According to the wisdom of the day, one of the most important things a Christian can do is to “get outside of their comfort zone.” “If only we would step outside of our comfort zones, we would experience the fullness of God that He intends for us.” While there are certainly times when our dull hearts will need a little shove, I’ve come to wonder if from a leadership perspective, it’s more important to grow people’s comfort zones than to attempt to push them out of them. Here’s why.
What’s a comfort zone?
Admittedly, the Bible doesn’t explicitly talk about a “comfort zone.” Frankly, I’m not even sure that it is a concept that people in biblical times would have recognized (the Merriam-Webster dictionary indicates that the phrase was first used in 1923). “Comfort zone” implies a degree of routine, certainty, and leisure that is in many ways unique to the modern and developed world.
Nonetheless, as a concept, “comfort zone” makes some sense. When we experience a low level of anxiety and discomfort, we are able to live and perform effectively and comfortably. In our comfort zones, we do things without much hesitation, with very little prodding. The risk of course is that it is all too easy to become complacent in our comfort zones, hence the call to step out and be ever more obedient to God.
Why our comfort zones aren’t so bad
My concern with the concept is that having stepped outside of our comfort zones, we will gradually work our way (or sprint!) back into our comfort zone—after all, it’s comfy in there! In a powerful spiritual moment, we “break through” our barriers and feel as if we have done something awesome for God! And then gradually revert back to the old way, thinking that maybe it was just a one-time, Spirit-enabled thing.
I’ve been learning though that even more important than getting out of our comfort zones is growing our comfort zones. Here’s the logic: we perform more naturally, effectively and reliably when we experience a degree of familiarity and order; why not work through teaching and baby steps to expand our comfort zones so that what would have caused anxiety ‘outside’ of a comfort zone a year ago becomes a natural and permanent part of our comfort zones now?
I suspect that this was behind Jesus’ strategy of teaching: time after time He would reiterate the same concepts in different ways in order to get people used to the life changing walk He was calling them to.
Paul’s writing ministry also shows him expanding people’s comfort zones by teaching them – recall that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians broaches the notion of giving (1 Corinthians 16), then his second letter repeats the call, along with an extended teaching on why it’s an appropriate action – “Jesus was rich but became poor for us!” (2 Cor 8-9). Even the word that I immediately thought of when thinking about “getting outside your comfort zone” – parakaleo (to summon, exhort, implore) – also includes nuances of growth (it can also be translated “to encourage, comfort” [NIDNTTE]).
Growth in action
Here’s a couple of examples of places where I’ve experienced this. The idea of giving ten percent of my income has always been a scary thought and certainly an action outside of my comfort zone. Push me out of that comfort zone, and I would have tried to rush back in. Over time though, God grew my comfort zone—careful Bible study and preaching helped me to see that given God’s tremendous generosity towards me and His unfailing faithfulness, I had nothing to worry about in tithing. It was in fact a very natural, tangible way for me to express my gratitude. I made that commitment and now it’s just a normal, everyday part of life.
I’ve also seen my comfort zone grow in the area of youth missions. Our church supports a street youth drop in center and the idea of helping out would have scared me years ago. Gradually though, teaching on the equality of all people as God’s image bearers, even if they’re different from us and the generous mercy of God, even to me when I didn’t deserve it, has pushed me to value serving people that years ago I would have said “didn’t deserve my time.”
I expect that this sort of perspective would be helpful in music ministries too; I’ve heard of a worship pastor introducing PowerPoint to a congregation by taking out all the hymnals; not a great way to gradually expand peoples’ comfort zones or to teach the value inherent in the change.
While it will always be important for ministers of the gospel to sporadically call people out of their comfort zones, a more sustainable way ahead is to expand those comfort zones through gentle teaching and discipleship.
Graham is a long-time worship leader with an M.Div. (Heritage Seminary) and a passion for seeing the God of the Bible receive the praise He deserves. He is now the preaching pastor at Langford Community Church near Brantford, Ontario. Connect with Graham at gwgladstone.ca or @gwgladstone.
 New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis