is in the mess. It’s in the awkwardness. It’s in the discomfort of rubbing shoulders with people who don’t look like you and people who are actually kind of awkward to be around. That’s beautiful. That’s the beauty of what the Gospel does. And it’s uncomfortable, but it’s essential. And so, the subtitle of my book, “Uncomfortable,” is “The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community.”

Okay, so that’s kind of the personal journey of why I came to write the book. But I wanna talk a bit about the larger dynamics in our culture and kind of the consumer culture that we live in. So we’ve all heard the term “church shopping,” I assume, right? Like, do you ever, like, pause to just observe how weird it is that we, like, use shopping with church? Like as if the church is just like a product. Like, it’s just like you’re shopping around for a new pair of jeans or a new car, right? Isn’t it weird that we would apply that consumer paradigm to churches? And yet, we use that language so casually, right, which we’re shopping around for new churches. We go to church with this kind of language of like, what am I gonna get out of it today? When we leave church, we often will have that conversation, “What did you get out of the sermon today?” We go to Sunday services to get something. We choose churches that fit me, that meet me where I’m at, or match kind of our checklist of preferences, just like you have a checklist when you’re looking for a new car or a new house. My wife and I just bought a new car. We had our checklist, right, of like the must-haves and the nice-to-haves. So I think that’s fine applied to a consumer item like a car, but isn’t it weird that we would apply that to church? And yet, we do that.

I had talked to a couple recently who came to our church and stopped by the visitor booth, and I was manning the visitor booth that day. And they were new to the church, just visiting. I was like, “So what’s your church background? Where are you coming from?” And they said, “You know, we’ve been church shopping for the last three years.” And I was like, thinking, “Oh man, really? Like, that sounds horrible, church shopping for three years.” And they were like, “You know, we went to this church for a while and they had a great children’s ministry. They had a great kid’s ministry, but we didn’t really like the preaching. Then we went to another church. We loved the preaching, but the community really wasn’t, you know, great for us.” And so on and so forth. And I think that’s unfortunately a really common story. I think a lot of people float around from church to church because they have this checklist of what they want out of a church, what that perfect church is for them. And they’re never gonna land anywhere because no church has everything.

So I opened the book Uncomfortable with really detailed, kind of over-the-top description of my dream church. It was a really fun exercise actually. I sat down one day and just, like, spent a few hours visualizing, painting the picture of what would the perfect church for Brett McCracken be? And I went into, like, details on the coffee and there would be a roastery on site and we would have a restaurant. It would be the best like Michelin restaurant in the city, and the employees of the restaurant would be like a part of kind of like an inmate rehabilitation program. So it would have this social justice component. And anyway, I just go into absurd detail about what my perfect church would be. And the point of opening the book that way is to illustrate how absurd it is to think in those terms.

And at the end of that exercise, I say, like, look, I know you’re reading this and you’re probably like…some of you are like, “Yeah, I like that. I wanna go to that church.” And some of you are like, “Ugh, that would not be my dream church.” And that’s the point. Like, no two dream churches are the same. So if we have everyone coming to church with the expectation of that perfect fit for me, then we’re never gonna have any commonality. We’re never gonna be able to forge community because everyone has different visions of what that is. And there’s no perfect church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.” And I think there’s truth to that, right? When we bring that kind of dream expectation, it just destroys the church.

Charles Spurgeon says something similar. He says, “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.” So the expectation of the perfect fit for me is, I think, deeply problematic for us when it comes to church. So that’s one dynamic, is that kind of consumer “fits me where I’m at” approach. Another dynamic that’s at play today is this idea that spirituality and faith have become uncoupled and detached from institutional Christianity and churches, right? It’s the whole spiritual but not religious impulse. This is a big thing. Like, I’m sure all of you have people, younger people maybe in your communities that talk in these terms. Like, I like Jesus. I’m spiritual, I have my own kind of thing with Jesus, but I don’t need the church. That’s not important. And I think this is in California maybe especially, which California is spiritual. We’re a very spiritual state, but we don’t like institutions. We don’t like authority and any of the baggage of churches.

