Ordinary Christianity in a Radical, “Next Big Thing” Age

Escape ordinary. Step into your destiny. Be a world changer. You need a radical encounter with God. Join the movement. Your breakthrough is coming.

Christians today have developed an obsession with being radical. We are constantly looking for our “breakthrough,” always in search of the Next Big Thing. All of us want take our lives to the next level, to do something “big” for the Lord,  and to step into our “destiny” (whatever that means). We restlessly and recklessly seek new and extraordinary ways to live out our Christian lives.

In his book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, Michael Horton addresses this pervasive problem in the evangelical church.

“The tendency of the evangelical movement has always been to prioritize extraordinary methods and demands over the ordinary means that Christ instituted for sustainable mission” (18).

From dramatic conversions, to altar calls, to becoming “Spirit-filled,” we expect visible and extraordinary growth in our lives. Gone are the days of mustard-seed growth of the kingdom and the ordinary means of grace (Word, prayers, sacraments, corporate worship). Instead, we need quick fixes from programs, entertaining worship services, and Damascus road-like spiritual encounters.

Radical, Restless, and Obsessed with the Extraordinary

This radical and restless obsession with the Next Big Thing has changed how and why we gather. Our worship services become “experiences” where we can “encounter God” through emotionally-driven music and inspiring TED talks.  As a result, our corporate worship becomes about personally experiencing enough of a spiritual high to make it through the week. We expect our sanctification to be visible, instant, and measurable.

In addition, we attend revival meetings and conferences to feel the presence and achieve an even bigger spiritual high.  We try to “press in deeper,” hoping to reach the next level of godliness. In some cases, we’ll even pay for a special time of “impartation” from celebrity speakers to jump start our Christian life. And if we don’t get the instant results we were looking for, we can just come to the same event next year (which has conveniently risen in price). Commenting on this evangelical trend, Horton writes, “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.”

Our obsession with being radical has also infected how we view our work. Courtney Reissig adds, “Ordinary exercises in faithfulness regarding our work don’t cut it in a culture that is looking for the next big Internet sensation or viral video.” We’re told that if our dreams aren’t impossible then we are insulting God. The best-selling books on Christian living tell us to be the hero of our own stories, our happiness comes first, and to follow our dreams. Taking our cues from our individualistic culture, Christians are being told to break from tradition, be different and believe in yourself and never settle for ordinary.

Innovation, Legalism, and Burnout

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with conferences, worship music, emotions, and doing “big” things for God. And the call to be “radical” is certainly needed for those wasting their lives, stuck in perpetual adolescence, and chasing the American dream. However, the danger is when well-intentioned extraordinary means replace ordinary means and callings. Radical worship experiences and motivational speeches masquerading as sermons do not equip Christians to live lives of enduring faithfulness.

Rather than being understood as two sides of the same coin, being radical can become diametrically opposed to ordinary Christianity. This can even lead to a form of legalism, where enormous burdens are heaped on believers to do more. But the insatiable pursuit of the Next Big Thing inevitably leads to restlessness and disillusionment. Today’s passion and zeal becomes tomorrow’s burnout. This week’s spiritual encounter will need to be out-done next week. And the end result is far too often exhaustion and a shipwrecked faith.

Despite our well-aimed intentions, our churches can become segregated into different classes: the radical and the ordinary; the “Spirit-filled” and those who settle; the world changers and the stay-at-home diaper changers. Horton concludes, “This has been the vicious cycle of evangelical revivalism ever since: a pendulum swinging between enthusiasm and disillusionment rather than study maturity in Christ through participation in the ordinary life of the covenant community” (78).

God’s Garden and the Ordinary Means of Grace

Everyone keeps waiting for miracles and breakthrough. But our search for the Next Big Thing keeps resulting in emptiness and burnout. So, what’s the problem? I think Horton hits the nail on the head: “The problem today is that many Christians are not looking for God’s miraculous activity where he has promised, namely, through his ordinary means of grace” (140).

We have grown tired, impatient, and unsatisfied with the ordinary means God has appointed for sustainable faith and mission. Faithfulness, patience, and contentment have been replaced by novelty, instant growth, and measurable success. In short, we have forgotten that God’s church is a garden (cf. 1 Cor 3:6-9; Matt 13:18-23). But Horton gives us a sobering reminder:

Is it not remarkable enough that Jesus Christ himself is speaking to us whenever his word is preached each week? Is it not a miracle enough that a lush garden is blooming in the desert of this present evil age? Is it not enough of a wonder that the Spirit is still raising those were spiritually dead to life through this preach Gospel?” (80)

It’s through ordinary means of preaching Christ from all of Scripture, prayers, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the fellowship of the local church (cf. Titus 2:1-10) that God has promised to lavish us with extraordinary blessings. It’s through these Spirit-empowered activities that we produce fruit and develop roots for enduring the fiercest droughts and storms. And it’s often through faithfulness in ordinary callings that we are called to serve God and love others.

Ordinary Christianity is the new Radical

The call to be ordinary, as Horton reminds us, is not a call to mediocrity and apathy. Rather,

The goal is to encourage an orientation and habits that foster deeper growth in grace, more effective outreach, and a more sustainable vision of loving service to others over a lifetime. This is not a call to do less, but to invest in things that we often give up on when we don’t see an immediate return (28).

Like all good things—marriages, friendships, raising children, getting healthy—our sanctification takes time. We may not see dramatic growth every Sunday. Our callings may not get us a social media platform with millions of followers. But even in the most ordinary days we can be assured that God is working to sanctify us. And even in the most ordinary callings, God will use us to advance his kingdom.

The world doesn’t need more entertaining worship “experiences” but churches radically devoted to the ordinary means of grace. We don’t need more radical and restless world changers; we need content and faithful Christians radically committed to Scripture, devoted to prayer, submitted to the local church, loving their neighbors, and being being salt and light in ordinary callings, even when it goes unnoticed. We need to remember that, in the age of the Next Big Thing, ordinary Christianity is the new radical.

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