Epic. Crazy. Radical. Extreme.
Much of what we read these days summons us to The Next Big Thing. If nothing else, observes Michael Horton, one thing is obvious: no one wants to be ordinary.
In his new book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan), Horton calls Christians back to the simplicity of walking with Christ, in the fellowship of his church, for the good of the world. Rather than constantly seeking out the next world-changing craze—#hashtags and all—he urges us to be content with quiet, habitual, step-by-step faithfulness.
I recently corresponded with Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, about fear of boredom, whether it’s wrong to want to do big things for God, and more.
In what ways does fear of boredom drive the appeal of “radical faith”? Why are we so terrified of ordinary, day-to-day life?
A lot of the goals of “radical faith” are right and well-motivated. But they can burn us out and distract us from long-term faithfulness.
In many ways, American revivalism helped to create our culture’s obsession with “The Next Big Thing.” It’s the “Big Bang” approach that starts with the expectation that every conversion will be huge, immediate, and measurable. And if the ordinary means of grace invented by Christ are too slow and unimpressive, we’ll come up with some of our own. Every few years now there seems to be a new bandwagon for changing ourselves, our churches, or our world. “Everything must change.” Let’s “reboot Christianity.” It’s the vision of “a new kind of Christian.” It can happen in Reformed circles, too, when being “restless” keeps us from putting down roots, listening patiently to each other—and to the saints who have gone before us.
When I’m rebooting and revolutionizing, I’m in charge. I don’t have to submit myself to the triune God and his church, in the week-in and week-out duties of becoming a disciple. Like the gospel, a duty is something that comes to me from outside of myself: the stranger who needs a jacket or my wife needing to be truly heard on a point. I don’t choose my duties; they choose me. So I run from this threat to my autonomy, to freely chosen movements and causes that I can join and unjoin, people I can “friend” or “unfriend” as I please.
As we saw with the Arab Spring, it’s easier to be a revolutionary in the square than it is to help build a stable government. It’s easy to be young and restless; it’s the “Reformed” part that’s hard. As sheep and shepherds, it can be hard to leave an exhilarating conference and go back to belonging to the regular gathering of the saints for the Word, the sacraments, confession of sin and of faith, the prayers, and psalms and hymns that over time “make the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Col. 3:16).
In Ordinary I invite folks to divide a sheet of paper, placing the things that they value most on right side and the more trivial things on the left. Notice how many things on the right side take time, growth, expertise, and a lot of help from others. Becoming a maturing disciple of Christ is going to be rough. It’s not being revolutionary, but ordinary, that is truly countercultural.
In what ways does evangelical subculture promote a “Next Big Thing” mentality? Is there something unhealthy or unChristian about seeking to do big things for God?
Jonathan Edwards thought that revivals were seasons of God’s surprising blessing of his ordinary means of grace. Stick to the ordinary means of grace and God may send a revival if he chooses, but he’ll work through these means regardless. That view was short-lived. Placing salvation in the hands of the rugged individual—and clever evangelist—American revivalism came increasingly to pit the ordinary means of grace in ordinary churches against whatever “new measures” deemed most likely “to induce sinners to repentance” (Finney). Instead of growing like a garden, we wanted to grow like a forest fire. A revival could be planned for a specific date, advertised, and staged. The ordinary means of grace are “churchianity” over against the spontaneous ecstasy of the extraordinary event.
Nobody should feel ashamed of doing big things! But God has done the big thing for us and will perfect it when Christ returns in glory. He’s the giver, we’re on the receiving end: I will build my church. . . . Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. . . . Since we are receiving a kingdom, let us worship with reverence and awe—on and on we could go with Bible verses. God may choose to do big things for others through us. Regardless, he gives us a bunch of little things to do. Daily faithfulness in those callings may turn out to have big results, but are we still engaged if we don’t see them? Is it about us after all?
How can we work to prevent calls to “embrace the ordinary” from becoming covers for mediocrity or passivity?
This is very, very important—which is why I give so much space to it. It’s the caring that counts; restless striving for the next adrenaline rush makes us sloppy. Ask anyone proficient in something—a sport, a hobby, business, medicine, making violins, raising children—how they went from good to great, and what will they tell you? It was caring about the countless (seemingly insignificant) details. It was going to the gym when you didn’t want to, keeping the eye on the prize; it was saying no to something you really wanted to do so you could be there for the kids’ soccer game. Patience, attentiveness—basically, caring. That’s what it takes. We do in fact care about a lot of things—that we just so happen to be sort of good at doing. It’s okay to be a little bored by the routine. And what’s more, it’s about what God is doing through these routines over the years.
What’s wrong with the common question, “How was church today?”
Belonging to the body of Christ, being exposed regularly to the means of grace and to the communion of saints, is radically life-changing. But that process can’t usually be measured in days, weeks, and months. We have to simply believe God’s promise. It’s easy to burn out when we expect every public service or daily time with the Lord to be earth-shattering. And just when it becomes ordinary, we back off because we don’t want it to become “routine.” But that’s just the point: it’s good to have routines that we stick to regardless of the fireworks. Again, I think of analogies: “How was your marriage today?” “How was your workout?” Most of the time, it’s “fine.” You can’t have revolutions every day or there wouldn’t be steady growth. Pastors, too, can burn out when every “worship experience” has to be phenomenal. All of this frenetic activity is, ironically, weakening sanctification, keeping our roots shallow, and making us dependent on “super apostles”—the ministers and their gifts instead of Christ’s gift-giving through his ministry.
It’s certainly true that the ordinary means of grace are the ordinary way God works. But if we’re going to reach every unreached people group with the gospel, won’t it require radical sacrifices as some pursue a very non-ordinary path to reach the nations for Christ, even as they still employ the ordinary means of grace while doing so?
All of us are called to be faithful in our many callings, to put God’s glory and the good of others before our own comfort. Changing diapers may not be as exciting as changing the world, but marriage and raising children require a lot of personal sacrifices. We need millions of Christians around the world dedicated to the routines of family and public worship—and to all of the others in between. But if you look at the stats, we’re losing the reached more than we’re reaching the lost.
Some are called to be foreign missionaries. Some never married, not because they wanted to be revolutionaries, but because their missionary calling took precedence and God used them remarkably. Others accomplished truly extraordinary feats on the field, but neglected their calling to their family. William Carey, the father of modern missions, didn’t know how to care for a wife with depression who couldn’t take being uprooted so many times. He neglected his children’s spiritual and temporal welfare. We all know similar stories of missionary kids and pastor’s kids. I’ve experienced those powerful tensions in my own heart. We have different callings to juggle every day—and it’s in those everyday decisions where it’s easy to use the ministry—“doing great things for God”—as a way to escape our callings to our closest neighbors.
Bottom line: many of those who made the biggest difference did so over a long period of time, with a mix of successes and disappointments. The great majority of missionary heroes are those whose names we’ll never know. And even with those whose name we remember, the common ingredient was caring for daily tasks and routines. They all add up!