Ep. 087: Church is Uncomfortable (and Essential)
The church is uncomfortable. Especially having been seasoned since birth in our consumeristic culture, the church community can feel extremely weird and odd. Why? Because to do church well means to look not at yourself, but to look at God and others. In fact, embracing the “uncomfortability” of the church can really help you love God and others more. But the reality is, many of us struggle with the church community. Brett McCracken, an author and journalist, has just written a book that tackles this issue called Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. He joins us on indoubt this week to talk about church and how we can better place ourselves in this wonderfully uncomfortable body of people.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is author and journalist Brett McCracken. Brett is the author of three books that I can see, and the latest one is coming right off the press. Crossway Books has published his book that he’s called Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community.
Anyways, it’s great to have you on the show today, Brett.
Thanks so much, Isaac. It’s great to be here.
The first question that I’m going to ask you is just simply, who are you? There’s probably a lot of people that don’t know the name Brett McCracken, especially up here in Canada.
So, tell us a little bit about who you are, maybe how you met Jesus, what your normal day looks like.
Yeah, for sure. So, I grew up in the Midwest of the US, so Oklahoma, Kansas, kind of born and raised in the church, so I’ve been a Christian pretty much as long as I can remember. I think I was, you know, about five when I made the decision officially to follow Jesus. Yeah.
So, you know, I grew up in a great family, a great Christian family. My dad was super involved in our church, and all of my grandparents and relatives, so looking back I just feel so fortunate for that. And I think it’s such a grace of God that sometimes just the circumstances of where you’re born and the people that God gives you in your family and in your life.
I went to Wheaton College which is a Christian university in the Chicago area, and you know, the way that I tell my story of kind of how I got to where I am today is: faith has always been a big part of my life. And so has, like, culture and the arts and movies and yet growing up in kind of a conservative Baptist upbringing, I often felt those two worlds kind of opposing each other, or far from one another.
And so a big part of my journey has been one of integrating those two and finding ways to think Christianly about culture in healthy ways, and not combative or legalistic ways or in ways that are too undiscerning.
So at Wheaton College, I really learned how to do that well. It’s a great liberal arts Christian university that really does kinda train you to think deeply and to think Christianly about things. And also when I was at Wheaton College I got into writing. I wrote for the student newspaper and I was the arts and entertainment editor.
Around that time I got started writing for Relevant Magazine, which is a big Christian magazine that was just getting started back then when I was an undergrad. And so over the years I’ve just- journalism and writing have become kind of what I do. I’ve written film reviews for Christianity Today. I’ve, you know, written a couple of books, as you mentioned. And so God has just given me opportunities and ideas and an audience to be able to do that.
And so all along the way I’ve been in love with the church, so passionate about the church, and really passionate about helping the church understand its role, its place in culture and that relationship. So I think all three of my books are in some way about that topic:
How do we as a church relate to culture? How do we understand our identity as the church in today’s world?
So that’s kind of a little of my background.
Currently, in terms of, like my, you asked what my average day looks like.
So I work, my day job is I work at Biola University in Southern California, which is a big Christian University.
I’ve worked there for nine years and so I do that. I do writing and marketing and communications here.
Working closely with the president, Barry Corey. It’s a great job. But that’s coming to an end, actually. I am in my last week of working at Biola. I’m going to work full-time for The Gospel Coalition, so, yeah, they hired me to be an editor for them. So I’ve written for the Gospel Coalition quite a bit over the years.
Well, that’s a great opportunity. That’s awesome.
Yeah, I’m excited about it. So that’s kind of what I do for work. And then I’m really involved in our church, as well, here in Southern California. So I’m an elder at our church. I preach sometimes. I lead a small group Bible study. My wife and I are just really, really involved with that.
Good. Well that does give us a good little picture of a bit of who you are. That’s awesome. All right. Well, let’s jump into this. You’ve just written this new book, which I mentioned already, called Uncomfortable.
Now, I mean, this is sort of an obvious point, but just to remind everyone, you know, a lot of times books are written to address some sort of issue. And then, you know, the author then argues a solution to this issue. So I guess the first question is, what is this issue that you see with Christian community or the church?
Yeah, so I think if I can boil it down, I would say the issue is that we live, especially in the Western culture, North America, Europe, we live with consumerism as kind of the air we breathe and it’s kind of infiltrated the way we look at everything. But even church. So basically, consumerism says, like, you should choose things that fit you. Right?
