Cal Ripken Jr. became an extraordinary baseball player by doing an ordinary thing: he showed up for work. He did it again and again and again, a record 2,632 consecutive times. The Hall of Fame third baseman first appeared in the Baltimore Orioles starting lineup on May 30, 1982. His name wouldn’t be absent until September 20, 1998.
Barry Bonds became baseball’s Benedict Arnold by attempting something extraordinary: bending baseball’s rules. One of the most feared sluggers of the 1990s and 2000s, Bonds broke a most hallowed record—Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs. But Bonds did it by cheating. For the last several years of his career, he took drugs that artificially enhanced his performance—and inflated his home-run totals—enabling him to pass Aaron.
These two baseball players illustrate two different approaches to ministry—God’s way and ours. In the Reformed tradition, preaching, prayer and the ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are often called the “ordinary means of grace,” since they form the heart of worship and the core of local church ministry.
But in our good desire to see disciples made, I fear we get thrown by the term “ordinary.”
Grace Is Not Ordinary
The phrase “ordinary means of grace” does not imply God’s work is dull and unspectacular. There is nothing ordinary about God’s grace. His Spirit uses the public proclamation of an ancient book to convince an enemy army to love him and want to join his family.
A few months ago, a pastor from my hometown told me he’d recently planted a new church. I asked him to tell me more about it. As only a mountain man from north Georgia could put it, he said, “Well, it ain’t much to look at. Just preachin’, prayin’, and sangin.’ But we figure that’s plenty.”
When We Use Extraordinary Means
It’s plenty, because bad things happen when we exchange God’s means of grace for our own—or when we misuse his. Ask Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. While handling the sacred things in worship, they offered strange fire on God’s altar—a means of worship he did not command. The result? God vaporized them.
Ask Old Testament Israel, who embraced the pantheon of deities worshiped by the nations around them. So God used Assyria and Babylon—wicked nations—as instruments of judgment. (Of course, in his holiness God poured out judgment on those nations for their sin as well.)
One of the under-discussed principles of the Reformation is simplicity. Worship, ministry, and all the things that go with it (including church architecture) should be simple. My north Georgia friend was on to something that we—even in our good desire to see Christians edified and sinners embrace Christ—often forget: God performs his extraordinary work of spiritual awakening through ordinary people and ordinary things.
When We Use Ordinary Means
In Acts 2:23, Peter preached “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, [whom] you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” And then we read, “There were added that day (to the church) about three thousand souls” (v. 41). The “foolishness of preaching” has power that confounds our wisdom, for what the world sees as weak is strong in heaven’s sight—and vice-versa (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18–2:5; 2 Cor. 12:1–10).
Acts 2:42 recounts church-wide devotion to God’s ordinary means: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Moreover, Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel boldly to the Gentiles—and God brought awakening: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:48).
The conversion of Charles Spurgeon is a remarkable illustration of the Word’s power. As a 15-year-old he ducked into a Primitive Methodist Church to escape a snowstorm. The regular preacher was away, and a substitute stepped into the pulpit and read Isaiah 45:22—“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.” God cut Spurgeon to the heart. Spurgeon’s kingdom influence defies imagination. It began with the bare reading of Scripture.
When we use God’s ordinary means, we get his power with them. There are so many reasons to build our churches around a ministry of God’s ordinary means of grace, but here are five.
1. They are timeless.
God never changes, nor does his Word. Protestant liberalism argued that Christianity must change or die. Today, most churches who bought into that message are dying. Many churches that preach the genuine gospel are growing.
2. They may be deployed by any faithful church.
I pastor an obscure church of approximately 60 people. We certainly desire to grow in both grace and number, but we don’t have to wait until we have bricks and mortar or a top-notch sound system to be a valid church doing valid, Word-centered ministry. We take no pride in being small—that’s a different heart issue—but our elders and members are simply trusting God to honor his Word.
3. They do not require extraordinary innovation.
In God’s economy the weak is strong and the strong is weak (2 Cor. 12:1–10). The bar for ministry success, then, is persevering faithfulness.
The bar for ministry success is persevering faithfulness.
The ordinary means of grace may appear pathetic and insignificant, with little potential to accomplish anything of deep effect. But God works this way. He used a rebellious prophet to reach Nineveh with the good news. He turned a weak, cowardly, Jesus-denying disciple into one of the boldest preachers the world has known. Though we are deeply flawed and desperately feeble, he uses us.
4. They promote humility and reverential worship.
When God sets the agenda and we follow, we are admitting that he is sovereign, and we are not. When we deploy his means, we are saying, “You are God, and I am not. You have revealed yourself in Scripture, and I joyfully submit to your wisdom.” That’s humility. When we humble ourselves, we are positioned to worship God with grateful awe, because he has done it.
5. Using them rightly is an act of faith.
Jesus promised, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18). God builds his church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, which means his Word, with Christ as the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). The ordinary means of grace are the divinely appointed, Spirit-driven carpenter of the church.
The means of grace are the carpenter of the church.
The Word of God and the Spirit of God conspire to form the engine that pulls the cars down the tracks of salvation and sanctification. We must unleash them faithfully, with all the energy God gives us, trusting he will use them to perform the miracle of remaking sinners into saints.
On a purely human level, our task as church leaders is simple. Like Cal Ripken, we must show up every Lord’s Day and at every evangelism outreach, day after day, week after week, year after year, faithfully unleashing his ordinary means of grace. Then we watch, as God builds his church in a way the world, with all its extraordinary things, will never be able to explain.