Thursday, June 28, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Is Comfort a Vice or a Virtue?

I remember sitting in church as a little kid, thinking that the service must have been designed to make us kids as uncomfortable as possible. The hard pews, the organ music, the necktie, more than an hour of quietly sitting still.  It seemed to me that the adults were perfectly comfortable (after all, they were used to dressing up and sitting through hours of boring meetings), but we young people were being taught the spiritual value of discomfort.

That’s not a new idea by any stretch. Early Christian ascetics wore coarse clothing, ate little, lived in cramped quarters and slept on the hard floor because of the alleged spiritual advantage of being uncomfortable. Some even lived out in caves in the desert or at the tops of poles for years at a time. There is little in Scripture to back these practices up (in fact, St. Paul seems to rail against discomfort for discomfort’s sake in Colossians 2), but it has hung around in different forms for millennia all the same.

Today, though, thanks largely to the Baby Boomer generation, the opposite view rules the day. I attended a church in Grand Rapids for about 18 months where the main concern was that everyone be comfortable. I loved it! You could munch cookies and drink coffee during the service and the music each week featured a rock band playing a well-known secular song. If anyone was going to be uncomfortable in that setting it would be “churchy people” and older folks (and the leadership openly voiced how okay they were with this), since they might object to the loud music, smoke machine, and casual atmosphere. It was in a sense the exact opposite of the vibe of my church growing up.

The “worship wars” of the 1990s saw those two outlooks battling it out over who was right. On the surface, the argument was about biblical fidelity and pragmatism, inward vs. outward, etc. But underneath, we might admit that both sides were fighting for their right to be comfortable in their church . . . only neither of them really wanted to admit it, since being comfortable had recently become a major sin.

I think it was sometime in the mid-to-late-‘80s that the term “comfort zone” began showing up with regularity inside the church. It’s a term borrowed from the world of corporate management and it refers to a state of being anxiety-neutral and performing at a steady level with little sense of risk. The idea is that, unless they are pushed, people will remain inside their comfort zone, avoiding risk and anxiety, and will therefore never move beyond their current level of performance.

Naturally, in light of Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations, Paul’s admonition to preach the Word “in season and out of season,” and the apostles’ consistent examples of suffering for the Gospel, remaining entirely within one’s “comfort zone” is not an option for the Christian. And so we were convicted and the call to “get out of your comfort zone” became a bona fide Christian cliché/buzzword—one which still receives heavy usage in some circles today. But, as always happens, the meaning of the phrase evolved over time.

The original emphasis of the term, as I remember it, was on evangelism. After all, it’s comfortable to talk to your neighbor or co-worker about the weather, last night’s ball game, or how many orange barrels are out on Michigan roads this week. It’s a step outside of the comfort zone to bring up matters of spiritual significance—particularly the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this way, the “comfort zone” catchphrase served the church of Jesus Christ admirably, reminding us that we are called to a much deeper life than our comfortable, surface-level chit-chat and amusements.

But then the term's usage began to broaden. Sunday morning worship became a time when the aforementioned churchy people and older folks were called on to step out of their comfort zones. (“It’s not about you, after all,” I remember foolishly chiding one woman at a church council meeting in 1997, parroting a church growth guru I’d been reading). And before long, every aspect of a Christian’s life had to take place outside his or her comfort zone if one wanted to be a stellar Christian. Those who were content with their jobs and at home in their neighborhoods and churches were probably sub-par in the spirituality department. 

But is comfort necessarily a vice? And is discomfort necessarily a virtue? That’s a complex question with a multi-layered answer. 

Consider:

1.      Paul, in a rare instance of ringing his own spiritual bell, tells the Philippians (in chapter 4) that he has learned to be “content in all circumstances,” whether he’s abounding or in need. Regardless of the number of creature comforts he was experiencing, he was  in some sense comfortable with his lot in life.

2.   In Jesus’ parables and his letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation,the comforts of life often serve as idols that keep people from receiving the Gospel and bearing fruit.

3.    Jesus frequently referred to the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter.” Of course being “comfortable” and being “comforted” are two very different animals, but if discomfort were our ultimate goal as Christians, wouldn’t Jesus have sent the “uncomforter?” [Lest I be charged with equivocation here, both the “comforts of home”-type comforts and the sort of “comforting” done for a hurting friend have to do with removing anxiety, and that's what I’m mainly concerned with here.]

4.   Throughout his epistles, Paul frequently reminds his churches that Christians are given different gifts and called to minister in different settings and capacities according to those gifts. Not everyone is a preacher, not everyone a teacher, not everyone a painter. If the idea of getting in front of the church and speaking scares you to death, that doesn’t mean God wants you to “get out of your comfort zone” and give the sermon next week. Quite the opposite.

5.      Following Jesus is never the path of least resistance or the path of most comfort. It is the narrow way, not the broad.  It is chipping a foundation out of stone rather than throwing a house together on the sandy beach, but in the end that is where our comfort comes from.

So when should you worry about being in your “comfort zone?” When is it a dangerous place to hang out? I would answer that question this way: only when you value your own comfort over God’s Word and his commands. In other words, when you are willing to disobey Him in the name of comfort.

Some comforts are always a good thing and there are some comforts that a Christian ought to be able to enjoy: the cross of Jesus Christ, the comfort of reading and hearing his Word and partaking of his holy meal, the comfort of gathering together with the saints. As we continue to study the Book of Revelation (both in my sermons and on my other blog), it will become more and more clear that, while being a Christian in a hostile world involves many great discomforts (from the mild awkwardness of bringing up Jesus in a culture where that’s just not done to the tribulation of outright persecution for professing faith in Him), there is a comfort for the church in gathering together faithfully to worship our Lord and holding up the Light, as his lampstand, for a lost world to see.

