Like “normal” and “average,” the word “ordinary” conjures up visions of boring things – meek stalks of celery at the grocery store or those sleepy white socks in your drawer. It’s a bad word, of sorts, and certainly not one we want applied to ourselves. We do our best to stand out, to be unique, to be exciting. This desire can spill into our Christian experience as well. We yearn to make a difference in the world; we long to do something extraordinary for God.
What happens when we find ourselves stuck in the bog of everyday living? Some of us, instead of digging wells in Africa or winning souls in Australia, are living in middle-class America, going to work at an average job, and serving in an average church. Is there any hope for boring Christians like us? Is God disappointed that we aren’t doing more? Michael Horton’s book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, answers questions like these.
Michael Horton is a pastor, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, and the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He also co-hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show, The White Horse Inn. Horton’s Presbyterian background comes out strongly in Ordinary – especially in one brief section where he commends infant baptism. Though we Anabaptists would disagree with him on that point, his book still provides excellent perspective.
Horton’s thesis, as he puts it, is that “we must turn from the frantic search for ‘something more’ to ‘something more sustainable’ “ (126). His book is a direct response to the performance-oriented fervor of many modern evangelical movements. Horton contends that, in a race to be spiritual heroes and radical Christ-followers, we have lost our bearings and set out to sea on a wave of restless, self-centered ambition. “Chasing the latest fad for spiritual growth, church growth, and cultural impact, we eventually forget both how to reach the lost and how to keep the reached” (178).
In the first half of Ordinary, Horton whisks us through a quick tour of several faces and fads that shaped today’s “cult of perpetual novelty” (68). How did we, in general, and the American evangelical church, in particular, get to this point? Thanks to the success of certain revivalists and the influence of the Baby Boomer generation, we Millennials are tempted to believe that a genuine Christian life is only evidenced by a cycle of revival, a restless passion, and a hip spirituality that’s fresh and unique. Horton explores the initial meaning of the word “ambition” – originally a vice, not a virtue – and explains how it may shape our view of ourselves and our church leaders.
The cure for our ailment is contentment. But how and where is it found? The second half of Ordinary encourages us to rest in the victory God has sealed on the cross and the work He is doing in us today. Horton points out the concrete worth of “ordinary means of grace”: church attendance, baptism, catechisms, and the Lord’s Supper. He also spurs us to pour the gifts we have received onto our families, our fellow church members, and our neighbors – in the most common and everyday ways.
Ordinary is a fairly easy book to digest. Horton’s descriptive phrases and conversational tone make the pages fly by. Although he waxes repetitive by the end – the reader may get the feeling he’s used this Bible reference several times before – the point is well-stated. Quotes and pop culture illustrations keep things rocking; plenty of Scripture passages keep it grounded.
This book is best viewed as a response – not a complete package. Horton champions the everyday, yet says little about our tendency to get caught up in petty habits and forget to step out of the proverbial box. But he is addressing a current trend away from the pillars of the church, away from anything that smacks of tradition, and especially away from anything commonplace. That’s why this book is sorely needed: our thirst to be fresh may turn out to be folly. As he says, “If you are always looking for an impact, a legacy, and success, you will not take the time to care for the things that matter” (58).
Ordinary is for those of us who settled for the lie that an effective life is one radically different from all those who have gone before. As an idealistic twenty-something, I needed this book. I want to live a radical life for Christ; I want to be expendable for a good cause. But this book hits me where it hurts: sometimes the greatest sacrifices are the everyday ones. Sometimes faithfulness in the here and now is worth a thousand plans for the future. Whether we are giving our best on the mission field or making small sacrifices at home, we can be effective in God’s greater story. He is working – not when we command Him or even when we expect Him, but in the tried-and-true methods that He has used for centuries.
Are you living an ordinary life? Live it well. There is no shame in an unheralded life lived for God. Ordinary, as it turns out, is vital.
|Amanda Wenger is a reader. She reads the classics, the Bible, and the signs of the times. She’s probably read your Facebook page. But don’t read into that.|
Horton, Michael Scott. Ordinary: sustainable faith in a radical, restless world. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.