Most of us want to feel comfortable at church. But at what point does comfort become an idol in our congregations?
By Jennifer Matenaer
The acute angle tightened my back. The textured wood dug into my spine. And the cushion-less seat numbed my rear end. I stuffed the visitor’s card into my back pocket, flipped through the broken-bound hymnal, and scrunched down in the pew.
With every move to a new city came with it the struggle of visiting new churches. And while the physical irritations may seem trivial, those outward struggles revealed an inner battle: I hated feeling uncomfortable at church. Whether visiting a church for the first time or attending the same church I’d been going to for many years, I always wanted to feel comfortable.
And my desire reflects a similar feeling resounding through many churches today. A recent study by Lifeway Research revealed 67% of U.S. Protestant pastors believe comfort is a modern-day idol that has a significant influence on their congregations.“The idol of comfort so pervades our culture that we hardly notice how it has also seeped into our churches.” — Jennifer Matenaer Click To Tweet
The idol so pervades our culture that we hardly notice how it has also seeped into our churches. We choose churches where the worship music matches our taste, the sermons fit our preferences, and the building suits our style. We talk to the same group of people, rarely meeting someone new. And we sit in the same spot from week to week. And although these habits aren’t inherently bad, should we seek comfort in the church above all else?
Comfort is a gift
The words of Scripture portray this “idol” in a unique light, especially obvious in one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will also share in the comfort.(2 Corinthians 1:3–7, CSB)
In an unusual twist, Paul seems to perceive comfort as a gift from God rather than an idol.
To better understand his viewpoint, we must look closely at the other words repeated in the passage: affliction and sufferings. The Corinthian believers would only experience the comfort of Christ when they also experienced the difficulties Christ went through. And by experiencing struggles, they could better comfort those who experienced similar things.
Comfort only came after suffering. Today, we want comfort without difficulties. We try to bypass discomfort and be immediately comfortable.“Idolatry comes when we long for the temporary comforts of this world rather than the eternal comfort God gives.” — Jennifer Matenaer Click To Tweet
But what we long for is temporary. God’s promise is eternal. Though painful, the suffering that accompanies the comfort God promises is far greater than the fleeting comfort we pine for. Idolatry comes when we long for the temporary comforts of this world rather than the eternal comfort God gives.
Although most of us do not face the same afflictions and persecutions the Corinthian believers experienced, God still calls us to suffer for Him—to be uncomfortable for Him—so we can know Him as our Comforter. To enjoy His comfort, we must be willing to experience discomfort, and that begins in the smallest areas of life—like an uncomfortable pew.
We can begin to address the idol of comfort when we adjust our perspective of comfort. Addressing the desire for ease that permeates our culture begins with us getting outside our comfort zones within the walls of the church. The pastor or church leader fleeing the temptation of idolizing comfort in their search for a place of ministry may consider a church where they don’t feel totally comfortable, there’s different worship music than they’re used to, and there are people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They may serve a church where they don’t agree on all the tertiary issues. The church leader ready to surrender their comfort serves a church where the Holy Spirit can grow and stretch them.“We can only experience the comfort that comes from God when we experience suffering—however small—for the sake of Christ.” — Jennifer Matenaer Click To Tweet
As you lead your church, address these struggles with other leaders and the congregation. Through teaching and programing, lovingly challenge church members to get outside their comfort zones and to get involved. Changing the atmosphere of your church begins one person at a time. Disciple members to get involved in a ministry where they’re stretched beyond what they’d normally choose.
Don’t allow a vast vision to overwhelm you. Your congregation can start small. For some, stepping out of their comfort zone may look like greeting the new person who looks lost. For others, it may look like starting a conversation with someone who has a different first language than them or sitting next to a homeless man. Whatever it is, embrace the discomfort as a chance to grow.
We can only experience the comfort that comes from God when we experience suffering—however small—for the sake of Christ. Be willing to suffer a little temporary discomfort for the eternal comfort God promises to give.
Jennifer Matenaer is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. She serves as a missionary in a small church in rural Iowa along with her husband. Read more from Jennifer at JenniferMatenaer.com.