Dale Van Dyke
Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, by Michael Horton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014, 221 pages, $11.76, paper.
Ordinary, by Michael Horton is well worth the read. In an age that lauds the new, the radical and revolutionary, Horton extols the virtue, grace, and sustaining power of “ordinary” believers, nurtured by the ordinary means of grace, for truly meaningful and fruitful lives. While the title and cover appear to be a direct rebuke of David Platt’s widely read Radical, Horton never mentions him by name and casts a positive vision and tone throughout the book—even as he skillfully exposes the false motives and assumptions behind “radical” Christianity.
In keeping with his “Pilgrim Theology,” Horton contends that a “radical” faith is not a sustainable faith over the long haul. The central theme of the book is that God intends to perfect his saints and accomplish his kingdom purposes through ordinary things: ordinary means of grace, ordinary ministers and ministries, and the ordinary, largely unnoticed acts of common saints.
This book is dedicated to all of the pastors, elders, and deacons whose service is as unheralded as it is 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. (27)
The book is compromised of two parts, roughly 100 pages each. Part One, “Radical and Restless,” analyzes the mistaken assumptions and societal influences behind the “radical” Christian movement. Horton highlights the contemporary infatuation with excellence; the expectation of quick, measurable results; and our society’s obsession with youth. Horton has a unique ability to read societal trends and connect sociological dots in order to provide helpful insights concerning the forces affecting the church today. For instance, the chapter on “The Young and the Restless” (chapter 3) should be required reading for any youth pastor or leader. Chapter 4, “The Next Big Thing,” is a helpful reflection on evangelicalism’s common infatuation with novelty, which is contrasted with the Reformed emphasis on the ordinary means of grace.
Horton is very good at expressing the extraordinary power and adventure of ordinary church.
Now, that doesn’t mean that what happens at church through these ordinary means in ordinary services of ordinary churches on ordinary weeks is itself ordinary. What happens is quite extraordinary indeed. First and foremost, God shows up. He judges and justifies, draws sinners and gathers his sheep to his Son by his Word and Spirit. He unites them to Christ, bathes them and feeds them, teaches and tends them along their pilgrim way. He expands his empire even as he deepens it. It is through this divinely ordained event that “the powers of the age to come” penetrate into the darkest crevices of this passing evil age (Heb. 6:3–6). (83)
In Part Two, “Ordinary and Content,” Horton argues that we need to “run from the frantic search for ‘something more’ to ‘something more sustainable’ ... We need to be content with the gospel as God’s power for salvation” (126). These chapters outline God’s methods and means of building his church. The analogy of the church as God’s garden, needing common fertilizing and pruning was very good. In contrast to the radical, individual, and novel approaches to the Christian life, Horton highlights the common, communal, and confessional nature of true personal and societal transformation. Though most of what Horton says here will be familiar to Reformed pastors, I found it to be a very encouraging and motivating reminder of God’s extraordinary work through our “ordinary” gospel ministry. When the “super-pastor” down the road seems to be getting all the press and enjoying all the success, “ordinary” pastors will find food for the soul in these pages.
Ordinary is not a perfect book. It is a bit repetitive and wanders off the track from time to time. Horton also, at times, tries to establish principles from the thin air of personal preference. For instance, he argues that a multi-site church, where the message is broadcast via video, “runs against the grain of the incarnation” (116) since the pastor isn’t present in flesh and blood. There may be valid reasons one could argue against the multi-site church trend but surely this isn’t one of them. I don’t see how Paul’s epistolary ministry could not be charged with the same incarnation infraction. Horton also argues that John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them” (his emphasis), means that pastors need to be able to personally know each of their sheep. Practically, this would mean that no local church should grow beyond the capacity of the pastor to remember names. Is that really what Jesus meant to convey in John 10:27? The imperfections of Ordinary are however, in an ironic way, evidence of the main thesis: God uses imperfect sermons (and books) from imperfect men to accomplish his extraordinary gospel purposes. And to that end, Ordinary is useful.
The strength of Ordinary is that it is a hopeful and grace-filled book. As it calls us away from our self-righteous, guilt-laden, and soul-wearying efforts to do more and be more for Jesus it invites us into the wonderful good news of God’s own work accomplished for us and in us. We receive a kingdom rather than build one. We participate in God’s economy of grace—where we delight in God’s goodness and share his lavish gifts—rather than labor in the joyless, self-justifying economy of merit with its abundance of guilt and scarcity of rest.
There is a great need in the church for this message. So many believers (including pastors) wrestle with a lingering sense of inadequacy and failure. The truth is, we aren’t the Christians we wanted to be. There is a long list of things we aren’t doing well: evangelism, discipleship, family worship, etc. In our discouragement we can easily lose sight of the things that Christ values: resting in his finished work and freely loving others. Maybe all you did today was make lunch for your kids and offer an encouraging word to a friend. You smiled at a harassed mother in the store, accomplished some of the tasks you had before you in reliance on God’s grace and strength, and offered a prayer of tired thanksgiving at the end of an ordinary day—and the Father was pleased. That’s good news for harried Christians.
Ordinary could work fairly well for a small-group study, though I would take several chapters at a time. It has a few questions at the end of each chapter to get a discussion going.
Dale Van Dyke is the pastor of Harvest Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wyoming, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, March 2015.