Like you should choose the product, the pair of jeans, whatever, the brands that like best match you. And you should shop around until you find that. Until you find the perfect fit for you.
And I’ve seen that mentality kind of infiltrate the way we look at church.
And so you have this, you know, even the fact that we like talk about “church-shopping.” That’s a term we use, which shows you how much, like, consumerism infiltrates how we think about it. Like, really, we’re shopping?
We’re shopping for a church like we shop for new toothpaste or something?
So I think it’s problematic because what that does, it positions church as something that meets our needs, something that should kind of make our lives better, something that we should quote, “get something out of” rather than give. And it just makes church something that’s easily kind of disposed of when it stops meeting our needs.
So I see, in Orange County, California, where I live, where I think this problem is maybe especially bad, I see like so many like millennials, especially, maybe they’ll go to a church that’s cool. Or that kind of fits their checklist. Well, they’ll go there for a year or so, but then, you know, eventually, either they get bored with it or a new, trendier church opens down the street and so they leave.
So there’s this real kind of low threshold of coming and going and not really committing. And a lot of it is, we are addicted to comfort and we always choose and prefer comfort over discomfort, and so whenever there’s a church situation that’s the least bit uncomfortable, or challenging for us, or difficult, whether it’s difficult people that you have to deal with when you go to church, or the music style, you know, is sometimes frustrating, we find those excuses so easily and suddenly they become justifications to leave. And it’s easy to do that because consumerism says,
“That’s great. There’s 20 other options you could choose from in your city. Just try another one.”
Yeah, for sure. So it doesn’t even feel like, for the average person, let’s say a millennial who’s doing this, it doesn’t even feel that wrong. Like their conscience isn’t saying that’s wrong, because they’ve just been so in-cultured with this idea.
Absolutely. I think it’s so second nature to us that it doesn’t strike us as, you know, abnormal in the least. It’s just what we do in life. It’s our prerogative to choose things that fit us well, and meet our needs, and avoid things that make us uncomfortable.
Totally. Yeah. So, that’s the issue. Then what are you kind of, what do you say in the book that will hopefully provide a solution to this?
Yeah, so essentially I am arguing in the book that actually the church of Jesus Christ is unavoidably uncomfortable. Like, this is a faith that’s after all built around a guy who died on a cross, and said, you know, “Those who follow me, you know, pick up your own cross and deny yourself.”
Jesus never promised comfort, and in fact he said the opposite. You know, he said, “Lose your life to gain it.” Things like that.
So I think on one hand I’m just reminding people that the very heartbeat of Christianity goes against the grain of the idolatry of comfort. It inverses the logic of consumerism and it says that actually, blessings and goodness in life comes when we choose discomfort. When we take up our cross. When we choose the path or resistance. Not the path of least resistance.
And also just if you think about it, like growth in life, whether it’s a sport or a skill that you want to develop in, that only happens when you stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone. And, you know, we grow the most when we’re uncomfortable. And that’s true of an athletic skill or an artistic skill.
And it’s also true of our spiritual formation. So, if you truly want to grow in your faith, I think what I’m arguing is, choose a church that’s going to stretch you, that’s going to challenge you, that isn’t going to be the perfect fit. Where the people that you’re around are different from you, and kind of frustrate you. Where the style of music isn’t your ideal – all of those things are going to be hard and uncomfortable. But it’ll change your heart posture in a really healthy way. It’ll become less about you and less about your needs and more close to the heart of what Christianity is.
Yeah, that’s kind of in a nutshell what I’m suggesting in the book.
I’m sort of throwing this question at you now, I was just thinking about it as you were talking. But, you know, if there is, because the reality is, sometimes, we’re going to have to go to a new church. And that’s just a reality.
You move somewhere or whatever. I don’t know if you say this in your book, but from your perspective, what things are necessary that a church should have that maybe isn’t just the music style or the way that the pastor preaches or what have you?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m actually working on a free downloadable ebook on this topic that I’ll have on my website. Just because I think it is such a practical question.
We all do have to find a new church at some point or another. So what are the right things to look at? Versus the wrong things? And I think I would say, like, you know, first of all,
is Jesus the centre of the church? Is the gospel front and centre? Is this church transforming lives? Are people in the community in the church growing? Is there demonstrable growth happening? Is there transformation happening in the community? Around the church?
Like if there’s a city that the church is in, and nothing in the city is changing for the better, I would question it, I don’t know if that’s the best church to choose. So I think the mark of a great church is Jesus is at the centre, lives are being transformed, there are new converts, there are baptisms happening. There isn’t just this status quo, kind of insular, you know, comfort, where people just come and go and it’s this like country club.
