Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian CommunityWritten by Brett McCracken Reviewed By James Risner
Being uncomfortable in the church is good, right? Brett McCracken argues that discomfort in the Christian community is not merely good, but intrinsic to the Christian faith and her community. To introduce the reader to this idea he begins Uncomfortable in his most comfortable place: the idealized dream church, custom designed for himself. Who would not want to indulge in a stream-of-consciousness masterpiece of his or her “perfect church”? Quickly, however, McCracken confesses how annoying, disgusting, and chronically dissatisfying this subjective exercise is (p. 23). Later, he identifies this exercise as “flat-out gospel denial” (p. 38). His stated goal in the book is to “debunk and destroy this toxic consumeristic approach” (p. 23).
In two parts, the author outlines the foundation of Christianity itself, “uncomfortable faith,” then the embodiment of that uncomfortable faith, “uncomfortable church.” Within these two parts, each chapter explores uncomfortable aspects of becoming the church Jesus wants us to be. His challenge is that we would embrace the discomfort of the difficult aspects of following Jesus: cross, holiness, truths, love, comforter, mission, people, diversity, worship, authority, unity, commitment, countercultural comfort.
As cultural Christianity’s husk blows away in the wind, the true essence of uncomfortable Christianity remains. True Christianity destabilizes our comfort zones and jostles “us awake from the dead-eye stupor of a culture of comfort-worship that impedes our growth” (p. 38). This awakening of the church happens not through infusion of marketplace logic or through obsession over newness and relevance (p. 186). This revival redefines comfort, so that in the final analysis “Christianity announces that true, transcendent, lasting comfort is available to anyone, but not on the terms we might prefer, and not as a reward for our tireless efforts to earn it” (p. 189). Gloriously, “on the other side of discomfort is delight in Christ” (p. 27).
Uncomfortable’s message fed me richly with several vital and relevant reminders. Just because I pastor a church in which the median age is twice my own age does not mean I have arrived. Though I am uncomfortable in some ways I am not exempt from enticement to be my own boss, and to gain power, coolness, and cultural respectability. I feel this temptation personally and I witness the tug of narcissism and consumerism on a regularly basis in my church.
This book was helpful because in many ways my church has succumbed to our fleshly inclinations to be comfortable together; we are nearly monolithic in our ethnicity, socio-economics and skin color. Though much work remains, my church is already benefiting from applying the gospel–realities that McCracken fleshes out into practical advice. (For some of this wisdom see “six ways to prioritize diversity in church life” [pp. 138–43]).
McCracken is successful in accomplishing his stated goal in part because he could not have followed a more sound structure. Though community is McCracken’s primary focus, he first demonstrates that it is uncomfortable because the gospel itself runs uncomfortably counter to our flesh. The uncomfortable gospel isn’t merely the beginning of the Christian life, but its continuation.
McCracken writes winsomely, convincing the reader that uncomfortable Christianity is what God really requires and what we truly need. He quotes a diverse range of authors throughout the book. As a senior editor of The Gospel Coalition he may be expected to quote from TGC Council members such as Tim Keller, Kevin DeYoung, and David Platt. But when he regularly and warmly cites those outside of his camp (such as Rachel Held Evans [pp. 73–74] and atheist celebrity Penn Jillette [p. 114]) we witness the wheels of uncomfortable diversity in motion.
McCracken’s message is vital, and Christians young and old should read this book. However, two criticisms stand out as cautions for the reader: 1) gratuitous references to alcohol and 2) an unhelpful focus on the intramural debate regarding the gifts of tongues, healing, and prophecy.
As to the first, the author robs himself of persuasive capital when he consistently and positively mentions alcohol. Unfortunately, this is a trigger topic for many Christians, and not without good reason (addiction, abuse, etc). Yet the author appears insentive to this. In his hypothetical “dream church” he advocates for a church group that samples rare scotch, bourbon, rum, and other spirits (p. 22), community dinners with wine (p. 20), and a collection of single-malt scotches made available for consumption (p. 20). While alcohol consumption is a matter of Christian liberty, it also calls for Christian wisdom. In my view, Uncomfortable would be a better book without these gratuitous references to such an emotionally charged issue.
My second criticism relates to the discussion of cessationism and continuationism in chapter 6 (“Uncomfortable Comforter”). While McCracken begins by making his case for continuationism softly, he offers a rather uncharitable interpretation of the motives behind the cessationist view. For example, in his discussion of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit (p. 99), he hints that cessationists simply do not want to relinquish control (p. 100), are too proud to fully tap into the Spirit’s power and are unwilling to risk a bit of discomfort (pp. 102–7). He does not seem to allow that many cessationists stand not on their pride or a desire for control, but humbly and on biblically plausible grounds. Had the author provided a more empathetic space for those who disagree with him, his book would likely reach a wider audience and deliver a stronger appeal.
Despite these points of critique, Uncomfortable challenges, clarifies and inspires. May we embrace McCracken’s clear call to lay aside our consumer fantasies and accept the uncomfortable pursuit of Jesus in community. May we count every comfort as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord (Phil 3:8).
Brantwood Baptist Church
Dayton, Ohio, USA
Other Articles in this Issue
In The God Who Saves (2016), David Congdon seeks an elusive synthesis of Karl Barth’s dogmatics and Rudolf Bultmann’s hermeneutics: he integrates Bultmann’s insistence on the concrete historicity of individual human experience with Barth’s stress on the universal salvific significance of Christ...