The Salt of the Earth

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The headlines today–or any day–reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.

The ubiquitous reporting of tragedy can sometimes desensitize us to it. Art, with its audacious capacity to bring meaning out of the meaningless and (sometimes) beauty out of the ugliness, can re-sensitize us. “The role of an artist is to not look away”-Akira Kurosawa one said. And though what their cameras or brushstrokes capture may not make us comfortable, the artist’s gaze is crucial for the building of humanity’s awareness and empathy.

The Salt of the Earth, a new documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, powerfully shows this. Directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film chronicles the journeys of Salgado to capture the struggle of humans in the midst of war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and more. Over his four decade career, Salgado’s images brought him much acclaim but they also brought awareness to the plights of many. His gaze definitely manifests a “not looking away” boldness but also a humane compassion. There are lessons here in how to see, and why seeing well matters.

As I finished the film I kept thinking of the Matthew 9:36 verse where it says of Jesus that, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them.” Had Jesus been given a camera in the 1st century, I imagine his portraits would look not dissimilar from Salgado’s. Salt of the Earth sees a lot of horrific things but it always sees them through a lens of compassion and, ultimately, hope.

As chroniclers of reality and human suffering, artists are often prone to falling into despair and giving up on people. Salgado certainly is tempted by this, especially after his time in Rwanda in the mid-90s, photographing unspeakable evil in the midst of the genocide. Following this, his career turned toward nature and animal photography, capturing the beauty of the earth and its Edenic majesty, apart from the hellish wars and struggles of mankind. Yet ultimately the beauty of the natural earth and that of mankind are inextricable; humans are the caretakers of the Garden, after all, the stewards of creation for good or ill.

Recognizing this, Salgado decides do his part as a human steward and preserver of God’s creation (“Salt of the Earth” is a metaphor that implies a preserving function). He re-plants a rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, a forest that had thrived in his childhood but a half century later had been decimated by famine and industry. Salt of the Earth–so much a film about decay, inertia and fallenness–ends on a beautifully hopeful note as the “garden” of Salgado’s upbringing is replenished and brought to new life. Resurrection.

Among its many merits, Salt of the Earth is a beautiful reminder that having eyes to see the evil and deprivation of our world should not lead us to apathy and despair, nor complaining and rage. Our response should rather be to recover our original Edenic calling: to bring order out of the chaos, to combat evil through love, to plant seeds of new life in every sphere, to be the salt we were created to be, agents of preservation in a world stricken by decay.

Too Reformed for Revival?

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In the Christianity of my Midwestern Baptist upbringing, the Holy Spirit was a part of the Trinity I acknowledged but hardly understood. I recall hearing murmurs that one of my classmates in third grade was a “charismatic,” which meant they were just as misled as the one Catholic family on our block. When we visited churches where people raised hands in worship, we assumed they were liberal or in some other way cooky. In junior high I remember hearing my sister describe the trauma of attending a charismatic church service with a friend. There were healings and speaking in tongues. The horror! In our minds this was essentially a cult.

Though I gradually loosened up a bit in my fear of “charismatic” expressions of Christianity (college and post-college travel abroad aided in this), until very recently I was still quite skeptical of the Pentecostal strain in evangelicalism. As a reserved, academic-bent believer with a fondness for liturgy and theology, “Spirit-led” meant unwieldy emotionalism and dangerous anti-intellectualism. Talk of “hearing from God,” “receiving a word” or sensing the Spirit “doing a new thing” seemed to me lazy apathy about Scripture at best and stepping stones to heresy at worst. Though I wasn’t as militant about it as some people, I was functionally a cessationist.