Yeah. So, people don’t see their faith as a necessarily embedded in a community type of experience. They see it in individualistic terms. Charles Taylor talks about this in his book, A Secular Age, which is a huge, massive book, but it’s an important book. And TGC actually put together a book called, Our Secular Age, which I would recommend you picking up if you’re a pastor. It kind of applies what Charles Taylor was talking about to everyday ministry. And I wrote a chapter in that book, and what I talked about is Charles Taylor. He has a chapter in A Secular Age on the age of authenticity, which he calls. And he’s really helpful in kind of understanding what that means. He describes what happens to religion in what he calls a social imaginary of expressive individualism, which is a products of, I think, consumerism. “In this age of authenticity, faith is no longer seen as necessarily bound up within the larger framework or any sort of authority or guideline.” That is just viewed as incomprehensible in our individualistic age. “So in this era, to be spiritual,” says Charles Taylor, “is simply to accept what rings true to your own inner self.” That’s how people think of spirituality, is to accept what rings true to your inner self. So, Taylor goes on to basically describe church shopping when he says that the average person approaches faith or spirituality in this way, “The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me. It must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” Right? So this is how a lot of people approach spirituality. It’s all about me and kind of my own hyper subjective, consumeristic path of spirituality. Everything must speak to us as individuals. And what I think tends to happen is all of us are just cobbling together our own unique spiritual paths.

So, you know, I know a lot of young people today who go to multiple churches. They have a few churches on their rotation. Like, when they’re feeling like they want liturgy, they go to this church. Like, when they feel like they want some like Bethel style worship, they go to that church. You know, and they’re not tied to any one community. And then on top of that, maybe they listen to some pastor’s podcasts that live in another part of the world. And they have no relationship to them, but that’s another source of spiritual authority or just spiritual insight. Maybe they also kind of pick a little bit of like physical fitness as a kind of a spiritual part of their wellness, right? You know, Crossfit, yoga, Pilates. People view that as part of their spiritual paths. Maybe nature, going on nature walks. I’m just saying that when people can see the spirituality these days, like church is maybe part of the equation, but it’s not the main part. People are picking little bits of things, and maybe they go to this church for that, maybe they listen to this pastor for that, or read that theologian, you know, that mystical Catholic theologian, Richard Rohr perhaps, because they like, you know, some things he says and they like some things John Piper says. And with the internet amplifying kind of the multiplicity of voices out there, this problem is becoming worse. So this is adding up to this kind of free for all, where spiritual journeys are just these hyper-consumerist, hyper-subjective things where, you know, no two journeys are the same.

And the problem is, not only is there no coherence to one spiritual journey because it’s divorced from any, like, kind of static institutions, but there’s no accountability, and this is the real danger. It’s a total free for all. And the minute people feel the pressure or the burden of accountability, like a church leader tells them something about their life that’s off, they just, “Okay, I don’t need you anymore. I’m gonna opt out, just like I unfollow someone on social media.” The social media paradigm, the iPhone is a paradigm for our times. It applies to everything. Like, we not only opt in and opt out of apps and people on social media, but we do the same with spiritual accountability, right, and communities.

So, because this is the air that we breathe in our culture, we end up with Christians with very loose ties to community, if they have ties at all. And we have people that their faith is dangerously subjective and prone to kind of the whims of their feelings or the current Zeitgeist, the new church in town maybe, the latest spiritual craze, the circumstances of the world or their life. And this is all just very unstable. It’s very unstable. It’s very unsustainable. But it is comfortable, right? This is the thing, like a kind of free for all spirituality where it’s just on your terms and you kind of pick and choose à la carte, that’s comfortable. That’s like a really easy, comfortable spirituality. The irony is, I think, when our culture conceives of that kind of spirituality, they pitch it as a renegade kind of rebel thing, like I’m not tied to the old guard of institutional Christianity. I’m doing my own thing. And so it’s pitched as radical, but it’s actually not. Like, this form of hyper-subjective spirituality is actually very bourgeois. It’s very middle class, suburban, comfortable, easy. There’s nothing radical about it. It’s very Oprah-esque spirituality.

And so I would say what is actually radical and countercultural today is to challenge yourself to break out of the consumer individualistic approach to faith and to accept the cost of discipleship. The reality that spiritual health comes by being embedded within larger structures, namely a church community that provides support and accountability and that draws us out of the dead end of “accountable to only me” spirituality, which really is a dead end. For as freeing as it sounds, it’s incoherent and you’re not gonna find happiness, you’re not gonna find meaning there when you’re the only kind of arbiter of spiritual truth. So those are kind of the big picture dynamics that I think are going on, this hyper consumeristic approach to faith where it’s all about me and my comfort fitting me where I’m at. And so I wrote “Uncomfortable” to call people to challenge that, to recover the radical, costly, beautiful nature of a cross-shaped, uncomfortable faith in community, and the community part is utterly key.

Okay. So what do we do about it? I wanna spend the rest of my time just kind of getting practical, and I wanna talk through seven specific manifestations of comfort that I see in my church context and churches in southern California. And then I would love for you to be thinking, as I’m describing these seven, what some other kind of iterations of comfort are. And then I’d love to hear from some people. We can kind of have a dialogue about other forms of comfort that we need to address in our churches. So let me just go through my seven and then we can go from there.

Okay. So the first form of comfort that I want to talk about is kind of broad, but it’s this, the comfort of being served rather than serving, right? The comfort of going to church as a consumer, just I want to get something out of it, rather than going with the mentality of serving, right? Which is, as we know, this is Jesus, right? He came not to be served, but to serve. So we as Christians need to have that posture ourselves. But too often we come to church asking, how does this church serve me? How does it meet my needs? How does it meet me where I’m at? So instead, we need to challenge people in our churches to ask the question, not how does the church meet me where I’m at, but what is Jesus doing in this church? What is happening in this church for the mission of the Kingdom of God and how can I be a part of it? How can I be used in this church? How can I be plugged in to advance the kingdom in this context? We need to have that posture of Jesus who came to serve, not to be served.

A passage that has been really important to me in which shows up in Uncomfortable, the book, quite a bit, is 1 Peter 2, where he talks about the image of the church as a spiritual house made up of living stones. Right? But the thing about that is, it’s not about kind of finding the perfect fit for your individual stone. We’re in a culture that likes to celebrate the uniqueness of all of our individual stones. But when you’re building something, like imagine building, like, a structure out of little stones. Like, it’s not about building the structure around any one stone, it’s about fitting the stones into the gaps where they exist so that the structure is more sound. So we need to challenge our congregations to not look for the perfect fit for their unique stone, but where they can plug their stone in to the spiritual house that God is building. And even in how we serve, I think we can have this mentality. So often when it comes to serving in a church, like, we will only do it or we’ll only be interested in serving if it’s a perfect match for our gifts, right? It’s like, “Oh, I’m gifted in this area, so I’d prefer to serve in that area.” But that’s problematic because, you know, a lot of churches, especially smaller churches and church plants, just can’t afford to, like, match service perfectly to everyone’s gifts. It’s nice when that does happen, and I think it’s a good thing to strive for that. But we need to…as Christians going to church, we need to have the mentality of stepping in and serving where there’s needs. It’s not about the niche for you, it’s about the need of the church and fitting in and serving there. And you know, especially if you’re in a young church, a new church, it’s really all hands on deck. I’m sure church planters in the room can attest to that. You want people who are there who are willing to just step up and serve wherever is needed.

Okay, so that’s the first comfort that I wanna talk about. The second one is the comfort of being liked by the world. I think that, you know, this is a natural tendency, we want to be liked. We want to be popular. We don’t like being ostracized. But we need to constantly remind our church goers that Christianity is not normal. Like, it’s weird. It always has been. It’s offensive and it always has been. Jesus is the stone that was rejected, a stumbling rock of offense. This is fundamental to what Christianity is. Like, we can’t pretend that we’re this, like, acceptable kind of, you know, bourgeois thing that just everyone loves. Like, if that’s what we’ve become, it’s a problem. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.” The Gospel is scandalous, right? It just is. Like, the idea that God’s free grace can’t be earned. That the death of God’s son on a cross has allowed for this. Like, the atonement, like, all of this, it’s hard for our culture. It’s bizarre. It doesn’t make sense. It’s offensive. And we shouldn’t hide from that. And we need to challenge our people to not be seeking the comfort of applause and being liked.

Spurgeon again says, “Hide not the offense of the cross, lest you make it of none effect. The angles and corners of the Gospel are its strength. To pare them off is to deprive it of power. Toning down is not the increase of strength, but the death of it.” And now I’m not saying we need to go out of our way to be weird and offensive. Like, I mean, we’ve done that. Like, Christians have done that and we don’t wanna, like, repeat bad episodes in Christian history where we’ve been jerks. But what I am saying is there’s no getting around the fundamental strangeness and offense that is Christianity. Jesus said in John 15, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” So the more we can come to terms with this and just kind of be at peace with the inherent discomfort of following Christ and bearing the shame that he endured in our world, that will hate us, the better we’ll be. So that’s another comfort that we need to kind of nip in the bud in our churches, the comfort of being liked by the world.

A third form of comfort that I relate to a lot as an introvert, is the comfort of being anonymous. So I think a lot of people come to church and would prefer it to be this experience where they can come and go and never be entangled in the messiness of people and community. Especially for introverts, we like to kind of slip in late, sit kind of off on our own and then leave in the closing prayer so we don’t have to, like, talk to people in the pre and post service times. But so much is missed when you do that, right? Like, so much of, like, the magic, the sweet spot of church is in the kind of vestibule conversations and the awkward interactions that you have with people that are very different from you that you have nothing in common with aside from Christ.

You know, some of my best memories at Southlands are like conversations I’ve had with, like, you know, Iraq war veterans or police officers, you know, 70 year olds, just very partisan political people that disagree with me. We are one. Like, we are part of this body, this community. And I would never, like, choose to have a conversation with that person, you know, anywhere else, but because we are one, because we’ve been called to this community, we can’t opt out of that. We are called to build relationships and to love one another in the unity of the spirit. And it is the spirit that builds that unity. It’s not our strength that does it. So we can pray for that to happen.

So the comfort of being anonymous really needs to be challenged. We need to call people to not come late and leave early. Challenge people like, come early actually, talk to people. Like, get to know people. You know, sit next to people you don’t know and then hang out for a little bit after the service so you can actually build relationships and be known, right? Like, so important in the Christian life is being known. If we’re not known, then how will we grow? What accountability will there be for us?

Okay. Number four, the comfort of just staying home. So this is a big one for, like, millennials, my generation. I think a lot of younger Christians are kind of like, you know, “I’ll come when it’s convenient, but no one’s gonna miss me if I’m not there.” And it’s so sad when I hear that because, A, that statement, “No one’s gonna miss me,” is like, it’s just selfish because there are people that are gonna benefit from your presence and you never know what the spirit is gonna do with your embodied presence on a Sunday morning. It’s not about you and what you get out of it at church. It’s about what the spirit will do with you just being embodied there. The statistic, I think, is that the average church-going Christian goes to church two times for every four Sundays, two by four. So that’s not good, right? There are people in many parts of the world who are being persecuted for gathering together as Christians. And here we have the freedom to do it and yet we’re so casual where we’re like, “If it’s convenient for me, if there’s nothing on my calendar, if there’s no football game on, I’ll go. But you know, it has to be…everything has to align.” We need to challenge people to endure the discomfort of regularly showing up at church week after week.

