If we always approach church through the lens of wishing this or that were different, or longing for a church that “gets me” or “meets me where I’m at,” we’ll never commit anywhere (or, Protestants that we are, we’ll just start our own church). But church shouldn’t be about being perfectly understood and met in our comfort zone; it should be about understanding God more, and meeting him where he’s at. This is an uncomfortable but beautiful thing. As nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon once said:
If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.
What we think we want from a church is almost never what we need. However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure. It’s not about finding a church that perfectly fits my theological, architectural, or political preferences. It’s about becoming like “living stones” that are “being built up as a spiritual house” focused on and held together by Jesus, the stone the builders rejected who became the cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:4–7).
Contrary to the wisdom of consumerism, we’re better off giving up the “dream church” ideal and the “perfect fit” fallacy. I’ve seen this firsthand in my current church experience in Brea, California. Whether because of its music (louder and more contemporary than my tastes), its emphasis on spontaneous prayer in “groups of three or four around you” (I’m an introvert), or its openness to the wildness of the Holy Spirit (I grew up Southern Baptist), much about the church makes me uncomfortable. It’s far from the “dream church” that meets all my preferred checkboxes. Yet in this not-my-dream church my wife and I have grown immensely and been used by God. Its community has shown me clearly that “how it fits me” is the wrong criteria for finding the right church.
Rather, church should be about collectively spurring one another to “be fit” to the likeness of Christ (Ephesians 4–5). And this can happen in almost any sort of church as long as it’s fixed on Jesus, anchored in the gospel, and committed to the authority of Scripture.
Instead of a la carte Christianity driven by fickle tastes and “dream church” appetites, what if we learned to love churches even when—or perhaps because—they challenge us and stretch us out of our comfort zones? Instead of driving 20 miles away to attend a church that “fits my needs,” what if we committed to the nearest non-heretical, Bible-believing church where we could grow and serve—and where Jesus is the hero—however uncomfortable it may be?
Commitment even amidst discomfort, faithfulness even amidst disappointment: this is what being the people of God has always been about. Imagine if Yahweh had bailed on Israel the minute they said or did something offensive, opting instead to “shop around” for a new people (Canaanites? Philistines? Egyptians?). Imagine if God were as fickle and restless as we are. But he isn’t. God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, even when the relationship is difficult and embarrassing, should be instructive to us. A healthy relationship with the local church is like a healthy marriage: it only works when grounded in selfless commitment and a non-consumerist covenant.
Is this approach uncomfortable, awkward, and stretching? Absolutely. But that is the point.
This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, September 2017).