Comfortable churches are common. In a comfortable church, people come from the same class, are the same color, live in similar neighborhoods, enjoy the same kinds of music and worship styles, get their news and political ideas from the same sources, and welcome more people like themselves.
The goal in such churches is to upset the nice, comfortable balance. And I’m going to tell you how to do it.
1. Invite the “wrong” people to church.
The best way to make a church uncomfortable is to reach out to ethnic minorities, the homeless, and people with questionable lifestyles. Invite the broken. Invite the people who struggle with drug abuse. Invite single mothers who struggle to raise their kids. Invite singles. Find people who have no money and think they have nothing to offer the church. Find people who have burdens that you and the rest of the church can share. And expect to learn from and be blessed by the “wrong” people. Begin to see others as blessings and begin to see burdens and challenges as opportunities for God to show his grace.
2. Start asking questions about your worship service.
Understand why your church worships a certain way. Distinguish what is biblical from cultural. It’s important that you and the rest of the church understand your worship services and consider changing those aspects that are culturally insensitive to outsiders. This doesn’t mean that a church needs to be “seeker sensitive” or “dumbed down.” It can reflect high church convictions and be liturgical; it’s possible to be culturally sensitive and practice much that is ancient within Christianity.
What matters is that the choices are thought out and that you are prepared to talk with people about your worship service. Be able to admit cultural preferences and be willing to change and learn from other people.
3. Forgive people who offend or sin against you.
Tell people that they are forgiven. Treat them as forgiven. Take the gospel of grace seriously, and begin to forgive people even before they repent. Don’t withhold forgiveness to manipulate a person into changing his life. Forgive the way that Jesus forgave: while on the cross, he forgave his enemies who mocked him as he suffered and died for the sins of the world.
4. Practice reconciliation.
Pursue peace. Spend time with people. Embrace difficult people; work through problems together. Cultivate relationships where you can be honest. Meet with people to talk; learn to listen. Don’t sit back and wait for people to reconcile with you. Pursue it, embrace the challenge of it, and most of all desire that people would be reconciled to God.
When you say something stupid or act contrary to the gospel, admit it. Accept criticism and rebuke. Consider the perspectives and concerns from people who are different from yourself; seek to learn, change, and respond in love.
6. Love people.
Stop worrying that you might actually affirm someone in their sin because you showed some compassion. Don’t feel like you need to correct everyone all the time; let petty sins go. Don’t feel like you need to let everyone know where you stand on homosexuality, sex before marriage, or divorce. Don’t trick yourself into believing that you need to fix people. Love doesn’t allow people to destroy their lives through sin, but love is also patient and kind. Love doesn’t need to defend itself or prove that it is always on the right side of some issue.
7. Let Christianity inform your understanding of social issues.
It’s true that the Bible doesn’t teach us what policies or candidates to vote for, but the Bible does tell us who to love. The Bible does tell us to care for the underprivileged: the poor, the broken, the foreigner. The Bible does lead us beyond self-interest and toward love. It forces us to consider the well-being of others even at the cost of our personal material fulfillment. It challenges our desire to live like a king at the expense of others. It moves us to consider how our lives, actions, and silence contribute to injustice, sin, and corrupt systems in a society that exploits, hurts, and destroys the lives of others who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Even as you place your hope in Jesus Christ and trust in a kingdom of grace and justice that will come in its fullness with Christ’s return, have the courage to live like our love and concern for others—people, the environment, society—might make a difference in someone’s life. Our social activism or politics won’t save anyone, but it could still help someone and show that the message we speak makes a difference in our lives.
8. Keep the gospel in focus.
Every day we encounter messages and practices that operate contrary to the gospel. As much as we should care about ethics and social issues, we must be careful to set all of that in the context of what is most important: the God who saves us by faith in Christ. For these reasons, we need to immerse ourselves in the gospel—in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We need to be a people who are joyful to hear the same old story about the cross, empty tomb, and compassion of God for sinners.
9. Understand that Christianity is supposed to be uncomfortable.
The goal is not to cause trouble. The goal is to live in step with the gospel. The problem with a comfortable church is that it degenerates into a social club. A comfortable church won’t resist the captivity of political ideologies that are contrary to the gospel; it won’t resist the imperialistic demands of a dominate culture; it won’t reach out to sinners and suffer with grace.
A comfortable church will eventually die. The building may remain and people may continue to gather, and Jesus might even be a nice thing the pastor talks about for 15–45 minutes. But it will be godless talk because when God shows up in the Bible, people will fall down like the prophets and say “woe is me,” and when God announces grace and mercy, people will respond in faith that results in lives of imperfect love and compassion. There is nothing comfortable about true Christianity.