Michael Horton. Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014. 224 pp. $15.99.
Some time ago, I was talking with friends who attend a large, well-known church in town and had for some time. I was encouraged to hear this and tried to engage them a bit about their experience. To my surprise, they were reticent to say much about it, and had less to say about their own faith. They seemed, in general, to view such matters as beyond the conversational pale. When I’ve seen them since, we don’t talk much about church. We just exchange the normal pleasantries about work and vacations and childhood development.
I’ve reflected a number of times on that conversation. These friends regularly attend a congregation that often challenges its members to live on mission for God. Despite such calls, however, this church’s teaching hasn’t led to open-hearted confession of faith, but a blushing reluctance to talk about spiritual things.
The Onus of Ordinary
As I read Michael Horton’s new book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, this episode came to mind. Too many churches, Horton argues, “like to raise the bar, up the ante, and lay out radical calls that most people can’t possibly answer” (22). The focus of countless congregations today is on “jaw-dropping testimonies” and “novel experiences,” which leads to “an environment of perpetual novelty” (23). Despite a well-intended trajectory of growth, the professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in California claims, many churches today leave people with a “shallow understanding of what they believe and why they believe it” (23). As Horton sees modern Christians, we start out seeking an emotional high of a spiritual kind, binge on one exciting “world changing” program after another, and end up exhausted and overstimulated, with little actual knowledge of the Scriptures and the life-transformation it enacts.
Ordinary attempts to correct this woeful state of affairs. It is the latest entry in Horton’s three-decades-long project to enliven evangelicalism, or perhaps more accurately, to ground it. The 221-page text argues for a gospel-driven faith that is confessional and covenantal in nature:
In the biblical covenants, God is the sovereign Creator and Lord. We do not “own” ourselves. . . . He gives us life, provides for us, commands us, and makes promises that he always fulfills according to his faithfulness. (130)
I would submit that this is a marvelous and under-resourced place for churches to start in training their people in a biblical worldview and self-identity. The covenants, after all, hit us with a bang from nearly the start of Scripture.
Ordinary is, ironically enough, not super ordinary. It is a lively and readable book that is also richly theological and—circle gets the square here—practical. It constitutes an apologia for the ordinary means of grace as applied in the everyday Christian life. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not our own self-driven, self-shaped, self-fulfilling choice of Jesus that makes us his own, but God’s faithfulness to save a people for himself. Our Christian lives are about glorifying him through whatever vocation he gives us. For most of us, Horton contends, this will mean unexciting, non-spectacular, but resolutely God-honoring work. This is the good stuff, not the out-of-the-ordinary explorations our culture so craves: “daily faithfulness” to our work and our neighbor “is precisely what enriches life” (166).
Having mapped Horton's basic message, we turn now to identify a number of strengths of the book and a few small tensions within it.
Suspicious of innovation. Horton speaks openly—though without naming names—of the need for evangelicals to orient their churches around faithfulness, not innovation. “Perpetual reinvention dooms cultures—and churches—to passing shadows of momentary glamour with few lasting legacies beyond the trivial” (68). This instinct pairs with a lust for numbers, for grandiosity, to set congregations up for disillusionment: “Patience is precisely what excellence requires, but it’s a difficult commodity wherever the cult of immediate results dominates” (30).
These are words to mark in 2014. We’ve now seen two generations pass that made it a point of pride to distance themselves from confessional traditions. There have been some great successes, to be sure. But Horton pushes us to consider what our goal truly is: to make a splash, or to stand the tests of time?
Praise for ordinary pastors. We will only solve the aforementioned problem when we give up our thirst to be led by “super apostles,” Horton avows. There is a “qualitative difference between the extraordinary ministry of the apostles and the ordinary ministry of those who followed them” (109). This means, plainly, that present-day pastors “are not kings but servants” (113). This is precisely right.
Many today decry “celebrity pastors,” but few can resist the model’s pull. Working off of Horton, one wonders if we could strike a great blow against the idolization of certain leaders by taking apart our two-tiered system of ministry by root and branch. Let there no longer be a distinction between the Alpha Pastors and the Little Guys. There are no apostles today. Though not all pastors have the same level of gifting, every pastor is ordinary. Further, as Daniel Block has shown, leadership in Scripture is much more about the exercise of self-sacrificial authority for the good of others than it is about unmediated power for the aggrandizement of one’s brand, a more distasteful word than which has yet to be found among us.
Glory of ordinary life. There is a refreshing symmetry to Horton’s outlook. Even as he opposes the unhealthy sacralization of the ministry, he ennobles the average Christian: “We need fewer Christians who want to stand apart from their neighbors” and more who befriend them (167). Likewise, “We need more Christians who take their place alongside believing and unbelieving neighbors in the daily gift exchange” (167). As Horton recognizes, the best way for many of us to change the world is to do exactly that which does not feel like changing the world: to hit the floor, day after day after day, and dig into the work God has given us.
