by Bil Aulenbach

The Comfort Station

My family had a summer home in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, that was one block from the beach. I spent vacations there from the age of six (1938) until I left to join the Marine Corps in 1954. Some of my favorite memories were made at that wonderful resort.

Stone Harbor had a building called a comfort station close to the center of town. This was a public bathroom for men and women, though I have never since heard the term comfort station used for a restroom. However, I bet that place provided lots of comfort over the years.

After I became a minister, I facetiously called some churches comfort stations. They were feel-good churches where one never heard anything controversial, everyone went home feeling good, no one ever became angry with the pastor, and everyone loved him (no women priests yet).

When I became a pastor, I had no interest in ministering to a comfort station. Early in my career, I read a book entitled The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment in the New Age by Pierre Berton. This book’s message was that the institutional church had become spiritually bankrupt. Pierre convinced me that I had to teach and preach an uncomfortable Gospel to continually challenge people’s thinking.

To me, the Gospels portray a Jesus who made many folks uncomfortable. He still does. I can’t grow as a Follower in a comfort station.

My dream is to challenge people to grow so they can be all that they can be. I also want to be challenged by thinking people, even those with whom I might disagree. I’ve been known to change my opinion because someone made me uncomfortable.

I am a member of a church that is usually good at calling out social injustice, racism, homophobia, misogyny, white privilege, and all the touchy issues of the day. However, a sizeable group within my congregation (about 50–60 percent) simply wants to go to church, sit in a comfortable pew, and return home from the comfort station feeling good.

As a clergyperson, I find this most disheartening. If I want to receive a paycheck, I am forced to preach to the pledge card instead of the Gospel and its challenging demands. Fortunately, I don’t need a paycheck to shake up people’s preconceptions. That is liberating, but the downside is that most Episcopal churches don’t want me anywhere near their comfort station.

I see the word Jesus as an action verb, not a passive proper noun. I don’t think Jesus wants comfort stations. He needs uncomfortable pews to accomplish his agenda of agape.

Which kind of church do you prefer—a comfort station or an uncomfortable pew?

 

Image courtesy of John Keane (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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