May we find our comfort in the same and offer it to all who would receive it.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Thursday, June 14, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Out of Sardis (part 2)

Here’s an excerpt from another post at my second blog, Out of Sardis. This will likely be the last post from over there that I link over here, so please consider liking/ subscribing/ following/ whatever that blog as well. I've disabled comments on this post to encourage comments over there.

To view the whole post, click the graphic below:

I will be the first to admit that my default assumption is this: Jesus would do things the way I think they should be done—the way I do them. And I know I'm not alone here. This is a universal problem; since the Garden, we've had a propensity for remaking our God in our own image. And it's a problem that persists today, even in the Church. We all tend to read our preferences, our values, our politics,and our culture into Jesus and let them determine who He is, rather than vice versa.

Like so:



But we don’t have to. We have Scripture. And not only does God’s Word contain a record of the teachings of Jesus on earth (in the Gospels) and the inspired apostolic interpretations of those teachings, it also contains the oft-overlooked Revelation of Jesus Christ and its seven letters from Jesus to seven churches (from whence this blog derives its name). We need not guess or grasp.

Want to know Jesus’ position on sexual ethics for a church that finds itself in a pluralistic, over-tolerant, “sexually liberated” culture? It’s tempting to read our own views into Jesus’ heart and lips (i.e. “I just can’t imagine Jesus saying…”), but to do so is naive at best and idolatrous at worst. How much better to read the letters written by Jesus to churches in almost the same setting (Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira), in which Jesus addresses these issues directly?

Likewise, when it comes to philosophies of ministry, particularly the hot-button issues of Church Growth and Church Health, it’s easy for all of us to assume that Jesus wants to use whatever ideas, strategies, traditions, or gimmicks we prefer in order to grow our churches. I know I’m guilty of this. And if we’re clever, we can even frame certain narratives from the Gospels such that Jesus seems to be on board with this or that trend, book, or buzzword.

These days, I most often see this done (and have been frequently tempted to carry it out myself) with regard to the uber-popular notion that you can tell where God is moving (and how powerfully he’s moving) by how many people gather together, how much of a buzz a church generates in the media, and how large and impressive the facility is .. .


Thursday, June 7, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Out of Sardis (part 1)


Jesus actually vomits in Revelation 3.


We've all been reminded of that more than once—that the literal rendering of Rev 3:16 is, “Because you are luke warm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.” I suppose it’s a good enough rendering, although preachers sometimes imply an intimate familiarity with this particular Greek word, despite this being its only use in the New Testament.

But either way, none of us wants to make Jesus puke; that much is obvious. And what triggers this awful response in our Lord? Why, our lukewarmness. Therefore: don’t be luke warm. Be excited, be active, wrap yourself in a flurry of religious activity, anything to avoid even the appearance of luke warmness.

The context of this dire warning, of course, is the letter from Jesus to the church in Laodicea—the last of seven letters in Revelation 2-3 to seven different churches in Asia minor. These letters generally follow a standard format and include, among other things, praise for the church, a rebuke of the church, a warning or threat, and an exhortation. That’s the general outline followed by all seven letters. Except that there are two churches with nothing negative said about them—no rebuke, no threat, no warning. Nothing but encouragement, approval, and exhortation.

And then, of course, there’s Laodecia, which has nothing positive said about it, further reinforcing just how bad it is to be luke warm. In fact, if there’s any church we don’t want to emulate, it’s Laodecia. And so we don’t. Church growth and congregation health gurus regularly remind us—and we remind each other—of Revelation 3:16 and how we need to avoid becoming another luke warm church in danger of being vomited out.

Instead, we try as hard as we can to be just like the church in Sardis. And every day there are new methods and books explaining how to be more Sardisian in our approach and new success stories of churches who have grown as a result.

There’s just one problem: Sardis is not one of the two churches for which Jesus had no rebuke and no threat. In fact, it was one of the two churches for which Jesus had no commendation, no praise—nothing good to say at all. Only the harshest of reproofs and most fearful of warnings. In the name of avoiding one deadly hole, we’ve been going deeper and deeper into another. Luther famously wrote of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Today, we might instead speak of a Sardisian Captivity of the Church.

This topic is so near to me that I've begun a second blog all about how the church’s conventional wisdom has shifted with—and bowed to—the world and its culture, how the books, the experts, the buzzwords, and the movements all assume what the church assumed in Sardis, namely that the way to gauge where God is at work is to use the world’s understanding of life, marketing, and mob psychology.

This new blog will not a discernment blog dedicated to calling people/churches out, naming names, and anathematizing masses of sell-outs and heretics. There are more than enough blogs out there doing that. Instead, it will be dedicated to shining light on the unrelenting trend we see in Western Christianity, a trend of the Church trying to look like Sardis, instead of Smyrna or Philadelphia.

How will we go about this task? Here’s how I see it (although it may shift mid-course): I will begin with a series of mini-studies on the letter of Jesus to the church in Sardis, drawing application to our churches today, then move on to survey some of the other letters in Revelation 2-3. When that is done, I will begin to add other contributors as we begin to apply these concepts more specifically (if you would like to contribute, let me know). The goal of this new blog (http://outofsardis.blogspot.com) is not just to raise the alarm about this disastrous trend in churches big and small, but also to provide insight and promote discussion about how we can head back out of Sardis.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but together we will hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach Bartels