September 14, 2017 by: Brett McCracken
Stopping the Cycle of Discontent
We live in an age of constant dissatisfaction. Because of our digital connectedness and access to everything all the time, we have never been more aware of the “other options” at our disposal and how what we have stacks up against what we want (or what Instagram or Facebook reveals that others have). Furthermore, the deeply ingrained nature of consumerism tells us to never settle for what we have but always to strive for more and better. And so we live in a constant state of glass-half-empty unsettledness, hyperaware of what could be a better fit for us, what might make us happier and more comfortable.
This attitude is everywhere, including in our churches. Most of us can relate to feeling unsettled and a bit disgruntled in our churches. The reasons are manifold. The pastors never seem to speak to the current-event topics that occupy your mind and stir your heart. The worship band always adds annoying contemporary additions to perfectly good old hymns. Your suggestions for social justice initiatives or small-group curriculum never gain momentum. Everything about the church is just so predictable. Week after week it’s the same thing. It doesn’t feel relevant to what’s happening in the world, at least as you see it.
Could it be that our own self-centered approach to church is the problem?
These feelings of frustration are aggravated by the constancy of media, which bombards us with images and ideas and other stimuli that are dynamic and always changing. Any church would feel stifling and boring by comparison! Furthermore, the nature of social media is predominantly negative, conditioning us to view the world through the lenses of grievance and complaint. We naturally bring these lenses to bear in how we see our church. We have eyes to see what’s wrong, but no patience to dwell in the goodness of what’s right. What starts as small nitpicky things grow in our minds over time, snowballing to become larger grievances that eventually become deal breakers. We slowly disengage from the church, from a place of bitterness and anger, or we just leave.
How can we stop this cycle? Rather than letting dissatisfaction fester to the point that we leave the church or become embittered, what can we do to deal with our frustrations?
1. Search your own heart.
The pervasive “culture of complaint” in today’s internet age has led us to focus our anger and frustration externally, blaming this person or that institution for the things that are wrong. But what about us? What role is our own sin playing in our disgruntled state? Could it be that our own self-centered approach to church is the problem? Perhaps we should start where G.K. Chesterton starts when he answered the question, “What is wrong with the world?” with two simple words: “I am.”
2. Focus on God.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the nitpicky particularities of church that we forget what it is all about. We are there not to be comfortable, nor to be affirmed in our preferences. We are there to worship God; to hear from him; to proclaim his glory and to rest in his goodness. Choosing this posture can go a long way in softening our edginess about church. Don’t look inward in worship, rehashing bitterness in your heart. Don’t look around you either, finding fault in what your fellow churchgoers or leaders are doing. Look upward to God. Focus your gaze on him. That’s why you’re there.
3. Talk to your leaders.
Another unfortunate way social media is changing us is that it frames our complaints in a distant, anonymous, decontextualized way. We air grievances with the ease of a tweet, with the protective buffer of screens and distance, but we rarely do the harder work of hashing things out in person, in longer, more nuanced, and more civil conversations. But this is crucial in a church community.
If you have problems or grievances about the church, talk to your leaders in person. Emails aren’t the best. Texts are worse. Ask them for a meeting, one where you do as much listening as talking. Frame your issues not as demands or critiques but as observations and suggestions. And approach it all in a spirit of love and edification. This is not about you and your comfort; it’s about you as one member seeking to strengthen the whole body.