Horton’s emphasis on vocation over work—press 1 if you hear the Reformers calling—is just what the doctor ordered for our work-obsessed age. There is surely glory in the small things, and life confronts us in multi-variable complexity, but surely we can say this: when we’re prioritizing our inbox over our flesh-and-blood progeny, something is amiss, something that the biblical model of vocation is poised to redress.
Covenantal identity. Early on, Horton quotes Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling: “I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day” (24) Though Young’s text is undeniably inspiring to many, this mindset leaves common Christians with a less-than-vibrant faith. We fail to see the riches afforded us in the Scripture and its gospel, and instead crave something more, something deeper, something closer in.
All we need or could want, we have, Horton reminds us in Ordinary. From my vantage point, his book is perhaps the richest attempt yet at a lay-level gospel-centered theology. Horton is not content to simply say, “The gospel shows me that God loves me.” He fleshes this kind of formulation out, grounding God’s love in his covenantal instinct, his Son’s cruciform accomplishment, and the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. He shows us that we are inestimably rich as believers. We have the revealed Word, the saving gospel, and the sin-killing Spirit. There is no need for a higher life or a new revelation. Christ is all (Col. 3:11).
Different audience than new radicalism. Horton does not explicitly call out prophets of the “new radicalism” like David Platt, Francis Chan, and Kyle Idleman, but his book clearly critiques their work. I do wonder, however, if Platt and others have made a major contribution of their own.
Think in terms of audiences. Radical has connected with many Bible Belt youth (and many others besides). It has served to show a sleeping, quietist generation that Christianity is not fundamentally about safety and security, but gospel risk and heavenly reward. Like John Piper before them, Platt and the new radicals have lit the gospel torch, effectively telling Millennials, “Hey, there’s a world out there beyond your iPhone that desperately needs the gospel! Let’s get after it.” This call is not harmful; it is sorely needed.
As I read Ordinary, I wondered if I was being greedy, because I want my peers to (a) get a big-God vision for life that motivates them to big faith and (b) devote this faith to both the local and the international. Can we have both? I think we can.
The Wilberforce test. In line with the foregoing, I wondered at times if Ordinary contained within it the necessary theological equipment to compel a person to not only embrace the mundane but seek out the impossible. In other words, I asked the same question of it that I do many such a book: could this text inspire William Wilberforce to his abolitionist feats? I think Ordinary could (see 161), but I am mildly nervous about a possible overemphasis on the ordinary means of grace (both ecclesial and cultural) such that the extraordinary means of grace are slighted.
I don’t have the space here to solve this matter. I can only say that in my view a properly biblical theology both ennobles ordinary Christianity, showing it to be truly exciting and meaningful, and inspires the church to be salt and light in fresh and fearless ways in a fallen world. It’s not one or the other, it’s both (as I’ve attempted to say in Risky Gospel, a book sympathetic to Ordinary).
History of revivals. Finally, I wondered if Horton’s gospel-centered theology sometimes crosses wires with his view of history. He chides George Whitefield a bit for creating in American churches a desire for revival, a desire which “divided churches” (80). I don’t think Whitefield and the New Lights got it all right, but at the risk of oversimplification, they did recover the gospel, and they promoted it in many communities where the evangelistic flame had gone out and been replaced by a dead—though tenacious—sacramentalism.
Revival should not be the church’s calendar. The ordinary means of grace are its regular program. But surely we should long for revival. Think of these words of Christ: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14). If wanting many people to respond to this proclamation is what one means by revival, I guess I am a neo-New Light.
Normal Means, Extraordinary Outcomes
I commend Ordinary to everyone who can afford it. Pastors, seminarians, laypeople—let everyone who can get this book and profit from it. Horton is always worth reading, and this book will help to push evangelicalism in exactly the direction it should go: a confessional one. Just in time for fall, the culture is getting chilly. Satan prowls. The church needs thick faith of biblical stuff to survive—and not only this, to thrive.
Should that be the case, my aforementioned friends may well become part of a new trend in American Christianity. They might just join a church with a pastor who isn’t eager to be their board chairman, but their pastor. He might do old-fashioned things like get to know them, catechize them, and anchor them in Scripture. They might find themselves strangely warm to conversation about Jesus and church and hope. Then, just as ordinary believers took the gospel to them, they might bear the word of Christ to others, and watch as God works through the most normal of means to bring about the most extraordinary of outcomes: salvation, eternal life, all things becoming new.