The Myth of Church Compatibility

I always begin premarital counseling by asking couples to read an article called, “The Myth of Compatibility.” The article argues that there is really no such thing as compatibility when two sinners get married. Because of my ingrained selfishness, there is no single person out there who perfectly fits me. When two sinners say, “I do,” they are entering into a lifelong commitment that will feature conflicts, annoyances, and, hopefully, a lot of repentance and forgiveness. Compatibility is a myth because sin is a universal reality.

We ask couples to read this article because we want them to have accurate expectations for marriage. If they believe that there is one person out there who fits them perfectly like a glove, they are going to be tempted, whenever conflict arises, to conclude they haven’t yet found that person. The compatibility myth offers a powerful narrative that diverts the blame away from personal responsibility whenever things don’t work out. We can always conclude, “He (or she) just wasn’t the right one.”

My goal, however, is to get the couple to see that once the marriage commitment has been made, the question about whether this person is the right person has been answered. He or she is. You made your spouse the right person the moment you made a marriage covenant before God. The focus, post-marriage, has nothing to do with compatibility and everything to do with sanctification and love. You will not love your spouse faithfully if you are still questioning whether your spouse is the right fit for you.

For as long as I’ve been in ministry, I’ve seen a similar phenomenon play out when it comes to church commitment, and I’ve found myself longing for a similar article to hand to new church members. As many have noted, we seem to enter churches with the same mentality used to shop for vacuums. We want high quality at low cost with minimal commitment. We demand fulfillment of a customized list of non-negotiables, and easy access to meaningful relationships usually tops the list. In short, we are often looking for church compatibility.

But, just as in marriage, the belief that there’s one church out there that will fit me perfectly like a glove is not only unrealistic but also detrimental to experiencing the full benefits of church membership. Just as in marriage, the compatibility myth will provide easy justification for jumping ship whenever difficulties arise, and relational difficulties will inevitably arise in any church context. When they do, there’s always another church down the street to try. Maybe that one will fit better.

Imagine the following scenario. A middle-aged couple joins a faithful, Christ-exalting, Bible-believing church, and they remain there for one year. They attend almost every Sunday and have shown up to serve a few times, but for the most part have remained on the church’s periphery. After one year, something just doesn’t feel right. It’s not the teaching or the theology or the church’s faithfulness to the mission. For whatever reason, they just don’t feel connected.

Here’s where the compatibility myth provides an easy out. They gave it a shot. Who would argue that one year of commitment isn’t significant? For whatever reason, it just hasn’t worked out. It’s not personal, but they just can’t seem to connect with these people. It doesn’t seem like the right fit. Surely, there’s another church out there that will fit better—maybe even one that reminds them of that earlier church in a different state in which they both flourished so well.

But what if the problem isn’t the church? What if God providentially placed them in that particular church context in order to bring about growth in grace in their lives? What if, instead of the compatibility myth, they learned to ask, “Do you suppose that God wants to work on us in a way that doesn’t involve changing churches? Is it possible that God wants, instead, to change us and that what God wants to do is only possible if we experience this pain that we are currently experiencing?”

I’m convinced that Christians often fail to grow because they too quickly escape the uncomfortable conditions that God has customized expressly for the purpose of growth. It’s tempting to go through life continually latching onto narratives that place the blame for one’s problems out there somewhere far removed from personal responsibility. As long as that is occurring, growth in grace is not.

Biblically, growth is always the fruit of trial. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3). “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3). Similarly, we will not grow fully into Christ without a lifelong commitment to speaking the truth in love within the particular conditions of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). Don’t let the myth of compatibility keep you from the riches of growth in Christ.

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