I have been at countless Christian conferences to listen to a hero deliver stories of their latest exploits and adventures in the name of Jesus. Often I have been encouraged and helpfully challenged to follow Jesus more closely. Other times I have felt a deep pang of guilt and frustration that in the midst of my very ordinary and mundane life I struggle to follow Jesus, let alone being a radical who is sold out for God. The dark side to the heroism of radical and extreme stories of faith is that they distort the gospel by making it all depend on us and not God’s grace at work. Horton’s book aims to point us to Jesus especially at work in our everyday reality.
The central contrast that Horton makes is between what he calls the radical and restless and the ordinary and content. The first half of the book is about the radical and the restless and the second is about being ordinary and content. He writes from an American perspective but for us in NZ many of the critiques and insights ring true.
The Radical and the Restless
“Childhood and youth are associated with restlessness and exploration. Fascinated by the newness of everything their attention shifts back and forth, up and down. We see this childlike restlessness characterised by society’s obsession with novelty, the extreme, narcissism, and hedonism.” Horton contrasts this with the Biblical concept of covenant (God’s promises) and Christian community. The deep paradox at the heart of modern society is that we want both autonomy and community. True community and maturity can happen according to Horton when we take the time, something that is lacking often in our fast-paced approach to life. At this point in the book there is lots of interesting research and insight around contemporary culture and the influence of technology but you will need to read the book for that!
We might like to think the church is significantly different from the broader culture when it comes to this notion of restlessness, yet we would be wise to not be so naïve. Horton says American Christianity is a story of perpetual upheavals in churches and individual lives. “Starting with the extraordinary conversion experience, our lives are motivated by a constant expectation for The Next Big Thing. We’re growing bored with the ordinary means of God’s grace, attending church week in and week out.” Horton looks at generational fads, including the Boomers critique of the traditional church and the reaction now seen in the Boomer’s children and grandchildren focus on an outward facing faith with an emphasis on social justice and another kind of rejection of the gathered church. Horton says that these fads have in common an impatience and disdain for the ordinary.
This thesis could be seen as a defence of being comfortable or an argument against pursuing one’s dreams and striving for excellence. A helpful distinction made by Michael is that Biblically defined true excellence has others in mind, it is done for the glory of God and the good of our neighbour. The kind of excellence common in our world though is often self-focussed, manifesting itself in perfectionism. The reformed theology of the writer keenly illustrates the gift of salvation given by God from which we are called to action, rather than our own efforts being the centre of attention. From my experience in church communities I have often enough encountered the kind of striving which is more about ego than love of God and neighbour and Horton rightly puts this in its place as sin.
In the final chapters of the first section of the book there are two very interesting points made. The first is about ambition and the second is about leadership. First ambition: What once was a vice has become a virtue. There was a time when ambition was frowned upon. We see the ambition of our ancestors in the original garden, Greek philosophers warned against it, and the apostle James hopes that we would avoid it (Jas 3:13-18). Christ’s example is the opposite of ambition, a self-emptying for our sake (Phil 2). Something in our contemporary world has changed. Shows such as “The Apprentice”, “Survivor”, and “Project Runway” all highlight the trophy or personal ambition. Looking back, Horton sees the root of the change in Nietzsche’s philosophy which sees Christianity as weak and an inhibitor of noble ambition. