Ordinary: the New Radical ? by Michael Horton

Ordinary,Radical. Epic. Revolutionary. Transformative. Ultimate. Extreme. Emergent. Alternative. Next. Impactful. On The Edge. Beyond. Awesome. Legendary. Innovative. Breakthrough.

Everything has to have an exclamation point to catch our attention these days. For many of us, the worst word in our vocabulary is “ordinary.” Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary”? Who wants to be an ordinary person in an ordinary town, a member of an ordinary church with ordinary friends and callings?

Our life has to count. We have to leave our mark, a legacy, make a difference. And this has to be something that we can manage, measure, and maintain. We have to live up to our own Facebook profile.

Yet there seems to be a restlessness with restlessness. It seems that a lot of us are becoming less eager to jump on bandwagons or trail-blaze totally new paths to greatness.
Truth be told, it is actually easier to dream big, pull up roots, and become anonymous—to start over—with a new set of upwardly mobile peers. And then to do it all over again, somewhere else, reinventing ourselves whenever we want a fresh start and a new set of supporting actors in our life movie. There is nothing wrong with moving to the city or pursuing adrenaline-racing callings. But the hype creeps into every area of our life. It’s making us tired, depressed, and mean.

Given the dominance of The Next Big Thing in our society, it is not at all surprising that the Christian sub-culture is passionate about superlatives. Many Christians were raised in an environment of managed expectations with measurable results. Like other aspects of life, growth in Christ as individuals and as churches could be programmed with predictable outcomes. Many Christians express astonishment when a fellow believer is content with an ordinary Christian life, with an ordinary church, among ordinary Christians, where God showers his extraordinary gifts through ordinary means of grace.

“Everydayness Is My Problem”
The writer Rod Dreher observed, “Everydayness is my problem. It’s easy to think about what you would do in wartime, or if a hurricane blows through, or if you spent a month in Paris, or if your guy wins the election, or if you won the lottery or bought that thing you really wanted. It’s a lot more difficult to figure out how you’re going to get through today without despair.”[1] I know just how he feels, and I’m guessing you do too. Facing each day with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around us is much more difficult than chasing dreams.

In Christian circles, successive waves of extraordinariness have whipped us up into a frenzy, only to leave us exhausted or disillusioned. Sometimes it’s a new program for personal growth. For others, it’s a new form of worship. According to others, radical discipleship means more social interest in transforming the wider world. For still others, it has meant a longing for revival and awakening to stir us from our apparent slumbers.

For all of its vitality, evangelicalism is a movement, not a church. In many ways it has not only been influenced by but has helped to shape this aspect of the modern American personality. “Institutions kill the entrepreneurial spirit,” evangelicalism says, “You have to break out of the ordinary and follow the Spirit into new frontiers.” How much of this actually comes from Scripture and how much of it is simply part of our cultural conditioning? As Mark Galli, executive editor at Christianity Today, puts it, “The strength of the evangelical movement is its activism; the weakness of the evangelical movement is its activism.”

My target isn’t activism itself, but the marginalization of the ordinary as the richest site of both God’s activity and ours. Our problem isn’t that we are too active. Rather, it is that we have been prone to successive sprints instead of the long-distance run. There’s nothing wrong with energy. The danger is that we’re burning out ourselves—and each other—on restless anxieties and unrealistic expectations. It’s an impatience with the familiar, sometimes slow, and mostly imperceptible aspects of life.

Think of the things that matter most to us. They aren’t movements; they are institutions. They require us to submit to a community, to be “tied down” in ways that clip our restless wings. Yet in the process, the discipline brings wisdom and delight.

Take marriage, for example. Is there a plan or program that allows you to expect and to measure progress? How do you measure a relationship? My wife and I often have different takes on how things are going. We may be able to rejoice in the way the Lord has bonded us together since our first year, but how exactly do you measure it from week to week? And as you look back, what counted most: the extraordinary weekend retreat or the ordinary moments filled with seemingly insignificant decisions, conversations, and touches? You have distinct memories (if not photos) of the former, but probably not of the latter. The richest things in life are made up of more than Kodak moments.

Is it any different with raising children? When it comes to the time we spend with them, the mantra among many upwardly mobile parents (especially dads) is “Quality Time.” But is that true? What happens in those seemingly mundane moments that are unplanned, unscheduled, and unplugged? Nearly everything! Lifetime nicknames are invented; identities and relationships are formed. On the drive home from church, your child asks a question about the sermon that puts one more piece of the puzzle into place for an enduring faith. The trip to Disney World may be memorable, but it can’t compensate for just being there in ordinary ways through ordinary moments.