I think you want to look for a church that’s on fire for Jesus, that’s outward-minded, that’s actually looking to make a difference in the world. Evangelism. Justice. All these areas. So those would be the things I would focus on. Less on kind of the, “What is my own personal laundry list of preferences and takes.”
Exactly. That’s good. All right, so Brett I feel like church methods, or just the way that churches do things, can sometimes be kind of like art. So in that they’re sort of talked about subjectively.
So, you know, when criticism or judgments come to maybe a pastor or some church leader of that church or even just a person that’s very involved, they can just sort of shrug it off, with thinking, you know, “That’s not the way we do it.” Or, you know, “God is sort of blessing this the way that we’re doing it, so it can’t be a real critique on us.” Different things like that.
So I guess my question is, is there at least an objective skeleton framework of how church should work? So you know, what do we read about this in the Bible? And are there subjective aspects to church methods as well?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question. You know, first I would say that, yes, there are subjective elements. Because contextualization is a thing.
There’s a reality that culture’s different and cities and different contexts are different and the Bible doesn’t speak, you know, in specificity to, you know, how to do church in 21st century Bangkok, Thailand or Paris, France. So there’s a degree to which I think there can be variation and creativity and innovation.
But, yeah, I mean I think clearly that there is a skeleton framework in the Bible for how church should be. It’s called, pretty much, the New Testament really.
I would say start with Acts, really – the very first history of the church.
I think that’s a good place to look to see like, okay what were the elements of the church in the very earliest days, and what can we glean from that? And Paul’s letters, his epistles. So many of them are great windows into the priorities and kind of the shape of the church. And the friction and the problems that develop.
So, I would say, you know, read Paul’s epistles, especially Ephesians or like 1 and 2 Corinthians. Some of these like frictions and problems develop and reveal kind of the values of what a church should be like and the coming together of very different people, which you see a lot in the New Testament. And it’s kind of what I’m arguing in the book. Like, if you look at the New Testament church, it was not an easy, comfortable thing. It was full of explosive problems that were constantly arising in large part because of the differences that, you know, were represented in the coming together of Jews and Gentiles and people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. And yet, Paul really hammers on unity and the way that the Holy Spirit kind of helps facilitate unity and the building up of a body.
It’s interesting, Brett. Maybe you can speak into this. But, you know, as you say that, and I, you know, I’ve read these different things in the New Testament, and I’ve read about Paul. You’re right to say that unity is one of his biggest pushes.
Most of his letters, he’s saying, “You guys need to, be one in faith. Be one in this. Be united.” And when I read even in Acts, when it talks about just sort of that first gathering of the Christians as well. I look at that, then I look at, like, you know, I don’t think Orange County’s churches are any different than Vancouver’s, so it’s about the same all over.
But really, when I see them too, you know, put side-by-side, I’m like, man, we are, it feels like eons away from what it should be. So encourage us here!
Yeah. No, I mean, it is. It can feel so far away. And it can feel so idealistic. But I think, like, pragmatism can be such a devastating thing for the church. When we take the route of like, what’s practical? And what’s doable? And what’s pragmatic? When we choose that over the ideal of what we’re striving for, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants.
I think he gives us these visions. He gives you these hopes because that’s what we’re striving for. And that’s what we should be struggling for. And you know, I think oftentimes metaphor is the most helpful thing.
There are great metaphors in the New Testament for the church, like one of the ones that I reference a few times in Uncomfortable is Peter’s metaphor of living stones being built together into a spiritual house.
So for me that has been such a helpful metaphor for what church is. It’s this house that God is building, that the spirit is bringing together all of us as stones. And stones are, you know, we’re individual. We’re different. Like every stone has its own unique textures and we’re being fit together in one structure.
And so, one thing I say in the book is like, it’s not about the building fitting around us – it’s about us fitting in the gaps. Like, where are there holes? If you picture a stone building being constructed, it’s about fitting stones where you could wedge them in, you know?
Where there are gaps. And so that metaphor, I think, is helpful in terms of putting the focus not on how the church fits me, but how I fit into this house that God is building.
Yeah. That’s great. I think that’ll probably also kind of fit into my next little sort of question here, but you wrote something I found really engaging.
