The message she had heard changed her life. Like the hungry thousands who streamed from their villages to hear Jesus before He multiplied loaves and fishes for their dinner, she gave little thought to her physical comfort. Week after week she made her way from her tiny dwelling to the church where the message was being spoken. Her trip was unusual, to say the least: she had to cross an irrigation canal and the nearest bridge was a great distance away. She found it easier to wear old clothes, carry her church dress over her head and wade through the water...often up to her neck.
The church where the life-changing message was doing its work wasn't any more comfortable than her arduous journey. The group of dedicated, lively Jesus-followers met under a tree. In fact, Iglesia Bautista Fe Y Esperanza (Church of Faith and Hope) needed the shade of several trees to accommodate their growing tribe. Most of us have heard about climates where meeting outside can be tolerable -- even pleasant -- virtually every day of the year. This was not the case for "Church Under The Tree" (the name we still call it). They met under a tree in the Mexicali Valley, a place where 114 degrees is normal in the summer, 118 happens frequently and 122 was recorded a few years ago. The blazing summer heat didn't keep them from meeting and God kept changing lives with the Gospel.
I recently attended the dedication service in which Church of Faith and Hope became a full-fledged church. They now have a building; they even have air conditioning (whew!). However, it was their time under the tree that gave birth to a question which every church should ask: "How comfortable must we be?"
The easy way to approach that question came in the form of another query which I received from an attender of our church: "Why can't WE just meet under a tree rather than have to build expensive buildings?" On the surface it seemed so simple: Church of Faith and Hope was meeting under their trees at that time and their location is only about 15 miles (as the crow flies) from our church. "One problem," I answered, "is that Americans used to air conditioning are far less likely to attend church under a tree when everything else (houses, cars, offices) has AC. That's not the case in Mexico; many of the people have little to help them stay cool on the hot days."
The question of comfort, though, is relevant to every church everywhere. The moment a church becomes more concerned about their own comfort than about the needs of the people outside their walls, that church is dying. Local churches are always one generation away from extinction. I know about a church which has sent the clear message, "Don't ask us to change anything because we like the way we are and we don't have to change." In other words, "We're comfortable and we shouldn't have to face discomfort." It's no wonder that some within that church resist any attempt to reach the neighborhoods around their church building. After all, the people outside their walls are "different" and might want to change things if they come inside.
Every time I hear an anecdote about a newcomer sitting in the seat that a longtime attender invisibly claimed as their own, I shudder. How comfortable must we be? Isn't it time to forsake our own comfort to build relationships with those who most need to hear the best news in the world? If we do, we may be surprised at just how uncomfortable they might become in order to gather with our church!