Things have changed since I started attending my current church in 2012. Here I encountered something I had no paradigm for: A Word-centric, Reformed-minded church that is also “Spirit-led.” A church where John Calvin is quoted alongside John Wimber; a church where the gospel is preached via expositional preaching for 45 minutes but space is made in worship for spontaneous bursts of prayer and prophecy, within limits. Part of the church’s Spirit-led DNA comes from its global orientation and emphasis on church planting and partnership in Africa, Asia and Europe… which I love. But I’d be lying if I said the Spirit stuff has been easy to stomach. There are times when my old skepticism flares up, fearing the abuses of emotionalism and the prophetic. But more and more I am growing to appreciate that within the bounds of Scripture and community (as “bumpers” in a bowling lane, so to speak), leaving room for the Spirit to move is a good thing.

In his 1974 essay “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” Francis Schaeffer wrote this:

Often men have acted as though one has to choose between reformation and revival. Some call for reformation, others for revival, and they tend to look at each other with suspicion. But reformation and revival do not stand in contrast to one another; in fact, both words are related to the concept of restoration. Reformation speaks of a restoration to pure doctrine, revival of a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture, revival of a life brought into proper relationship to the Holy Spirit. The great moments in church history have come when these two restorations have occurred simultaneously. There cannot be true revival unless there has been reformation, and reformation is incomplete without revival. May we be those who know the reality of both reformation and revival, so that this poor dark world in which we live may have an exhibition of a portion of the church returned to both pure doctrine and a Spirit-filled life.

Too often churches focus on one or the other: reform or revival, Word or Spirit. But we need both. This is a truth I am seeing more and more clearly as I experience and observe church culture in its various late modern manifestations. I believe Schaeffer was right. Churches that will flourish in the 21st century will be those centered upon the “dual restoration” of reformation and revival. In the midst of threats from Scientism, new atheism and disintegrating theological consensus, a strong bent toward doctrinal foundations and theological sturdiness will be essential going forward. Yet robust theology stripped of supernatural power will make no difference in the vitality of the church in the face of growing persecution and the inertia of secularism. In the face of these threats we must seek the Spirit, commit to pray and rely on the power of God.

The life we were designed for as humans, and also as the church (the body of Christ), requires both the head and the heart, knowledge and passion, structure and spontaneity, rationality and mystery, contemplated principles and enacted power.

The more I think about the complimentary beauty of Word/Spirit balance, the more I see how fundamental it is not just to the DNA of the church but to day-to-day human flourishing. One cannot live as a cerebral thinker without the hard-to-harness emotions and energy of the body; one cannot thrive by focusing on either predictable rhythms or freewheeling improvisation. We need to allow for a little bit of both.

Perhaps being married for the last two years has shown this to me in a deeper way. My wife is more emotionally intuitive, flexible and spontaneous than me. I am more logical, steady and systematic than her. We need each other. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness.

You start to see corollaries to the Word/Spirit dynamic everywhere when you begin to look. Left-brained and right-brained. Prose and poetry. Classical music and jazz. A trellis and a vine. Nature and nurture.

There’s a universality and existential trueness to Word/Spirit complementarity that lends it credibility, in addition to its ample biblical support.

As globalization blurs lines between western and non-western Christianity and mutual skepticism between “charismatic” and “reformed” traditions ease, the church today finds itself in a moment where a biblical balance between Word and Spirit can be restored. I am convinced that such a balanced, non-pendulum approach is the way forward for sluggish, fragmenting and ineffectual evangelicalism in post-Christian culture.

In my own faith I’m learning to make more room for the Holy Spirit, just as some in my church family are learning to make more room for the Word. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness. And that is my prayer for the larger body of Christ.

Suffering, Sufjan and “Saturday Art”

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In the Christianity of my childhood, Easter Sunday was Cadbury eggs, brunch and celebratory church services full of rollicking hymns like “Up from the grave He arose.” In my adolescence and twenty-something years I became fond of celebrating Good Friday, a part of Easter weekend largely bypassed in my childhood. With its mournful tone and quieter focus on the cross, Good Friday was almost more compelling to my melancholy self than the joy of Easter.

