The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community
Brett McCracken
Crossway, 2017

It’s always Christians who make me want to give up the faith. The dumb, embarrassing things they do. Twee women’s evangelistic craft nights. Still singing songs that should have been left in the 1970s. International Roast as the standard morning tea fare. If you can think of similar experiences and cringe, then this book Uncomfortable by Brett McCracken is for you. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is easy to read, gospel focused, culturally astute, biblically faithful, personally challenging and funny. You don’t get that combination very often in a Christian book, let alone a book about church, which is what this is. I was so excited I could barely put it down.

Uncomfortable is one of a wave of books that are trying to help Christians live in a post-Christian world. McCracken sees the answer in committing to your local church, no matter how uncomfortable and challenging that may be. His thesis is that the church is uncomfortable for a reason—it is God’s plan to place us in communities where we do the hard work of ‘doing hard things, embracing hard truths and doing life with hard people for the sake and glory of the One who did the hardest thing’. (p26) Church may be weird, but that’s a good thing. As McCracken says,

‘The Western world doesn’t need a more muddled, confused “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 of life that Jesus offers. And this will only come with a renewed commitment to the local church in all of its uncomfortable but life-giving glory.’ (p.37)

Instead of being like the culture around us, this book calls Christians to ‘debunk and destroy the toxic consumerist approach to church’ and be willing to commit 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.’ (p.25) I think every Christian should read it.

The book starts with an outline of the author’s dream church. I found myself agreeing with every sentence. It went on for pages. I was constructing in my head a brilliant church with fantastic, purpose built spaces, wonderful music (just my taste) and super encouraging Christians connecting well with the local community. And then he explodes this fantasy by saying this is exactly what we cannot be doing. This consumerist mindset has infiltrated the way we approach church and it is poison. 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 is. (p.24) I was soundly rebuked. And hooked.

Each chapter of the book explores an uncomfortable aspect of church, starting with the gospel. He explores the ‘foolishness of the cross’ (1 Corinthians 1:18-23) and how the Christian message has always been offensive to our pride and what we think redemption should look like. He speaks passionately about how ‘Christianity is not about “your best life now”. It’s about following Christ’s example who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It’s about commitment rather than consumerism; finding ways to serve rather than desiring to be served; filling a need rather than finding a niche’ (p.50) It’s a message we all need to be reminded of. He goes onto explore the uncomfortable but essential process of pursuing holiness and not settling for mere authenticity. He talks about the importance of holding onto uncomfortable truths such as a biblical sexual ethic, the reality of hell, the idea that the universe was created ‘and any number of other unfashionable things’. He speaks about uncomfortable Christ-like love that doesn’t just look like the passivity of niceness or tolerance. He has chapters on uncomfortable mission, uncomfortable people, uncomfortable diversity, uncomfortable worship, uncomfortable authority and uncomfortable unity. All these chapters support his idea that ‘the church that will change your life is the one that challenges you to grow rather than affirms you as you are. The church that will change the world is the one that provides a refreshing alternative to, rather than an uncritical affirmation of, the way things are’ (p.188). Indeed.

There are so many funny lines in this book. ‘Every time we sing the praise chorus refrain for the SIXTY-SEVENTH TIME as if in the Hillsong equivalent of Groundhog Day…’ (p.191) made me choke with laughter until my coffee was pouring out of my nose. It’s the delight of the self-depreciating in-joke that only Christians can appreciate (without being mean, crude or sarcastic) that makes the book so enjoyable to read.

One chapter which made me rather uncomfortable was his chapter on the Holy Spirit, ‘the Uncomfortable Comforter’. He challenges ‘charismatic-skeptics’ (such as myself) to see that ‘the unpredictable and often uncomfortable work of the Comforter need not be feared or avoided’. (p.96). What he thinks this work of the Comforter consists of though, is the problem. But I weirdly quite enjoyed the uncomfortable experience of reading this chapter, as it did what I presume McCracken wanted me to do – to be challenged, to go back to the Bible, think hard and wrestle and pray. I was living out the thesis of the book while reading it. Read the book and see what you think.

The conclusion is hopeful, beautiful and inspiring. He encourages Christians to see that to live the uncomfortable life together for the sake of Christ is worth it in the end:

‘We are, mysteriously, part of a cosmic plan God has eternally known. And we have an eternal inheritance. The discomfort we endure in this life as a peculiar people will be a blip in the timeline of our infinite history. We will at last be the perfect church we presently long for; the unblemished bride at an unimaginable wedding feast. The dream will be real.’ (p.191)
Michelle Underwood, WA