I often will just tell the 20 somethings that I disciple, like, “Just show up. Like, that is half the battle. Like, if you just show up, even if your heart’s not in it.” And that’s a big thing for millennials. Like, they don’t like to do things that feel fake or feel inauthentic. I tell them like, “Look, like, you have to fake it till you make it sometimes. Like, show up even if you’re not feeling it. And just see what the spirit will do.” Like, we are formed habitually, right? So just being in church week after week, going through the motions, even if it really is just going through the motions, singing, praying, raising your hands maybe, like going through the motions forms us, it forms our hearts. And sometimes the motions lead our hearts even when our hearts are resistant. So just showing up in church is huge. So we need to challenge people to do that. We need to challenge people as Hebrews 10 says, “To not neglect meeting together as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Church is about encouraging one another. And if you’re not there, someone is not being encouraged by your presence. So we need to challenge people who say like, “No one’s gonna miss me if I stay home on a Sunday morning.”

The church is not an individualistic affair. This is another kind of related thing we need to challenge, is like the whole personal relationship with Jesus language. You know, obviously, there’s truth to it, but we’ve taken that so far in individualistic American culture that people just kind of assume like, “Yeah, Christianity is just my personal experience. So why would church with other people be an important thing?” But the church is a people, plural. It’s God’s people. All the metaphors for the church in the Bible are like plural, collective nouns. So we need to encourage people, like we need to be keeping people accountable if they’re skipping church. Don’t allow them to get isolated from the body of Christ. The body needs them.

Okay. Number five is the comfort of the novel. I think this is a big thing in our culture, is this prized value of novelty, the new. And we live in a culture with technology that everything is so fast, right? Everything is about what’s happening now. You know, we don’t even remember what the big social media outrage was last week. Like, we don’t remember what we were interested in talking about online last week. Everything is about the novel and the new. And we’re very entrepreneurial, and there’s good things about that. Like, we can start things really well, especially in California. But we’re not great at enduring faithfulness. That’s why we’re having this conference. And yet, that is the Christian life. That’s where growth happens. It’s the long obedience in the same direction, as Eugene Peterson says, “The long haul of the Christian life is less comfortable.” To be in one community over a long period of time is not comfortable. Right? It’s much more comfortable to be a part of the exciting new church plants and the new trendy church that opened in town. But like after year one, year two, year three, and it’s just kind of mundane and it’s the same people, it’s the same thing, then it gets uncomfortable to stick around with that church. But we need to push against this. We need to push against the comfort of the novel. Otherwise, we’re just gonna have these short bursts of faithfulness, short bursts of involvement, but no long-term community and no long-term commitment.

I was talking to Terry Virgo, who’s a British pastor, recently and I asked him the question, “Terry, like, when you observe American Christianity and British Christianity, what are some key differences that you see?” And he said, like, “American Christianity is so wonderfully entrepreneurial. Like, you guys are all about church planting. Like, there’s so much energy and vision that you have in starting things. And we’re not great at that in England, but in England, we endure, we persevere. We have gone through two world wars. We have stiff upper lip kind of endurance in our culture. And you guys don’t have that.” And I agreed. I was like, “You’re right, Terry. Like, we start things, we’re entrepreneurs. But how many times when we start something, do we actually finish it? Do we stick with it?” And that sticking with it is not comfortable, but it’s so essential in the Christian life.

All right, number six. Just two more comforts I’d like to address. The comfort of preferred worship style. So, worship styles, this is kind of like an obvious one, but this really is where the rubber meets the road for some people in consumer Christianity, right? Like, they will come or go from a church if the music doesn’t fit their preferred style. And for me, that was a big part of the challenge with Southlands, was I just didn’t love the music and it was really hard for me. And you know, the thing about it though is, when you commit to being in a church even when the music isn’t your preferred style, like, worship becomes…for me, it became a much more beautiful experience because it wasn’t about any sort of consumer, like it wasn’t about me getting anything out of the music because it was my favorite style. It was all about worshiping God, and it became something that was just about giving it my all, singing my lungs out. Like, eventually raising my hands after a few years. Like, it took a while to do that, as a non-charismatic. But you know, over time, I came to see the worship. I look forward to the worship in my church even though I would still say it’s not my preferred style, because worship is not about our preferences, right? It’s about worshiping God.