Yet for Christians, Friday and Sunday are equally crucial. The horror of death and the beauty of resurrection are both essential. The tension of Saturday, between death and life, loss and victory, suffering and healing, is where we live. We are mortal, decaying, sin-sick creatures. Yet our redemption is secure in the resurrected Christ; we will be made new.

Art is a gift that God gives us to help us cope with Saturday life. In Real Presences, Jewish literary critic George Steiner wrote about this “Saturday” approach to art: “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

In the face of the unspeakable horrors of Friday, “even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless,” wrote Steiner. But likewise “In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.”

The arts are fundamentally “Sabbatarian,” argues Steiner. “They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

Indeed, the arts are fundamentally about navigating the inherent restlessness of human existence–a grasping after shalom, equilibrium and peace in the midst of a chaotic, tortured and lamentable world.

For Christians who make art, the temptation is often to move too quickly to Sunday. Thomas Kinkade is the easiest example; but we see it as well in the predominantly cheerful genre of worship music and the notoriously saccharine positivity of evangelical-made movies (e.g. Fireproof, God’s Not Dead). Christian films do an injustice to the gospel when they present a kumbaya world where all believers are happy and life is a nicely wrapped package with a heavenly bow on top. Certainly hope is central and the resurrection is a paradigm-shifting lynchpin for those who follow Christ. But so is the cross. The humility, the pain, the shame and the struggle of Christ on the cross is not to be shunned or avoided by Christians; it’s to be embraced and imitated. And what a beautiful thing that is.

A Jesus who suffered is a Jesus we can know, because if we know anything in this world, it’s suffering.

I like how poet Christian Wiman describes his faith in My Bright Abyss:

“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? … He felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

Jesus was not a powermonger who established a religion with a sword; he established it by being shamed on a cross. He was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The best Christian art is right there with Jesus.

“Lord, why? …Where were you? Who are we to you? Answer me.”  (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life)

“What did I do to deserve this? … How? God of Elijah. How?”  (Sufjan Stevens, “Drawn to the Blood”)

Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell is an album that embodies a Saturday aesthetic.

On one hand the album seems to be decidedly “Friday” oriented, fixated as it is on the death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, who died of cancer in 2012. Yet the album isn’t named only after Carrie. It is also about Lowell, Sufjan’s stepfather who become one of his most valued friends (these days Lowell runs Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty).

We see the tension of Saturday both in the album’s title and in its individual songs, which speak of Friday–death, blood, drugs, vampires, driving off a cliff–but give hints of Sunday in its pastoral reminiscences of childhood in Oregon and associated bursts of love, wonder and hope. In “Carrie and Lowell” Sufjan sings of a “season of hope (after the flood).” In “The Only Thing,” Sufjan suggests that God and faith (“signs and wonders… blind faith, God’s grace”) keep him going in the midst of despair. In “Fourth of July” a deathbed conversation between Sufjan and his mother focuses on the heavens: birds of various sorts, fireworks, stars, the moon.

There is a sense in the record that Sufjan, like Christian Wiman, resonates with the idea that in Christ, “God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.” In his song “John My Beloved” Sufjan identifies with the bittersweet emotions John (“the beloved disciple”) must have felt as his intimate friendship with Jesus mixed with the reality of being separated by death. Yet even as he seeks comfort in Christ (“Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me”) he also makes no claim that faith is the solution to all pain. The song “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is all about Friday, skeptical as it is that the “shadow of the cross” brings meaning to the previous song’s “shadow of me” musings.

And yet the album’s closing song ends with an eschatological nod to Sunday. “My Blue Bucket of Gold” uses the imagery of a fabled Oregon gold mine to channel the pain and longings of the album toward a search for something higher, something heavenly: “Search for things to extol… Lord, touch me with lightning.”

Oh that more of our art would hold Friday and Sunday in such elegant tension, helping us through the fog of this liminal, Saturday space; the heartache and hope of the “now and not yet.”

Lifting the Burden of Self-Made Identity

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If you’ve grown up in America–or even if you’ve just had America imported to you via media and pop culture–the air you breathe with respect to identity and purpose is something along the lines of “be who you want to be,” “follow your dreams,” “find yourself,” “don’t let anyone get in the way of your dreams.”

