One of my reading goals for 2018 is to tackle Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For a myriad of reasons, I need to absorb his hard won wisdom, but most of all I want to lean into his observations about Christian community in the crucible of “life together” in a secret seminary under the looming threat of Nazi persecution. Somehow in the most challenging of historical contexts, Bonhoeffer was able to address the disconnect between the “dream of a Christian community” and “the Christian community itself.”
Waking up from his own dream church, Bret McCracken confesses that there are a good many facets of his own fellowship — and even about the Christian faith — that rub him the wrong way. In Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community he analyzes, laments, and offers perspective on the struggle, for as the old saw goes, even if you are fortunate enough to find the perfect church, you will surely ruin it when you join. Did you know this came originally from Spurgeon?
Of course, all this insight doesn’t stop us from fantasizing about the ideal facility, the perfect constellation of ministries, a doctrinal statement and liturgical bent that fit like a glove, and the “perfect” Sunday morning music. . . alongside a good cup of strong coffee. We are immersed in a culture that encourages us to inflate our wants until they take on the dimensions of a need. However, part of the amphibious nature of the Christian experience is that “what we think we want from a church is almost never what we need.” (Loc 302)
“Commitment even amidst discomfort, faithfulness even amidst disappointment: this is what being the people of God has always been about.”
Why the Church Seems So Uncomfortable
Devoting one chapter to each topic, McCracken explores the difficult aspects of following Jesus:
- The uncomfortable cross that requires an embrace of suffering and sacrifice;
- The uncomfortable call to be a set-apart people, pursing holiness and a set of values that set us at odds with the world around us;
- A collection of counter-cultural truths around creation, hell, and sexual ethics that wreck our cool-factor and make for awkward conversational pauses;
- The call to love outside our comfort zone and to worship beside people who annoy or puzzle us;
- The controversial differences in worship that arise from different perspectives on God the Holy Spirit, the role of liturgy, music, prayer, and every other imaginable preference;
- The multiple challenges around authority, unity, diversity, commitment, and even our understanding of what it means to be “comfortable” on a fallen planet.
The End of All Our Petty Preferences
One source of all this discomfort with the church and her people is a discomfort with God Himself. Author Adam McHugh describes the God we long for who “always agrees with us, . . . who always favors our nation or political agenda, [and] feeds us candy and never vegetables.” The God who sent prophets walking naked and barefoot through the streets of Jerusalem in order to make a point will not hesitate to require a modern day saint to walk a path of growth that puts comfort aside for the sake of something greater.
The call of God is a summons to embrace the discomfort of the cross and a counter-cultural call to holiness in spite of the cost to our dreams. The startling truth is that a comfortable Christianity without an instrument of torture at its center and without a message that sits us across the table eye-to-eye with an enemy and requires a loving response is not really Christianity at all.
Christ’s call to spiritual neediness, mourning, and meekness found in The Beatitudes captures the difference between comfortable Christianity and “a kingdom where worldly comforts are nothing compared to the power of the Comforter in us; where all manner of uncomfortable things are endured for righteousness’s sake.” As we look outside ourselves and assign greater value to Truth than to comfort, we find that worship is about God and not about us. We begin to value each other’s differences as we look toward the future assembly of people and nations and tongues and tribes that will one day surround us as we worship God — and as we look back on our petty preferences and wonder what all the fuss was about.