The Ordinary Christian Life
Radical. Epic. Revolutionary. Transformative. Impactful. Life-changing. Ultimate. Extreme. Awesome. Emergent. Alternative. Innovative. On the edge. The next big thing. Explosive breakthrough.
You can probably add to the list of modifiers that have become, ironically, part of the ordinary conversations in society and in today’s church. Most of us have heard expressions like these so often that they’ve become background noise. Although we might be a little jaded by the ads, we’re eager to take things to “a whole new level.”
Ordinary has to be one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today. Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary”? Who wants to be that ordinary person who lives in an ordinary town, is a member of an ordinary church, has ordinary friends, and works an ordinary job? Our life has to count. We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, and make a difference. We need to be radical disciples, taking our faith to a whole new level. And all of this should be something that can be managed, measured, and maintained. We have to live up to our Facebook profile.
And yet, I sense a growing restlessness with this restlessness. Some have grown tired of the constant calls to radical change through new and improved schemes. They are less sure they want to jump on the next bandwagon or blaze new paths to greatness. Rod Dreher observes:
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.
In his book about his sister, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Dreher signals a growing sense of weariness with the cult of extraordinariness.
Restless for the Next Big Thing
I’m convinced that one reason for our obsession with being extraordinary is the culture of revivalism that has shaped American Protestantism. Especially through the evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792-1875), revivalism embraced a human-centered theology and found methods suited to it. Placing salvation in the hands of the rugged individual, the evangelist needed “new measures sufficient to induce repentance.” As Richard Hofstadter observed, “The star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail.” The focus was not as much on the gospel and God’s appointed means of grace, but on the evangelist and his methods for producing revival.
The thinking goes that the message and methods 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,” as my grandmother used to put it.
A contemporary of Finney’s, the Reformed pastor and theologian John W. Nevin, contrasted “the system of the bench” (the precursor of the altar call) and “the system of the catechism”:
The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.
These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” Nevin’s conclusion has been justified by subsequent developments.
Toward the end of his ministry, as he considered the condition of many who had experienced his revivals, Finney himself wondered if this endless craving for ever-greater experiences might lead to spiritual exhaustion. His worries were well-founded. The area where Finney’s revivals were especially dominant is now referred to by historians as the “burned-over district,” a seedbed of both disillusionment and the proliferation of esoteric sects. This has been the vicious cycle of evangelical revivalism ever since: a pendulum swinging between enthusiasm and disillusionment rather than steady maturation in Christ through participation in the ordinary life of the covenant community.
If gradual growth in Christ is exchanged for a radical experience, it is not surprising that many begin looking for the Next Big Thing as the latest crisis experience wears off. Even in my own lifetime, I’ve witnessed—and participated in—a parade of radical movements. And now, according to Time magazine, the “new Calvinism” is one of the top trends changing the world. This movement has also been identified as “Young, Restless, Reformed.” But as long as it is defined by youthful restlessness, it may tend to warp what it means to be Reformed.
When they were younger fishermen, my children couldn’t leave their line in the water long enough to catch a living thing. They were always reeling in the line to see if they had caught anything. Then, when they wanted to plant strawberries with my wife, their initial excitement turned quickly to boredom when, after only a few days, they didn’t see any fruit.
To be young is to be restless. We’re lost in impatient wonder and selfish impulses. But we are called repeatedly in the New Testament to grow up, to mature, to put away our childish ways. We are called to submit to our elders, to appreciate the wisdom that spans not only years but generations, and to realize that we do not have all the answers. We are not the stars in our own movie. If the whole apparatus of church life is designed by and for a youth culture, then we never grow up.
So in some ways, at least, 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.
Renewing Respect for the Ordinary
First and foremost, any renewed appreciation for the ordinary begins with God. Of course, God is hardly ordinary, but He delights in working in ordinary ways. Our triune God could do everything Himself, directly and immediately. After all, He said, “Let there be light”— and light appeared (Gen. 1:3). Yet, He also said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation.” And “the earth brought forth vegetation” (v. 12). God is no less the ultimate source of reality when He is working within creation to “bring forth” His purposes than He is in directly calling things into existence.
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. Though the prophets and Apostles were called to an extraordinary office, they were ordinary people who communicated God’s Word in ordinary language.
We see this diversity even in the incarnation. God’s assumption of our flesh in the womb of a virgin is nothing short of a direct and miraculous intervention in history. And yet He assumed His humanity from Mary in the ordinary way, through an ordinary nine-month pregnancy. Her delivery of the incarnate God was not miraculous, either. He even grew in ordinary ways, through ordinary means: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
In addition, the extraordinary miracle of new birth 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.
In all of these ways, God is the actor, even when He acts through creaturely means. We do not rise up to God, but He descends to us and communicates His grace to us through words and actions that we can understand.
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.
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