Is Church Too Easy?

My six year old daughter is the most competitive personality in our home. While the other kindergarteners on her t-ball team are picking dandelions in the outfield, Lucy remains vigilant and “baseball ready” to make the play of the game. She recently came home from a summer backyard Bible camp disappointed. “The games were too easy,” she insisted. “They need to make it harder to win.”

Lucy’s desire to be challenged reveals a fact often neglected in our culture–we only grow when we are uncomfortable, and too much comfort is not only be harmful but can be downright dangerous. For example, a recent FAA study found that pilots are losing critical flying skills because they are under-challenged by state-of-the art planes that virtually fly themselves. Ironically, the push for safety through computer flying is leading to more accidents as pilots “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.” 

I wonder if the same issue is present in the church? With the best of intentions, we have tried to make church gatherings a comfortable environment for both believers and seekers to learn about God. From the cushioned theater seats with built-in cup holders, to the spoon fed, 3-point sermon with fill-in-the-blank pre-written notes–the only challenge most of us face on Sunday morning is actually getting our families to church. Once through the door, however, we can relax and switch on the auto pilot. 

If our goal is to “teach people to obey” all that Jesus commanded, then we may want to rethink our commitment to comfort on Sundays. Recent brain research has shown that when a person is comfortable the more analytical functions of the brain necessary for learning remain disengaged. Psychologists refer to the brain as having a “system one” and a “system two.” System one is the more intuitive functioning that is active when relaxed, like when vegetating in front of a television or listening to a simple, clear sermon in a comfortable seat on Sunday morning. 

System two is the analytical functioning of the brain that is required to rethink assumptions, challenge ideas, and construct new behaviors and beliefs. System two must be active to learn. Research shows that the brain shifts gears from system one to system two when it is forced to work; when it is challenged and uncomfortable. 

For example, most people are able to concentrate better in settings with some background noise. The challenge of focusing on my friend’s voice amid the clatter in the coffee shop shifts my brain from system one to two. By having to work to listen I actually listen better than if we were to meet in the silence of my office. Of course there can also be too much background noise making listening impossible, like at a NASCAR race or Chuck E. Cheese. Think of it like riding a bike. Coasting downhill will never engage your muscles. A steep incline will make riding impossible. The goal is to have just enough resistance but not too much. 

These findings have made me rethink my tactics when preaching or teaching. I used to believe the best communication was crystal clear, simple, and easy to listen to. For this reason, like many other preachers, I was persuaded by advocates of Powerpoint and multimedia to use visual aids in order to make my communication easier. But is easier the right goal or should we be seeking engagement which requires more work on the part of our listeners rather than less? I’ve largely stopped using slides or pre-written notes. If someone is going to “get” something from my sermon, I now want them to have to work for it–at least a little.

We can all agree that Jesus was a brilliant communicator, but when we study his methods it is obvious that the comfort of his audience was not a significant consideration. In fact, Jesus taught in a manner that engaged his listeners and challenged them. He expected them to work in order to understand his teaching. He asked them questions, wrapped his teaching in opaque parables, and often taught in distracting settings. Jesus was anything but crystal clear, simple, and easy to listen to. Even now, when we engage his teaching through the Gospels, it requires effort–and a large dose of grace–to understand his words. He doesn’t give us 3-point alliterated sermons, and neither do his apostles.

I’m certainly not opposed to clear communication, but our cultural drive for comfort and accessibility may have unintended side-effects. People, like pilots, do not thrive by being under challenged, but by turning off the auto pilot and engaging in their own journey. 

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