So I would say, like, some ways you can challenge this kind of preferred music comfort is diversify your worship style. So, don’t just have one style that people then kind of become hooked to the style. Like, if you spice it up every now and then, like it’s gonna be uncomfortable and some people are probably gonna send you emails, like, “What were you thinking with that song or with that style of music?” But I think, over the long haul, it will be good for your people to come to worship with a humility where it’s not about being pleased as a consumer as much as honoring God in a diversity of expressions. So, you know, experiment with hymns, contemporary music, Gospel songs, spirituals. Diversify your worship.

Okay. So, comfort of preferred worship style. And then finally, and this is a big one, the comfort of homogeneity or just living in a bubble, an echo chamber. That is probably the most insidious form of comfort in the American church. And why it’s so problematic is because it’s the opposite of what the Gospel is and what the Gospel does, right? Like, the Gospel, in human history, is revolutionary because it does away with the dividing lines of culture and ethnicity and gender. And it calls us to be one across those lines. And of course, it’s always more comfortable to be with people who are like you and who agree with you and who like the same styles of preaching and music. Of course, that’s more comfortable, but that is not a form of comfort that honors Christ, and there’s no witness in the world to that. Like, the world is not gonna look at, like, a homogeneous suburban white church where everyone looks the same and talks the same and see, “Oh, that, the revolutionary power of the Gospel is at work.” But if we can have more churches that have people from all walks of life, rubbing shoulders, taking communion, loving each other across differences, that is a remarkable witness. And think about how powerful that witness can be in our moment, in our culture right now, where we are becoming incapable in our culture of relating to one another across dividing lines of ethnicity, politics, you know, whatever, the elites versus the non-elites, whatever the issue is. Like, our culture is increasingly unable to do that. Everyone is just kind of segregating into their bubbles. And if we as the church follow suit and do the same thing, we are missing a huge opportunity.

So we need to challenge our churches to not fall into the comfort of homogeneity, to not just be these bubbles where everyone agrees, everyone’s the same. One practical tip, I would say, to kind of, you know, be a check and balance against this, is just expose your church and your leadership teams to a diversity of inputs. So don’t only go to the conferences that are in your particular niche or tribe of Christianity. Don’t only read the books that are approved, you know, as your tribes, but books in the Christian world. Don’t only, you know, listen to the podcast, the same podcasts that everyone in your tribe likes. Expose yourself to the breadth of Christianity, knowing that, you know, you’re gonna have to think critically here. It’s not about agreeing with all of this, it’s just about exposing it and having a little bit broader of a view rather than resorting to this kind of insular approach. I would also say prioritize diversity on your leadership teams. You’re not gonna be able to build a church where a lot of different types of people feel comfortable in your church or just feel like it could be a home for them if they look at the leadership team and it’s just like a homogeneous leadership team, where it’s all the same color or maybe it’s just all the same culture of people, you know, that just have the same kind of backgrounds, perspectives. So it starts at the leadership level, and I really think that leaders here, if you’re not already trying to do that, prioritizing that, I think, is really helpful and valuable.

Okay, so all in there, and like I said, those are just a few of many types of comfort or manifestations of comfort in today’s churches that I think we need to attack and challenge. But I would love to hear from you all. And I’m curious, in your own churches, in your own expressions of Christianity, what have you found to be the dangerous types of comfort that need to be challenged? And maybe what are some ways that you have helped your people to break out of that comfort or see the virtue of discomfort and lean into uncomfortable things? Okay. Thank you so much for coming. It’s been fun, and enjoy the rest of the conference.

“I often tell the 20-somethings I disciple, ‘Just show up. Like, that is half the battle. Just show up, even if your heart’s not in it.’ We need to challenge people as Hebrews 10 says, ‘To not neglect meeting together as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.’ Church is about encouraging one another. And if you’re not there, someone is not being encouraged by your presence. So we need to challenge people who say, ‘No one’s gonna miss me if I stay home on a Sunday morning.’” — Brett McCracken

Date: October 17, 2018

Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.

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