In the church today, we like to raise the bar, up the ante and lay out radical calls that most people can’t possibly answer.
Nor do we expect them to, if we are honest. We understand that some will fly coach while others will find their way to first class. There are those dedicated few who are truly Spirit-filled, victorious, soul-winning or society- transforming warriors. The rest of us are just “ordinary” believers. We will continue coming to church regularly, receiving God’s gifts and sharing them, participating in praise, fellowship and hospitality, and continue supporting the ministry financially. But we know, deep inside, that we aren’t going to change the world.
None of this is new, of course. The same was true in the medieval church. It was fine to be an ordinary layperson, but everyone knew that if you wanted a direct route to a higher experience of God, you needed to be a priest or monk or nun. Marriage was good, but celibacy was seen as far better. Ordinary fellowship in the parish church and callings in the world were fine, but the truly dedicated took vows that set them apart from the ordinary Christian crowd. Some chose the monastic life, with other devoted colleagues. Others even more radically took a hermetic course of private isolation. Some made spiritual disciplines their focus, while others — especially the Franciscans — dedicated themselves to helping the poor.
We Protestants have our own way of programming various “higher” approaches to Christian living. Sure, you could still be a member of the local church, but if you’ve experienced the new birth you’ll belong to the core — the true church that meets in small groups. They were often called “holy clubs” and “conventicles.”
Then revivalism came along, sweeping aside external structures that helped to form individual believers into a thriving communion of saints. You may have been a beneficiary of God’s covenant blessings over many years in a Christian family and church. But at the summer camp or revival meeting, none of this matters in comparison with the radical experience of conversion. Again, my point is not to downplay the thrill of conversion experiences. But we can come to expect jaw-dropping testimonies or novel experiences, and as a consequence we have created an environment of perpetual novelty.
You may be “saved,” but are you “Spirit-filled”? 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 at home and at church. Yet in the evangelical culture of the new and novel, none of this really counts. What really matters is that extraordinary spiritual event, that life-changing experience. In fact, your testimony is likely to be regarded as greater — more genuine — to the extent that the experience happened apart from any connection with the ordinary life of the church, like baptism, profession, the Supper and the communal prayers, praise, laments and fellowship of Christ’s body.
The problem is, when people enter adulthood, they soon discover that a memorable experience will not compensate for a shallow understanding of what they believe and why they believe it — over years of everyday exposure to and participation in the communion of Christ with his people. Nevertheless, it’s precisely the ordinary ministry, week-in and week-out, that provides sustained growth and encourages the roots to grow deep. If the big moments in our Christian life are produced by big movements in the evangelical world, the ordinary local church will seem pretty irrelevant. Yet if God is the one who finishes what he starts, then the only reasonable conclusion is to be part of the garden that he is tending. He is the promise-maker and promise-keeper, even when we are unfaithful (2 Tim. 2:13).
When she really wanted to single out a recent convert, my grandmother would say, “She wasn’t just saved; she was gloriously saved.” Reinforced by all the before-and-after conversion stories, I was pretty anxious over not having a great testimony, and I was tempted to embellish a little. After all, I couldn’t even remember the date of the Big Moment! Unfortunately, it seemed, 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. Here I was, basking in the benefits of Christ, growing in grace and knowledge of him. Yet I was always looking (and was expected to look for) a cataclysmic tsunami to wash all of that “churchianity” out to sea so that I could finally have a real relationship with Jesus.
I tried many of the programs offering a new experience, a new opportunity to grow and accomplish great things for God. I got saved several times (especially after watching A Thief in the Night and reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth). I dabbled in the charismatic movement, followed various “get-spiritual-quick” programs, did Evangelism Explosion, and for a while had a pastor who was drawn to the Shepherding Movement. I was drawn to the Christian Right, later the Christian Left, and by the time that the Church Growth Movement arrived on the scene, I was a little skeptical.
Then there was the emphasis on spiritual disciplines. Drawing on the contemplative tradition of medieval piety, this movement provoked many believers to take their personal walk with the Lord more seriously. There is a great deal of wisdom in this emphasis, particularly when we are distracted on every hand from the things that matter most. Still, it sometimes sounded simplistic and programmed: Follow these steps and techniques and you will attain a victorious Christian life. The focus was on what we do alone more than on what God does for us and to us and through us together. But even these personal disciplines can become too ordinary. What if Jesus actually spoke to you — apart from the words of Scripture? As Sarah Young tells us in the introduction to her runaway bestseller, 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.” That “more” was “the Presence of Jesus,” something beyond the ordinary means of grace. “So I was ready to begin a new spiritual quest,” beginning with Andrew Murray’s The Secret of the Abiding Presence. After reading God Calling, she relates, “I began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God.” Even though Paul says that Christ’s presence among us is “as near” as the word of Christ proclaimed (Rom. 10:8–17), we long for something more.
In recent decades, the Emergent movement captured the attention of a generation, at least for a while. It promised another radical rebooting: “The Next Christians,” “A New Kind of Christian,” with the slogan, “Everything must change.” Whenever a new generation announces its radical and totally unprecedented culture shift, there is an evangelical movement that pressures churches to get on board if they want to adapt and survive the next wave. It’s doubtful that cultures actually work like that. But it is especially disruptive for the ordinary growth of believers in a covenant of grace that extends to every culture and “to a thousand generations.” There is change, to be sure, but what kind of change, to what end, and through what means? For that, Scripture rather than culture must provide the ultimate answer.
Excerpt taken from Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael S. Horton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014). Used with permission from Zondervan.