Every Disney movie ever has this sort of message. Take Frozen and its triumphant anthem known word-for-word by millions of girls all over the world: It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!

Or consider this similar anthem from The Sound of Music: 

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, ‘Till you find your dream.

These songs are symptomatic of the supposedly encouraging, empowering, freeing grid of identity-formation which has been imposed upon us by Hollywood and western pop culture. It’s a way of thinking that insists that identity is something only we, individually, can construct and govern. But is this really as freeing as it sounds?

In the Tim Keller sermon embedded below, the pastor/author/theologian suggests that any notion of self-made or self-justified identity is really a crushing burden. It may sound like freedom to “see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.” Yet if that’s the case, our worth and success and value rest completely on our achievement, and then on others’ seeing our achievement and valuing it. But that always fails us.

Christianity, says Keller, is the only identity that is received, not achieved. Our identity in Jesus Christ means that our existence is valuable and justified not based on our performance, but based on His.

Keller really nails the zeitgeist in this sermon, which he spoke at an event in Los Angeles, a city which more than any other embodies and perpetuates the “follow your dreams,” “be who you want to be” value system.

I strongly suggest that you share this video with anyone you know who may be struggling with the burden of self-justification and self-made identity. Not only does it clearly and compellingly present the gospel, but it makes sense of where we are in this cultural moment and why the issue of identity (even sexual identity) is so confusing and yet critical. Watch it here:

Why iChristianity Will Lose the Culture War

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I wrote an article recently for Biola Magazine, the official publication of Biola University, about the challenges Christian universities are facing on “religious freedom” issues related to changing cultural norms–particularly around gender and sexual orientation–and their accompanying legal protections. What happens when an individual (student, staff or faculty member) decides they want to join a community like Biola but live in a manner that is inconsistent with the institution’s convictions? Whose rights matter more? The individual who refuses to sacrifice the freedom to behave in a way they say is essential to their identity, or the institution that refuses to sacrifice the convictions they, similarly, say are essential to their identity?

Though last year’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case may give credence to the notion that corporate (as in group) rights/identity/conscience are equally or more sacred than an individual’s, most evidence in our culture points in the direction of the individual’s right being king. And this should be no surprise to us in America, right? We’ve preached the gospel of individualism since our founding days and the sovereignty of self-determination is inculcated in our slogans (“be all that you can be”), songs (“baby you were born this way”) and selfie sticks. The primacy of the individual–the encouragement to “climb every mountain,” pursue every dream and create every identity as we see fit–is unmistakable in modern western culture. And the church has bought into it too.

This is one of the reasons why evangelical Christianity in the west is finding itself so confused, so weak and so easily defeated in LGBTQ discussions. We’re a fundamentally communal entity whose existence relies upon an authority beyond the individual, but you wouldn’t know it from the way we’ve preached, worshipped and lived. We’ve been complicit in a culture of individualism and perpetuated the very worldview that has led to our present problems with disintegrating consensus amidst DIY spirituality. To argue against someone’s individual rights or in any way question the validity of their “personal story” is, after all, to hypocritically renege on the logic of a “just me and Jesus” Christianity and the “personal relationship” narrative we’ve so enthusiastically preached.

This is a point I raise in my Biola Magazine article:

Have Christians in America bought into individualism to such an extent that we’ve downplayed the church’s fundamentally communal identity, both in our practicing and articulating of Christianity? Have we rallied around the banner of “individual rights!” to the extent that we are now in a weak position to claim that some individual rights must be given up for the sake of Christian communal expression? Does the ubiquity of seeker-sensitive, have-it-your-way, just-me-and-Jesus Christianity in America make it hard for us to claim that religious groups and institutions are as (or more) legitimate manifestations of religion than individuals worshiping in their own preferred way?

