The No. 1 contemporary Christian radio station in America, which broadcasts in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, built its reputation on a simple slogan years ago: “Safe and fun for the whole family.” And that’s great for a radio station, even commendable for a for-profit station seeking to make a good, clean buck.
However, that’s not an appropriate slogan for the Christian church, even though it is exactly the mindset that drives evangelical church growth today. Lots of Christian folks are searching for a church that is “safe and fun for the whole family.”
Let me be clear: Church definitely should be a “safe” place in the sense of safety from physical or emotional harm. What I’m about to say should not be construed as condoning any form of abuse.
But the meaning of “safe” when applied to church today too often means being safe from intellectual or spiritual challenge, safe to keep my existing prejudices and practices, safe from having to think too hard, safe from being uncomfortable. That last word holds the key: “comfortable.”
The average modern American Christian church faces a lot of pressure to be an always comfortable place for all who enter. Once again, let me clarify: I’m not against people who come to church seeking solace from the trials of life. That kind of “comfort” should be the church’s stock in trade. What should not be required, though, is keeping everyone comfortable in their old-time religion or family-of-origin faith or keeping-up-appearances use of the church. There is a difference between finding comfort in the church and being comfortable in church.
If your church doesn’t make you uncomfortable from time to time, you need to find a new church. Or listen more closely.
It has been said that the church should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But that’s hardly a slogan you’ll see on a church marquee.
Listen closely to the message of Jesus, and you’ll hear in his gospel revolution and discomfort. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus said his teaching would divide families, not keep them in the zone of “safe and fun.” In that sense, “safe and fun” is great for amusement parks but not for churches. Can you imagine anyone in the early church describing their experience as “safe and fun”?
And yet. … The drive to get bodies in pews and dollars in offering plates compels too many churches to operate more like holy amusement parks than spiritual hospitals. Have you seen the theme-park-like children and youth areas in many an American evangelical church today?
We can blame church leadership for kowtowing to whatever it takes to get people to come to church, but the problem starts with individuals who want to follow Jesus in the most comfortable way possible for them and their children. In reality, such
comfort-focused churches may ill-prepare children for life in the real world, which is not always comfortable. Or it may silently sow seeds of doubt in young hearts who don’t see their true selves welcome at the church you think is comfortable.
We’ve created a self-perpetuating cycle of low-cost discipleship that begins with individuals seeking churches that are comfortable and churches then obliging that request, which only makes individuals want to be more comfortable.
Here are some ways individuals and families might challenge themselves to demand more of their churches and themselves and therefore follow Jesus more authentically:
• Are you willing to embrace church with the same intellectual and time commitments as you give to your education or work — or do you want to go to church and not have to think?
• Are you willing to hear and think deeply about ideas that challenge your existing position or childhood faith — or do you only want to hear what will reinforce your point of view?
• Are you willing to spend time around people who are different than you, who live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools — or do you only want to be around people who are like you or like who you aspire to be?
• Are you willing to teach your children that they don’t have to be surrounded with their best friends from school in order to learn about God at church — or will you let your child determine the family’s faith?
• Are you willing to give of yourself as much as you desire to receive from the church — or will you find the place where you can do as little as possible while others serve you and your family?
• Are you willing to live within the tension between Jesus’ call to discipleship and the demands of modern life — or must you scrub all traces of tension from your spiritual life?
Surely the church must not be a place of dour faces, timeless torture or boring rituals. The message of Christ should be energizing, life-giving and hopeful — but that may not be “safe and fun for the whole family.”