The church is an uncomfortable place for me.
I was a pastor’s kid, and the church was my family’s mission field and battlefield, the eye of a hurricane or the hurricane itself. Because of these experiences, I know how quickly church can turn destructive. I think, These people are fine right now, but they’ll throw me under the bus when stuff gets real, so I’m not going to get too attached.
My apprehensiveness has increased in the last couple of years. I moved from Texas and a Reformed Baptist church full of homeschoolers to Mississippi, land of prep schools, third-generation Presbyterians, and “bless your heart.” I also now go to the most ethnically, economically, politically, and socially diverse church I’ve ever encountered. And not only that, but these people won’t let me be unattached and uninvolved. They want to love me and stuff.
Brett McCracken’s new book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, could not have come into my life at a more perfect time. That title captures exactly how I feel most Sunday mornings.
McCracken’s book is divided into two parts. The first seven chapters deal with our faith and ideology, and the last seven concern our community and our practice. Because of my particular season, the second half is where my amens got the loudest; however, part one lays some important groundwork.
The first chapter introduces the book’s thesis: “When the Christian church is comfortable and cultural, she tends to be weak. When she is uncomfortable and countercultural, she tends to be strong.”
McCracken—a senior editor at The Gospel Coalition—argues that our Christianity has become too comfortable and consumer-driven. We’ve ceased to be a prophetic community grounded in Scripture and are content to parrot the prevailing ideology of our culture. Because American Christianity is so comfortable, so easy, we have claimed the title of “Christ-followers” without actually counting the cost of embracing the radical worldview of God’s Word.
We’re more concerned with making Christianity cool than with keeping it cross-centered.
McCracken explains why our obsession with “cool” is a problem:
Cool is about self-promotion and narcissism, while Christianity is about selflessness and altruism. Cool is transient and obsessed with the “now”; Christianity is transcendent, mindful of eternity. Cool is elitist while Christianity is humble. Cool is cynical while Christianity is hopeful. Cool is about being the first to discover a new trend; Christianity says the last shall be first.
If I had read that quote without reading the context of McCracken’s story, I would have struggled not to roll my eyes and quip, “Come on, dude. Let people have nice things.”
But I’ve met Brett, and he’s actually pretty cool. He gets that he’s a millennial with all of the trappings, and he’s not obnoxiously bucking against that fact; he is, however, calling himself and his peers to a higher standard of identity than coolness. The first few chapters exhort us to seek holiness and biblical consistency in everything, from our view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts to hell and sexual ethics.
It’s easy to dream about the “perfect” church—a church that sings just the right songs set to just the right music before the pastor preaches just the right sermon to a room filled with just the right mix of people who happen to agree with you on just about everything.
Chances are your church doesn’t quite look like that. But what if instead of searching for a church that makes us comfortable, we learned to love our church, even when it’s challenging? What if some of the discomfort that we often experience is actually good for us?
This book is a call to embrace the uncomfortable aspects of Christian community, whether that means believing difficult truths, pursuing difficult holiness, or loving difficult people—all for the sake of the gospel, God’s glory, and our joy.
“When we blend in,” he states, “when our boundaries are blurred or disappear altogether, our light in the darkness fades. Our salt loses its saltiness.”
He encourages us to be on mission.
Awkward Family Mission
Part two dives into the discomfort of plugging into church community, and it hit me right where I was.
Chapter eight opens with a list of “weird church people types” that I know like the back of my hand. These people are hard to interact with, especially for me as an introvert with church baggage. But the simple fact is that being in a covenantal relationship with other believers isn’t easy for anybody.
McCracken gets it:
On most Sundays, it’s far easier to stay home than it is to come spend a few hours singing and mingling over donuts with people you would never otherwise hang out with. Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, millennial or octogenarian, Republican or Democrat, you probably find it tough at times to relate to some of the people at your church.
But he also gets that our comfort isn’t of primary importance in this battle to live like a family. He reminds us that we’re “stones being built together into a dwelling place” (Eph. 2:18–22). That doesn’t mean we’re uniform building blocks; we’re a diverse collection of individual gifts, talents, abilities, and callings. Our unity in the gospel binds our oddly shaped blocks together.
Sometimes, that unity is hard-fought.
McCracken delves into the difficulties of overcoming our cultural differences in order to meld. His chapter on diversity could be helpful for a number of readers.
The chapter that had me squirming like a rebellious teenager was the one about authority. I was expecting a reminder that we’re to submit to our local pastors and elders, and I got that. But I also got a reminder that we’re to submit ourselves to Christian community.
I reiterate: pastor’s kid here. Community can take on a bit of a threatening quality.
Yet McCracken writes:
Submitting to the authority of community means we are humble and teachable rather than arrogant and “I’ve got this” overconfident. And that goes for the old as well as the young, the seasoned in faith as well as the green. It means submitting to accountability beyond ourselves.
There’s no caveat for using autonomy as a form of self-preservation: we’re all family.
McCracken covers other uncomfortable topics: the ways we’ve confused brokenness with sin and made an idol out of the former (ouch), or the section about a cessationist going to a charismatic church and facing his pride. But no matter how much you squirm, Uncomfortable is worth the read, and Christian community is worth the discomfort and growing pains.