It must have been your introduction or maybe your first chapter, but you write that, “The Western world doesn’t need a more muddled, confused, you know, I-love-Jesus-but-not-the-church Christianity made up of a million different opinions and to each his own permutations. Rather, it needs a true, unified, and eloquent witness to the distinctly alternative vision for a life that Jesus offers.”
And then you say, “And this will only come with a renewed commitment to the local church in all of its uncomfortable but life-giving glory.” And yeah, I just want you to kind of explain that little bit there.
Yeah. Yeah, it’s kind of a wordy quote. But yeah, I think I would say, what I’m saying there is about the tendency of the spiritual but not religious, “I love Jesus but I don’t really like the church,” mentality, which we’re seeing more and more of, I think in today’s world.
What that does, when you detach from the organization of the church or the tradition of the church, basically it perpetuates this kind of idea of making faith in my image.
I’m creating something that is more about fitting me and my tastes and preferences and personality than I am of submitting my will and submitting myself to something bigger than me.
Which is what the church really is about. And it’s the gift of the church. It’s something far bigger and longer and greater than me.
So I think the problem is that, you know, this is also kind of like a bigger problem in Protestantism specifically, because it’s so fragmented and there’s this tendency in Protestantism to just invent a new denomination if I don’t like my current denomination. So, we’ve created, like, tens of thousands of different denominations. We have as Protestants.
We can lose the sense of “We’re all in this together. There are things that we share in common.” And so what happens, what ends up happening, is that there’s this supermarket effect, where because there are so many options, it perpetuates the consumer mentality. Because there are like 10,000 permutations of Protestant Christianity – there’s going to be something for everyone.
So if you don’t like this iteration of it, you can go try that one. And if you don’t like that one, why don’t you start your own church? And take one element from there and one element from there?
I just think that we’re better off in life when we focus on continuity rather than ingenuity.
Like, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I mean, like I said, there is an element of innovation and contextualization. That is healthy, but I think we’re better off if we focus on like, what are the beliefs and practices that have been believed and practiced throughout the centuries in Christianity? Start there. Start with like, what are the things that have endured? Have not changed?
You know, look at Martin Luther’s Seven Marks of a Church. What are the things that the Church Fathers, the wise people in our history, have identified as like, “Here’s what comprises a church.”? So yeah, I’m a big fan of history and continuity and tradition and I just think it’s the opposite of the way we think today.
Today we think, “How can we refresh Christianity, and make it new and totally, you know, innovative for a new generation?” And I think some of that is okay and valuable. But man, we’re always better off if we look for the areas of continuity.
That’s good. The last question here, Brett, many listening don’t have a formal role in their church. They’re not pastors. They’re not servers or anything like that. What few things would you recommend they begin thinking about or maybe even acting upon, to really start embracing this uncomfortableness, you could say, of just local church community?
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think I would start by saying, try to come at your church experience with a posture of service, rather than being served.
So, you know, to be a Christian is to follow Jesus. And what does Scripture say of Jesus? He came to serve, not to be served.
So I think we need to have that posture with regard to church. Look for the areas of need in the church, where you can serve, and like, plug in. Like, don’t wait around for the church to come to you and be like, “Oh, you have this talent. We’re going to build something around you.”
Don’t wait until there’s the perfect niche for you.
Look for the need. Where is there a need? Where can I fit myself in? It’s the whole, like, stone. I’m a stone. Where can I just fit in the gaps that are in the church? And I would also say, look inside your heart and identify what are the things that make me uncomfortable about this church? And don’t avoid them. Lean into them. Look at them as an asset that can grow you, that can stretch you.
For me, in my current church, and I talk about this a lot in my book, it’s a more charismatic church than I am used to. So, even little things like raising hands in worship, that was something I never did growing up. You wouldn’t be caught dead raising your hands in church in the Baptist churches I grew up in.
And so for me that was like a conscious act that I just had to come to this point where I was like, “You know, I’m just going to lean into this, as uncomfortable as it is. I’m going to start trying to raise my hands in worship.”
And the funny thing is, like over time it became a habit. And then it became second nature.
And now I do it willingly. So, I think that’s what happens. That’s what happens when you lean into discomfort. God the Spirit works through that and really grows you. So yeah, whatever that may be for you. Identify it and lean into it.
That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Brett, for taking time out of your day to chat with me about your new book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community.
If you’re listening today and you’re interested in Brett’s book, you can just go to brettmccracken.com and there he has his books. But anyways, thank you so much, Brett. I hope to have you back on the show again soon.
Thanks so much, Isaac.