Discipleship in an Age of Comfort

By Eric Smith
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Self often wins the battles of the day. In a culture where comfort is king, how can pastors and church leaders help their congregations cut through the noise and reach out to their neighbors with the Gospel?

I sat at a table with high school students from around the United States.  It was the week after the Obergefell decision, making same-sex marriage legal. They were all committed Christians, and they were all bewildered. 

One young lady said, “For the first time, I feel like an outsider, like I am part of the minority.  Friends from my youth group cheered the decision on Facebook.  I had no idea they thought same-sex marriage was a good thing.”  The other students shared similar experiences.  Why is there so much confusion?

In his book, The Post-Christian Mind, Harry Blamires called this the age of “the comfortable self.”  I like his description for a couple reasons.  Very simply, it’s more descriptive than our typical, “post-truth” or “post-Christian” labels (even though the latter was the title of his book). It also paints an accurate picture of our culture’s guiding mindset.  We see the “comfortable self” in our culture’s desires.  We want what we want, and no one can tell us we’re wrong for wanting it: Self is king.

We’ve come a long way from JFK’s famous, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” speech.  And even further from Jesus’ commands to love God above all, and our neighbors as ourselves.

Unfortunately, our congregations are not immune to this message.  The “comfortable self” has become the norm.  The students with whom I met found this out as they tried to express the truth of Jesus’ teaching to their friends.

Diagnosing the prevailing mindset around us is helpful, but only inasmuch as it informs our work of shepherding.  What do we do with this information?  How do we help our people love God and love others in our culture today?

Consider the following suggestions as we seek to develop love of God, rather than comfort, and love of others rather than self, as the unifying ideal within our churches.

Pray

This isn’t a general call to more prayer, but better prayer.  It’s an encouragement to watch out for “prayers of comfort.”

I took our small group through a study of the prayers of Paul recently.  The first night we had a “light bulb” moment.

One of our families was moving out of state. We prayed for a smooth transition, that they would like their new home, that they would find good schools for their kids.  Our prayers were heart-felt, sincere and practical.

After this time of prayer, I passed out copies of some of the prayers of Paul in the New Testament.  I asked them to get into groups and to pray Paul’s words for the others in their group.  When we finished one man exclaimed, “We missed it!  Our prayers earlier were too small.  We need to pray again!”

As a group, we had identified that our prayers were focused on “the comfortable self,” rather than godliness, steadfastness, spiritual strength and evangelism.  If God answered our prayers, our friends would be safe and happy—comfortable—for a short season.  If we prayed like Paul, they would know the hope to which God has called them and the immeasurable greatness of his power at work in their lives (Ephesians 1:18-19).  They would be rooted and grounded in love and able to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:17,19).   It is so much bigger.

Love Thy Neighbor

Rosaria Butterfield’s latest book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, invites us to push through our ‘comfortable selves’ and get to know and love our neighbors.  Rosaria and her husband, a pastor, found practical activities that opened their home and lives to others.  Doing so, they broke through the “us-them” divisions in the media, and found real people, with issues like our own: health problems, money challenges and broken or strained relationships.

One of our church families hadn’t invited others into their home for years.  They were too busy, and their house was too messy.  After reading Butterfield’s book, they slowly began to invite other families into their lives.  Others in our church have started prayer walks in their neighborhoods.  Nothing flashy, just real people walking their streets and praying.  As a result, they’ve begun conversations with people they didn’t know before.

My wife and I have been intentional about inviting neighbors over for dessert or a meal to get to know them.  One neighbor came over this week to share how she was doing after the death of her adult son.  We took a meal over and got to pray with her.

We aren’t trying to change the world, but to obey our Lord, and push past the temptation to stay comfortable.  We have found that real relationships are possible if we’re intentional and patient.

Seek to understand

The age of the comfortable self usurped the Judeo-Christian worldview as the foundation of Western Civilization.  Therefore we see little desire for truth—a reality outside of ourselves to which we should conform our lives.  Facts don’t matter, only the forward progress of the unrestrained “comfortable self.”  In the face of this trend, our people will find confidence if they take time to understand the beliefs of our day.

We can do this in two ways.  First is by teaching.  Together we can examine and discuss today’s predominant worldviews from a biblical perspective.  I worked for 16 years at Summit Ministries, and have seen thousands of youth and adults equipped with a basic understanding of today’s ideas and their implications for individuals and communities.  This education is a life-changing confidence boost for believers, and part of our calling to see the church equipped “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).

As a pastor, I use a variety of resources to accomplish this, including discussions on books or videos, guest speakers, an occasional topical sermon series, and similar resources from para-church ministries and other local churches.

Secondly, combine “seek to understand” with “love thy neighbor”.  People like to talk about themselves so ask neighbors what they think about current ideas or issues.  Seek to understand, not to destroy.  This can build relationships that transcend political and religious views, opening the door to speak the truth in love. 

Our culture’s mindset is comfort-oriented, and without intentionality, our lives will go the same direction.  But in God’s strength, we can swim against this current.  We can encourage our people to pray big prayers, love their neighbors, and understand the ideas of our times.  If your experience is like that of our church, you’ll see your people get excited again about God answering their prayers and what He will do in our neighbors’ lives while our churches gain confidence to represent Jesus today. 

© 2019 Focus on the Family.

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