Fathom Mag

An Uncomfortable Faith

A Q&A with Brett McCracken about his new book Uncomfortable

Published on:
October 16, 2017
Read time:
6 min.
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Tell us a little bit about your new book, Uncomfortable. What makes this topic important for the church today?

I think comfort is a toxic idol for the church today, especially in America and other places where it is easy and relatively “normal” to be Christian. The idolatry of comfort comes in many forms. For some it looks like seeing Jesus as mostly a cosmic ATM who exists to make us happy and affirm us in our dreams. For others it looks like cherry picking scripture to defend our political positions and ignoring the parts of the Bible that challenge us. And then there is just the practical idolatry of comfort that looks like going to church with people who are just like you, where the goal isn’t to be stretched or grown in uncomfortable community as much as to be affirmed in one’s own individualistic pursuits and “self-actualization.”

What is the danger of obsessing over a “dream church”? How does it threaten what God intends for the body of Christ?

One problem with thinking too much about our dream church is that what we really mean is “the perfect church for me.” And such a church doesn’t exist. Plus, one man’s dream church is another man’s uncomfortable church. No two dreams are the same. We’re all better off if we focus less on our own individualistic dreams (tastes and preferences) and more on God’s dream and his plan for the church, laid out in scripture. However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure.

What are some of the contributing factors to our obsession with comfort? How can believers begin to practically identify ways in which they idolize comfort?

We live in a consumeristic society where everything is oriented around choice and preference and the ability to opt in or out of things, based on how they fit you. This has infiltrated the way we think about church and spirituality too. Think about the language we use to describe looking for a new church: “church shopping.” This shows how much consumerism is the paradigm for how we look at church. We “shop” around for a new church, just as we shop for a new brand of jeans or toothpaste, with our checklist of tastes and preferences for what we are looking for. Consumerism is a never-ending pursuit of the elusive “perfect fit,” but it’s a terrible approach to church because it will leave you restless and unsatisfied no matter where you are. 

God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure.

I’d say one way to diagnose whether comfort has become an idol in your life is to reflect on how often you have left a church, or ended a relationship, or quit a job because it was too challenging or too uncomfortable. Are you able to stick with commitments even when they are hard? Are you gritty enough to keep at something over the long term, even if there are ups and downs? If not, you may be placing too much of a premium on comfort.

Often times, the “awkward” aspects of church come down to matters of personal preference. What would you consider some of the more common “awkward” aspects of church that consumer-minded Christians focus on?

I think church worship music is one source of awkward frustration for many people, where one’s preferred style is often not matched perfectly (or at all) by the music in their given church. Plus, hundreds of people singing together out loud for thirty minutes on a Sunday morning is increasingly a weird thing in our post-Christian culture. I think the people aspect of church is also a source of awkwardness. Church is this place where people of all ages and backgrounds come together, sing together, pray together, often holding sweaty hands together, and so forth. Introverts hate this and everyone else has moments where it is super uncomfortable.

How have you personally dealt with the “dream church” distraction you write about? In what ways did it affect your walk with Christ?

It’s funny because when I wrote the introduction to Uncomfortable, detailing my personal “dream church,” I was so tempted to go and start the church I was describing. Ha! But then I realized that this mythic dream church would probably not be anyone else’s dream church! And I also remembered that my current church, frustrating and uncomfortable as it often is, has become so dear to me. When I’m tempted to think too much about the dream, I pause and give thanks for the reality; the messy, imperfect, but beautiful reality of God’s people worshiping together and striving to grow together. At its most uncomfortable, the reality of the church family I’ve been given is more compelling than my dream church could ever be.

What would you consider common ways we misunderstand “comfort” in Western culture? How do they differ from a biblical view of comfort?

We often see comfort in very temporal terms: Am I comfortable in my circumstances now? Do I have a nice home, a good job, a stress-free life? But this sort of comfort has no lasting resonance. It is often fleeting, constantly needing to be bigger and better. The biblical view of comfort takes the long view. We may live in stress, in poverty, in persecution of various sorts, but we take heart, because Christ has overcome the world. We take heart because the Holy Spirit (the “Comforter”) is with us. We take heart because the God of all comfort is with us, and we will spend eternity with him. With that knowledge, all manner of discomfort in this life becomes not only bearable, but strangely a source of joy because it intensifies our reliance upon and passion for our savior.

You make a distinction in the book between pursuing holiness and settling for authenticity. Could you elaborate on the difference between the two? How does “authenticity” miss the mark of God’s desire for the Christian life?

“Authenticity” has become synonymous with brokenness in our culture. To be “authentic” is to be real, raw, messy, imperfect. We celebrate this as a badge of honor. It is a currency of solidarity, even in churches where our small groups are often just discussions about how each of us is broken on any given week. Openness and vulnerability about brokenness is important, of course, but for Christians, we can’t stop there. We can’t celebrate “authenticity” as if God created us to be authentically broken. He created us to be whole, and that is the direction we are called to move. Christ is the most authentic, truest human who ever lived, so Christ-likeness is actually the more authentic way to live. Christians should be more compelled by the sanctification and growth that is possible in Christ by the power of the Spirit than we are by the messes and brokenness of our lives.

We can’t celebrate “authenticity” as if God created us to be authentically broken.

As you point out, Christians are called to be set apart in the world. That starts with lives committed to holiness, but also requires embracing biblical truth and radical love. It’s easy to find examples today of one extreme or the other—those who preach truth at the expense of love or those who emphasize love at the expense of truth. How can Christians cultivate their faith in a way that prioritizes both truth and love equally? What are some practical means of accountability?

The Christian life is full of uncomfortable tensions. Truth and love is perhaps the most uncomfortable. Biola University president Barry Corey talks about it in terms of living with firm centers (truth) and soft edges (grace and love). The former is about clinging to conviction and living it out in all areas of life. The latter is living it out with compassion and humility, with a tone of kindness and service. I think one way to live with this tension is to start seeing truth and love not as opposites, but really as necessarily paired. Love helps people receive truths, and it creates a refuge of compassionate community when the truth is hard or costly. And truth is loving. Often the most loving thing we can do for someone is tell them the truth. We need to start seeing these not in contrary but in complementary terms.

Can you describe a time in which you’ve witnessed someone move from a consumer-minded faith to that of an “uncomfortable” faith? What changed for them personally? How did it affect the local church in which they served?

There is a couple in our church who come to mind. They came a few years ago from a very different church, and Southlands (our church) was hugely stretching for them. The charismatic stuff was all new to them, and they were skeptical (as was I when I first started attending). But I have seen so much growth in them as they’ve leaned into discomfort and resisted the urge to just come and go like consumers. They are participators. They are engaged in worship and prayer. It has been messy for them and I’m sure uncomfortable, but they are so much healthier in their faith today than two years ago when I first met them.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope readers are challenged to embrace the cost of discipleship and the uncomfortable (but beautiful) nature of the local church. I hope readers are left with a renewed commitment to Christ and his church, recognizing that while discomfort is a fact of life for Christians, it also comes with a supernatural comfort and joy and hope (see 2 Corinthians 1). On the other side of discomfort is delight in Christ.

Brett McCracken
Brett McCracken is a writer and journalist based in Southern California. He is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide (Baker, 2010), Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (Baker, 2013), and Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, 2017). He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Converge, Mere Orthodoxy, ERLC, Canon & Culture, and Q Ideas. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches, and conferences.

Cover image by Marcus Castro.

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