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.
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,