Big expectations are placed on Christians. Some fly coach; others find their way to first class. There are the “ordinary” believers who are content to come to church regularly, participate in fellowship and hospitality, and support the ministry financially. Then there are the truly Spirit-filled, victorious, soul-winning or society-transforming warriors who take it to the next level.
Of course, we’re not new at this. There were plenty of schemes for spiritual ladder-climbing in the medieval church. Many Protestants created their own version of “lower” and “higher,” ordinary and extraordinary. You could still be a member of the official church in town, but if you’ve experienced the new birth you’ll join the nucleus of the true church that meets in small groups. It isn’t the ordinary ministry of the church—its public and corporate hearing of the Word, baptism, the Supper, and the prayers—, but the extraordinary “after-hours” programs that sift the wheat from the chaff.

Then revivalism came along. It led to an even sharper division between the ordinary Christian life in ordinary churches and families and the summons to individuals to break away from the herd and join the extraordinary move of the Spirit.

I recall the anxiety over not having a great “testimony.” Every time we went around in a circle to recount our “before” and “after” pictures of conversion, I was tempted to embellish a little. I couldn’t even remember the date of my conversion! I was raised in a Christian home and church. I couldn’t recall a time when I didn’t trust in Christ and sense his gracious hand in my life.

If you think of initial conversion as a measurable and datable “big bang,” it stands to reason that, when that gets old, you’ll keep looking for the next crisis experience. You may be “saved,” but are you “Spirit-filled”? The ordinary growth of a believer from baptism to burial was considered at best secondary. At worst, it was a “churchianity” that stood in the way of a genuine personal relationship with Jesus. The revival was planned, staged, and executed with predictable outcomes. The climactic moment at summer camp was more exciting and measurable on a spiritual Richter scale than the gradual growth in Christ through faithful family members, friends, and elders. You may have been baptized and looked after by Christ’s under-shepherds in the church, joining gradually in the songs of Zion as you matured, and learning to join the church in its prayers and, eventually, at the Lord’s Table. You may have heard and prayed the Scriptures with your family each day, perhaps even learning the great truths of Scripture through a catechism. Yet none of this really counts. What really matters is the extraordinary spiritual event.
In American church life, we’ve gone through successive waves of the Next Big Thing. There were giant crusades in stadiums and campus crusades. There was the Jesus Movement that just happened to coincide with the 70s youth revolution. For every cultural upheaval in society, there was a Christian knock-off.

In recent decades, the Emergent Movement captured the attention of the hipster generation, at least for a while. It was supposed to be a radical “rebooting”: “The Next Christians,” “A New Kind of Christian,” and all. Already, though, it seems to have spent its fuel.

Adapting to the culture—and especially to the profile of each generation—has been a remarkable strength of evangelicalism. Yet growing up into Christ as members of his body, across all generations and locales, is being undermined by frenetic activity. Patient dedication to the ordinary and often tedious disciplines of corporate and family worship, teaching, prayer, modeling, and mentoring are often eroded by successive waves of enthusiasm.

Even Calvinism seems to have gotten back its groove. According to TIME, the “New Calvinism” is one of the top ten trends changing the world today. Collin Hansen’s description—and title of a book explaining the phenomenon—says it pretty well: “Young, Restless, and Reformed.”[2] While it’s exciting to see many younger folks digging into the doctrines of grace, the “restless” part works against the “Reformed” bit. Like all movements, the “New Calvinists” often display a greater interest in making it up as they go rather than wrestling with the actual confessions, concerns, and convictions of churches that have forged their consensus through a long conversation. There is more to being Reformed than “five points.”

In many ways, it’s more fun to be part of movements than churches. We can express our own individuality, pick our favorite leaders, and be swept off our feet at conferences. We can be anonymous. Although encouraged by like-minded believers, we are not bound up with them so that we should feel compelled to bear their burdens or suffer their rebukes. Yet this movement-mentality keeps us restless and makes ordinary life in and submission to an actual church seem intolerably confining.

It’s precisely because we need to look outside of ourselves—up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love—that it’s important to talk about the ways we’re stepping over God’s activity in ordinary and everyday ways. I’m not trying to throw a wrench in the conversations about various ways of being radical, but to add a few cautions and caveats that I wouldn’t have been prone to think about, much less write about, in younger years.

Just think of all of the pastors, elders, and deacons whose service is as unheralded as it vital to sustainable discipleship; to all of the spouses and parents who cherish ordinary moments to love and be loved; and to all of those believers who consider their ordinary vocations in the world as part of God’s normal way of loving and serving neighbors right under their nose each day.
And who knows? Maybe if we discover the opportunities of the ordinary, a fondness for the familiar, and marvel again at the mundane, we will be radical after all.

[1] Rod Dreher, “Everydayness,” Nov. 14, 2012 at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/everydayness-wallace-stevens/, accessed 7/24/2013.
[2] Collin Hansen, Young, Restless and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
– See more at: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2013/08/31/ordinary-the-new-radical/#sthash.CuEVik7F.dpuf

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