If Christians are to be taken seriously in their claims that institutional identity can trump individual identity, we need to start practicing, preaching and living into the communal reality of being the people of God (plural).

We need to resist the iChurch model of tailoring church to its members’ lives and desires and instead condition members to tailor their lives, collectively, to the desires of Christ. We need to recognize the “personal relationship” language as a western individualist distortion and resist its manifestation in everything from the pronouns we use in our praise songs (“I” rather than “we”), the ways we label ourselves (individualist “Jesus follower” rather than communally associated “Christian”) to the way we structure our small-group discussions (“What does this passage mean to YOU?”). We need to resist the idolatry of “personal preference” religion, challenging ourselves to commit to a church even when it’s messy, uncomfortable, awkward and costly. We need to quit pitting Jesus against religion, as if we if can ever live without a head (Jesus) AND a body (the church). We need to resist building our identities on the American dream (an insatiable pursuit of self-justification) and instead accept our new identity of being justified in Christ to be God’s people (collective), a holy nation (collective), “living stones being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5)

Perhaps most importantly as it relates to the credibility of our witness, we need to call out the sin of going-it-my-own-way individualism wherever we see it (not just on the issue of sexual conduct). We need to call out the people who argue that following Jesus can happen in isolation from other believers. We need to call out the people who believe their marriages, families and financial decisions are private matters to be kept completely separate from a church community. We need to call out hypocrisy among those in our churches who insist on celibacy for gay Christians but are unwilling to welcome those same gay Christians into a tight-knit community where intimacy and family are offered. We need to call out sin consistently and not only where it suits us, calling on all members to embrace sacrifice and the denial of desires that conflict with the gospel.

Because only together will any of us grow into the people God calls us to be, to build the “spiritual house” the world needs to see.

 

 

On the Poor Quality of Christian-Made Movies: A Proposition

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A year ago at this time, discussion of Hollywood’s “religious renaissance” began in earnest. Movies like Son of God, Noah, Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead were preparing to release, with more faith-oriented films set to come out later in the year (Mom’s Night Out, The Identical, Left Behind, Exodus). A year later, after mixed box office results and plenty of heated blogosphere chatter, what have we learned about what works and what doesn’t when faith and film collide?

There is a lot that could be said about this topic, and a lot that has already been written. Brandon Ambrosino’s excellent recent Vox piece, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” summarizes many of the key themes. I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about this topic over the years and hate to belabor familiar points, but the increasing ubiquity and decreasing quality of the “by and for Christians” genre has me pondering anew what is wrong and what can be done. 2014 saw a new low for an already low bar, after all.

Take a look at the following list of “made by and for Christians” films, with their Rottentomatoes.com scores in parentheses: Son of God (21%), God’s Not Dead (17%), Heaven is for Real (46%), Mom’s Night Out (18%), The Identical (7%), Left Behind (2%), Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (0%). The average score of these seven films is 16%. Even Christian critics joined the critical consensus in acknowledging the poor quality of these films.

Peter Chattaway called God’s Not Dead “a sloppily written, badly argued, unevenly acted film,” and suggested that “if this becomes the standard for all Christian films to come, then the genre is truly in deep, deep trouble.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who recently wrote about being a Christian and a film critic, described Mom’s Night Out as a “strained, clunkily orchestrated and dismally retrograde film.” Christianity Today critic Jackson Cuidon gave Left Behind half of a star (out of four), writing that “Left Behind is not a Christian Movie, whatever ‘Christian Movie’ could even possibly mean.”

Why are these movies so terrible? I’d like to propose that the problem is propositional. That is, these are films that reflect the propositional bent of evangelicalism (think three point sermons with clear “life application” takeaways).

Consider the very titles of God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real. They are themselves propositions, unambiguous assertions stating a truth: God is NOT dead! Heaven is for REAL! The films’ flimsy conflicts are only temporary doubts and objections systematically overcome en route to the black-and-white conclusions already asserted in their titles. God’s Not Dead is literally mostly an argument in a lecture hall, and Heaven is For Real spends far too much time literally preaching from the pulpit.

