A Feature Review of
The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community
Paperback: Crossway, 2017
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Reviewed by Erin F. Wasinger
Last spring, my church was in the middle of a sermon series that did nothing for me. I forget what it was about. In fact, I only remember we had a lackluster sermon series because I remember a postcard that arrived in my mailbox at the same time. A new church, opening in a hip neighborhood downtown, promised friendship and free-trade coffee on its invitation. Free-trade coffee! I read that as code for “hipster church,” a place where everyone would care about the things I do, would listen to the same music, linger in the same coffee shops.
Author Brett McCracken would point out a bunch of problems in my anecdote: Should I expect church to “do” something for me? Does my commitment to my church really hinge on how exciting a sermon is? What was alluring about hipster church? Why did I put the invitation in the recycling bin? What made me stay? That’s what McCracken’s interested in. McCracken and I both know that we Millennials can paint a very thorough vision of our dream church. His book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, starts with a vision of his own dream church, one he admits doesn’t look like the one where he’s on staff. That’s where the tension lies, and it’s this he attempts to address in Uncomfortable.
The Church needs a book like Uncomfortable: one that frankly talks about what our church shopping, “what can I get out of it” culture does to our chances of deep community. We need to reckon with why we as individuals leave churches when the music, the sermons, or the people don’t “fit” or “feed” us. Church leaders need to hear what’s important in our culture, too, to understand why simply offering a contemporary service isn’t enough to draw hordes of Millennials. We need a book that will reignite a vision of a true church family and its place in the 21st century. Unfortunately, Uncomfortable lacks the structure and power to fully do this. Its strengths are in reminding us how weird true community is: “To commit to a local church as a for-better-or-worse family, being loyal to it regardless of whether cooler churches or celebrity pastors move in down the street, is truly countercultural.” His humor about the things and stereotypical church-goers we encounter on a Sunday morning catch the reader nodding (singing that Hillsong chorus for the sixty-seventh time, for example). But the wisdom is buried.
Part I conveys that to be a Christian is to commit to an uncomfortable religion. I agree: after all, a cross is at the center of our faith’s story. McCracken devotes half the book’s airtime to belaboring the point. Ours is a neutered faith, he opines. Authors like Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz) and Rob Bell (Love Wins) have led us from orthodoxy; in another chapter, he tosses out opinions on homosexuality, sexual ethics, and the ways of the Holy Spirit. But doesn’t the conversation about commitment to a people hinge on unity, not overplayed conversations? The book would be stronger if it were devoted to talking about the church as a family — and less concerned with where churches stand on, say, hell? Thus, the book reaches its most helpful chapters by a circuitous route. Topics about which faithful Christians disagree shouldn’t be boiled down to neat chapters in a book about Christian community — unless he’s going to do the hard work of proving how Christ holds us all together (Colossians 1:17). He doesn’t.
For a book about Christian community, he spends too little real estate in the book on community and more on individual belief. Throughout the first half, I reread the back cover a few times: Is this the place for defending the ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives? Is this a book about orthodoxy (and whose)? Or is it, as the summary states, a book about how we live out our faith, better or worse, together in local churches? Before I began the book, I’d been afraid it would simply rehash the classic Life Together (by Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Instead, I was left wondering if McCracken could better articulate the lived-out values of committing to weird people in specific local churches.
The words in Part II are his strongest: chapter 8 is where Uncomfortable truly starts. In particular is “Uncomfortable Commitment,” the chapter in which he compares dating and marriage to pairing with a church. There’s no “soulmate” church, he says, listing basic parameters that are helpful for finding a decent fit. (Two suggestions: pick a non-heretical place that offers ways to serve.) He offers red flags for when it’s appropriate to leave a congregation, too.
Unpopularly but importantly, he pushes back against the impulse to trade-up when a new church comes to town or when Sunday’s worship service doesn’t “feed the soul.”
McCracken deserves high-fives all around for repeating that our discomfort is probably the very reason we should stick with a particular church.
But even here, McCracken does little to color the vision he’s trying to lay before the reader. Instead, his text is heavy on reason, which paints an incomplete picture: “Taste and personal dislike are not good reasons to stay away,” he writes. But as Jesus did in sharing parables, stories could color the statements.
I want a picture of this: not just prayer postures that McCracken finds awkward, but stories of the older couple who attends the church plant, despite hating the music. Or the family that attends the church in their neighborhood, even though the church hasn’t had a youth group in decades. What have those experiences done for those churches, those people? Not just in the world to come, but now? I longed for real stories about relationships born in churches; not because they’re prescriptive but because they could be launch pads for reimagining a community. The Millennial in me wants to know: what am I fighting my preferences for?
The book falls short of creating a cohesive, meaningful vision of a church community, leaving out tough questions and speaking in platitudes instead of practicality. “It’s painful,” he writes, to commit to an imperfect family. Yes, it is. And as someone deeply committed to my local church, I need other books on this topic to follow McCracken’s. Why would we ever become a member of a community where little is how I’d choose it to be? Voices should remind us, again and again, what’s on the other side of being uncomfortable.
Erin F. Wasinger writes from Lansing, Mich. Coauthor of The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos, 2017), she loves talking about loving our neighborhoods, supporting public schools, and other hard things at yearofsmallthings.com and erinwasinger.com. On Twitter and Instagram: @SomeWonderland.