Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
“Radical. Epic. Revolutionary. Transformative. Impactful. Life-changing. Ultimate. Extreme. Awesome. Emergent. Alternative. Innovative. On the edge. The next big thing. Explosive breakthrough.” So begins the article by Michael Horton as he addresses The Ordinary Christian Life.
Horton argues that ordinary is considered by many to be insufficient today for the Christian. If one’s life and ministry are going to make an impact, if they are going to count, it has to be extraordinary. Who wants ordinary?
One of the reasons Horton concludes we are given to the extraordinary is due to a culture created by revivalism, particularly through the influence of Charles G. Finney. Notes Horton, Finney “embraced a human-centered theology and found methods suited to it. . . . [which resulted in thinking] the message and method instituted by Christ were too weak – too ordinary. It’s not what happens in church and at home throughout the week that really matters. It’s the day when the revival came to town and you were ‘gloriously saved.’”
The created an incessant craving for something more, an increasingly greater experience that surpassed the previous one. What happens is that the ordinary means is left behind and one attempts to live from experience to experience. This creates expectations and leads to spiritual exhaustion. For Finney and his ministry it led to what historians refer to as the “burned-over district.”
“If gradual growth in Christ is exchanged for a radical experience,” writes Horton, “it is not surprising that many begin looking for the Next Big Thing as the latest crisis experience wears off.” This is not just related to one’s methodology, as methodology is always rooted in one’s view of theology. And theology will always give expression to the Christian life, a life of discipleship. Affirming this, Horton concludes “our restless impatience with the ordinary is not just the influence of our culture, but the influence of unsound views of Christian discipleship that have shaped that culture over generations.”
How then do we grow in our understanding of and commitment to the ordinary such that we find faithfulness in the ordinary to be extraordinary? Horton highlights that “first and foremost, any renewed appreciation of the ordinary begins with God. Of course, God is hardly ordinary, but He delights in working in ordinary ways.” For example, “in providence, God’s ordinary way of working should surprise us with wonder. What could be more ordinary than the birth of a child? We do not have to call it a miracle to be astonished at God’s handiwork. Even God’s normal way of working is stupendous.”
Another that Horton emphasizes is the “extraordinary miracle of new birth [that] comes to us from above, but we are united to Christ through the ordinary preaching of the gospel. Some conversions are radical; others are gradual. In either case, it is God’s miraculous work through the ordinary means of grace.” The conclusion that this occurs through the “foolishness of preaching” or “the folly of what we preach” is more reflective of the one making that assessment than it is on God’s ordinary means of preaching to enact a supernatural result (1 Cor. 1:18-25). That is what God refers to as wisdom. Obviously, God’s ways are not man’s ways (Isa. 55:8-9).
How, then, are we to understand ordinary? Horton writes,
Ordinary does not mean mediocre. Athletes, architects, humanitarians, and artists can vouch for the importance of everyday faithfulness to mundane tasks that lead to excellence. But even if we are not headliners in our various callings, it is enough to know that we are called there by God to maintain a faithful presence in His world. We look up in faith toward God and out toward our neighbors in love and good works. You don’t have to transform the world to be a faithful mom or dad, sibling, church member, or neighbor. And who knows? Maybe if we discover the opportunities of the ordinary, a fondness for the familiar, and a wonder for the mundane, we will end up being radical after all.
Personally, though I rejoice with what God does that is considered big or significant, I resonate with what Horton writes. Often we highlight what we consider to be major works of God, and though we recognize no work of God is small or minor, because we do not often frame what we highlight appropriately, we indirectly miscommunicate. There is too little emphasis on the ordinary aspects of ministry. For those not making what is considered a “big splash,” there is an indirect undermining or questioning of what they do and there is a certain guilt and insufficiency that arises within those in such settings. The revivalist mentality and experience lives on.
In sum, this is one of the key ways in which true gospel ministry can be trumped by pragmatism and experience, i.e. we often give prominence to what works, what has grown, what is big, etc., and those are the stories we share and celebrate. And it is good and right to do so. But to put this in perspective consider this question: how often do we hear from or about those who have persevered by God’s grace through a serious storm of life and or ministry? God’s grace is manifest as much there, if not more so (not that God’s grace is ever absent or that it can be quantified), as what is done clearly shines a light on God’s power being manifest in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). It brings sharpened acuity.
This is not to suggest that any or all of those success stories of what significant things God has done (or is what is communicated or the manner in which it is communicated focused on what I have done?) are not gospel-centered in outlook and ministry. But without that being the main message that forms and frames what is said, it is not heard. In fact, without a gospel foundation and frame, it may well subtly undermine it. This gets to the heart of the necessity of the gospel being central to everything, not one part of the whole.
How do you read this? Is it an important reminder of what matters? Is it an overstatement? Is it an inappropriate response against those who highlight significant things God is doing?