In Praise of Comfort Zones

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Double bedroom in Flamingo Beach HotelIf you hang around an evangelical church long enough, you’ll probably hear about “comfort zones.”  Usually, they are something that you need to “get out of.” But it isn’t just Christian circles that are fairly negative about comfort zones.  The New Oxford American Dictionary gives the following definition and example sentences for “comfort zone”

comfort zone (noun)
a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress : times when we must act beyond our comfort zones | if you stay within your comfort zone, you will never improve.

So even the dictionary tells me that I need to get out of my comfort zone.  But I think that comfort zones have unfairly gotten a bad rap.  No one talks about it but there are often more benefits to be derived from staying in your comfort zone than leaving it.  To show you what I mean, let’s look at the stereotypical situation where one is required to get out of their comfort zone: the short-term mission trip.

Sally Short-Termer leaves her comfortable suburb in Anytown, USA and goes on a short-term mission trip to the country of Sarkhan.  The heat and the smells are overwhelming, the food is hard to eat, and she can’t even ask where the toilet is when she gets runny tummy.  She and her teammates have come to share the Gospel, and to a degree they are a blessing to the missionaries and local church that are hosting them.  But just surviving takes most of her time.  

“Where do I buy water?”  
“How do I barter with the taxi driver?”
“Why do people do THAT?”  
“If I get lost, I don’t even know how to tell someone where I am staying.”

Even with local help, Sally is clearly out of her element.  A lot of her physical, emotional, and spiritual energy is consumed by just coping with her surroundings.  The team does manage to run a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for the local church, share some testimonies through translation, and help with childcare at a missionary conference.  At the end of the trip, everyone is glad that they went, even though there were lots of difficulties, frustrations, and misunderstandings along the way.  Sally and her teammates may not have gotten a lot done in terms of long-term impact for the Gospel, but by leaving their comfort zones, they all grew spiritually as they were forced to depend on God in their new situation.

There were obvious benefits of going to Sarkhan on a short-term trip, but what happens when Sally stays in her comfort zone?  A couple weeks after returning to Anytown, USA, Sally helps put on a VBS for her home church.  She knows the culture.  She knows the language.  She knows where to get things and how to ask for help.  She even knows the other leaders and a bunch of the kids who come for the VBS.  As a result of being someplace familiar, Sally doesn’t need to expend so much energy on just surviving like she did in Sarkhan.  Instead of being consumed by her own needs, Sally is free to focus on the kids.  How can she best help them understand the Bible? mediate conflicts? comfort fears?  She knows how to speak the language and can get alongside the kids in a way she couldn’t on her short-term trip.  She can pray and speak with greater insight and wisdom because she knows the culture and can often figure out what is going on around her.  Although her time in Sarkhan was a blessing to her personally, helping with the VBS at her home church was much more productive and beneficial to those whom she wanted to serve.

So are comfort zones bad?  They can be if fear keeps you from ever doing anything for God that makes you uncomfortable.  But comfort zones can be great.  And most people do everything they can to get back into some sort of new comfort zone when they are dumped out of their current one.  It can take a while to get used to new surroundings, and learn what everyone around you already knows.  But once you have found a new comfort zone, you can start to get stuff done.  

Our family has just returned from our home assignment in the U.S. and moved to Bangkok.  We’ve never lived in Bangkok before.  We’ve only lived out in the provinces of Central Thailand.  We get lost a lot now.  We don’t know where to buy water.  We don’t know where the hardware store is.  We are not sure what is available here and what’s not.  We continue to experience sticker shock at how much more expensive things are here, compared to small town Central Thailand.  We’re just barely starting to get to know the people in our neighborhood.  We’re not yet sure what church or church-planting team we are going to work with.  Although we speak Thai and are somewhat familiar with Thai culture, we are not familiar with the rhythm of life in big city Bangkok.  Right now, I’d really like to be in a routine where I know where everything is, I know lots of people, and I know what I am doing.  I’d like to be in a comfort zone.  And when I do get to that place, I’ll be able to spend more of my physical, emotional, and spiritual energy on thinking about how to best love my neighbors rather than where to get dinner.



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