Art should neither preach nor lecture, and yet many Christian films do too much of both, telling us what faith is rather than showing us.

It’s not that films shouldn’t have messages; they should. But the message should not be a foregone conclusion based on the title, nor should it (I would argue) be self-evident even after the end credits roll. The best art gives shape to a “message” (or maybe “reflection” or “revelation” are better words) that is considered, wrestled with, debated and engaged far after we initially encounter it. And sometimes the construal of a message is secondary to the experience of beauty; something few Christian filmmakers seem to understand.

Christians should be the first to acknowledge that the mysteries of God and the grace of Jesus Christ are not concepts to be understood or arguments to be won as much as goodness we receive, beauty that confronts and truth that transforms. This is why art is so urgent and necessary. It sometimes comes the closest to capturing the aspects of religious truth and transcendent experience that words, sermons and propositions cannot adequately communicate.

When I think about the most affecting “Christian” films to come out in 2014, the ones that come to mind are not the clear-cut, “the answer is in the title” films but rather the ones that feature complex portraits of believing characters or journeys of faith. Films like Calvary, Ida, The Overnighters and Selma are powerful films that take belief seriously yet do not present tidy resolutions to the tensions they explore. They are powerful in part because they are sincere without being saccharine and beautiful without being unblemished. It’s perhaps notable that the average Rottentomatoes.com score of these four films is 95%. Critics are not inherently opposed to sincere films about Christianity. But what they respond to is not a message preached or points made as much as truths explored and beauty unveiled.

The problem of the “by and for Christians” films is that they assume that the packaging or the how of storytelling is important only insofar as the what being proposed is clearly and unmistakably communicated. It stems from the evangelical failure to recognize that the relationship between medium and message is inextricable rather than incidental.

Most evangelicals acknowledge that the medium is important, and for that reason they often put lots of money and resources into the latest and greatest communication technologies: using the newest and most expensive cameras to make their movies; expertly employing social media in their ministries; hiring design firms to create cutting edge brand identity for a church. But making medium a point of emphasis is not enough. Christians need to recognize that medium and message are related to each other in an ontological and not just instrumentalist way. Style, form, packaging, etc. cannot and should not be employed simply in service of the message. They are the message. To see the forms of art and worship as irrelevant or merely instrumental to the communication of content is dangerous and downright Gnostic.

Evangelical filmmakers need to focus on becoming masters of form not so that they can make the message more pretty; but because form can itself be a powerful message, revealing things that might otherwise be lost if we focused solely on the intelligibility or “takeaway value” of what we have to say. The saying itself, and the living, matter at least as much as what is said.

The Incarnation is the perfect example of this. Jesus was not formless content or simply content with form. He was the Word made flesh, fully God and fully man, salvation and hope in embodied, storied form. He wasn’t just a walking powerpoint presentation; he healed and lived and worked his way through a very specific story. In the fullness of time God sent his son because He recognized that the salvation of humanity required not a message but a man; not concepts but a cross: a real, tangible, splintery, beautifully ugly cross.

Church Should be Uncomfortable

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I grew up attending Baptist churches in the Midwest–the kind where men’s quartets sing gospel songs as “special music” but no one dares raise their hands during a worship song. For most of my 20s I attended a Presbyterian church where things like Maundy Thursday and Advent candles were a big deal. These days I consider myself Reformed and read books about Thomas Cranmer for fun. My ideal church service would involve the Book of Common Prayer, an organ, eucharist and a sermon out of a Pauline epistle that referenced everyone from Augustine and Spurgeon to Marilynne Robinson and N.T. Wright. In my dream church the “peace” would be exchanged every Sunday, ashes imposed every Ash Wednesday, and G.K. Chesterton discussed in the high school youth group.

The picture I’ve just painted of my “dream church” looks nothing like the church where I am now a member. The local church where I now serve is non denominational, meets in a renovated warehouse and has no liturgical bent. The music is loud and contemporary. It’s Reformed-ish but Holy Spirit focused, with impromptu “words” from the congregation and quiet prayer in tongues a not-uncommon occasion. To be honest the worship services often make me a bit uncomfortable.

And I’m perfectly happy with that. I love my church.

Talking about one’s “dream church” is–increasingly, I’ve come to think–an exercise in not only futility but flat-out gospel denial. The church does not exist to meet our every need and satisfy our various checklists of tastes and “comfort zone” preferences. If anything it exists to destabilize such things. The church should draw us out of the dead-eye stupor of a culture of comfort-worship. It should jostle us awake to the reality that comfort is one of the greatest obstacles to growth.

The two years I’ve attended my current church have been difficult and full of discomfort, but also probably the most spiritually enriching two years of my life. There’s serious wisdom in the familiar adage to “get out of your comfort zone.” Nothing matures you quite like faithfulness amidst discomfort.

For too long the mantra in Christian culture has been seeker-sensitive and “have it your way.” The mentality has been consumer comfort. Find a church that meets your needs! Find a church that feels like home! Find a church where the worship music moves you, the pastor’s preaching compels you and the homogenous community welcomes you! If it gets difficult or uncomfortable, cut ties immediately; there are a dozen other options waiting to be discovered!

But this model doesn’t work. Not only is it coldly transactional (what have you done for me lately?) and devoid of covenantal commitment (seeker-sensitive church attendance is basically a Kim Kardashian marriage without a prenup), it’s also anti-gospel. A true gospel community is not about convenience and comfort and chai lattes in the vestibule. It’s about pushing each other forward in holiness and striving together for the kingdom, joining along in the ongoing work of the Spirit in this world. Those interested only in their comfort and happiness need not apply. Being the church is difficult.

In Love in Hard Places, D.A. Carson suggests that ideally the church is not comprised of natural “friends” but rather “natural enemies.”

What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says – and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.

Taking up the challenge of committing to a local church is incredibly difficult but decidedly biblical. You don’t have to read much of the New Testament to see how messy things get when natural enemies commit to being the unified people of God (e.g. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, etc… Gal. 3:28). It’s inevitably uncomfortable but undeniably important.

The thing is, young people today resonate with this. They’re sick of being sold spiritual comfort food. They want to be part of something that isn’t afraid of a challenge, something that has forward momentum and doesn’t slow down so that the fickle, oh-so-important Millennials can decide whether or not they want to get on board. They want a community that is so compelled by the gospel and so confident in Christ that they pay little heed to target-demographics and CNN articles about what twentysomethings are saying today about their “dream church.”

College students I know are not interested in a church with a nice shiny college ministry. They want a church that is alive, bearing fruit and making disciples. The young professionals in our life group do not meet week after week because hanging out with a diverse array of awkward personalities after a long day’s work makes their lives easier. No. They come because there is power in living beyond the comfort of one’s own life. There is growth when believers help each other look outside of themselves and to Jesus.

Looking outside of oneself. Serving someone beyond the self. Putting aside personal comfort and coming often to the cross. This is what being the church means.

It means worshipping all together without segregating by age or interest (e.g. “contemporary” or “traditional”). It means preaching the whole counsel of God, even the unpopular bits. It means fighting against homogeneity and cultivating diversity as much as possible, even if this makes people uncomfortable. It means prioritizing the values of church membership and tithing, even if it turns people off. It means being OK with the music that is played even if it’s not your favorite style. It means sticking around even when the church goes through hard times. It means building a tight-knit community but not an insular one, engaging the community and sending out members when mission calls them away. It means bearing with one another in love on matters of debate and yet not shying away from discipline. It means preaching truth and love in tension, even when the culture calls it bigotry. It means focusing on long-term healing rather than symptom-fixing medication.

None of this is easy, and none of it is comfortable. But by the grace of God and with the Holy Spirit’s help, uncomfortable church can become something we treasure.