Book Review: Uncomfortable, by Brett McCracken
Brett McCracken, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. Crossway, 2017. 224 pp, $15.99.
“Medium roast coffee beans, please.”
The counter was splendorous, arrayed with a vastness of choice. Picking and choosing the beans I’d take home was a delight. I ensured it was a good bag by squeezing it and allowing the aroma of the beans to exude out of the tiny holes near the top. Now, some would certainly consider my infatuation with coffee to be obnoxious, elitist, or perhaps just straight up weird. Regardless of how you perceive it, the point is that I like my coffee in a particular way. Anything other than what I prefer is, well, simply uncomfortable, and comfort brings joy, ease, and satisfaction. This is the reality we live in: we all seek after comfort.
Unfortunately, this pursuit of comfort has made its way into our lives as Christians as well as in the church. We want comfortable pews, comfortable music, comfortable preaching, comfortable relationships, comfortable sanctification, comfortable accountability, and even comfortable post-sermon coffee (medium roast, of course)! The point is, we’re all after comfort.
But just because something is true speaks nothing of its validity. This is why Brett McCracken sets out in his book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, to defy the notions of comfortableness that have crept into the Christian life and church. McCracken calls the church to examine itself. For too long, the Western church has ignored the ways culture has shaped its understanding of comfort. In McCracken’s words: “Our consumerist culture has conditioned us to believe that no one and nothing should ever get between us and what we want. The result is that personal preferences become sacrosanct” (162).
The solutions, of course, don’t exactly resemble a comfortable picture. But such correctives are indeed needed, and McCracken provides us with a fitting and necessary reminder of what we as Christians and the church are called to in this life.
“When the Christian church is comfortable and cultural, she tends to be weak. When she is uncomfortable and countercultural, she tends to be strong” (34). Built on this foundation, Uncomfortable is made up of two parts: Uncomfortable Faith and Uncomfortable Church.
The former seeks to raise the alarm and remind us of our crucified Savior. The Christian faith is comprised of the uncomfortable cross, an uncomfortable call to holiness, uncomfortable truths that define us, uncomfortable love of others, the uncomfortable Comforter who sanctifies us, and the uncomfortable work of mission.
This uncomfortable “faith” gives birth to and dramatically interacts with the second part: the Uncomfortable Church. For McCracken, the church is “the body of Christ, the organism God has chosen to physically manifest the Son to the world by the power of the Holy Spirit” (119). In any given church, we experience and have to live with the reality of dealing with an uncomfortable people, diversity, worship, authority, unity, and commitment. McCracken concludes Part Two with the chapter “Countercultural Comfort,” which offers a final plea and exhortation for the church to vindicate itself. He writes, “If the church is to thrive in the twenty-first century she must recover the jarring and profound paradoxes of what Christ calls her to embody: a kingdom where last is first, giving is receiving, dying is living, losing is finding, least is greatest, poor is rich, weakness is strength, serving is ruling” (190).
A HELPFUL CORRECTIVE
There’s so much of this book that I enjoyed and was challenged by. McCracken’s writing is fresh, and invigorated with genuine concern and care for the church’s witness in our modern world. In many ways, reading Uncomfortable provided me with a “theology of comfort.” A few things in particular stand out.
Firstly, Part One reminded me of what the Christian life is and what it ought to resemble. Do you have brothers and sisters in your church struggling to conceive of how the cross ought to impact their lives? Or does your church perhaps seek after authenticity over holiness? Giving away this book to church members will certainly aid in providing biblical correctives to a consumerist conception of Christianity that unthinkingly pervades the minds of our flocks.
Secondly, McCracken exposes the error in attempting to blend our churches in with the cultural landscape. The Christian life is a calling to be set apart. This inevitably leads to uncomfortable living. We need to not so much care about the world’s opinion of us, as much as we care about what God thinks about his church:
The Christian life is not a call to be true to yourself. It’s a call to deny yourself, or at least to deny those parts of yourself that are incompatible with the human type we should all aspire to imitate: Jesus Christ. (66–67)
Thirdly, McCracken helpfully steers the analysis of consumeristic Christianity to the particular focus of the church. Sadly, our “comfort idolatry” and “personal-preference individualism” (145) aren’t left at the door. McCracken’s insights into fighting against the contemporary Western culture are encouraging and uplifting. All pastors should wrestle with these ideas and lead their churches into reforming concepts of diversity, authority, unity, and commitment. While not all of us will agree with how McCracken proposes change (e.g. styles of worship), his plea to infuse Christians with an ecclesial-shaped Christianity is utterly necessary for the church today, especially his highlighting of unity-in-diversity and authority as a gift.
Finally, among many benefits of this book, I appreciate how Uncomfortable seeks to connect theology with church. For far too long the church has settled for pragmatics and secular business models to advance her message. Uncomfortable is a helpful corrective in that it pushes us back to the Bible and shows how our theology should interact with our gatherings.
To that end, I’ll close with a great quote toward the end of Uncomfortable that encapsulates this helpful corrective:
If the church is going to thrive in the twenty-first century, she needs to be wiling to demand more of her members. She needs to assert the importance of covenants over comfort, even if that is a message that will turn off some. She needs to speak prophetically against the perversions of cultural and consumer Christianity, seeker unfriendly as that will be. She needs to call Christians away from an individualistic, “just me and Jesus” faith, challenging them to embrace the costliness of the cross and the challenge of life in a covenantal community. (183)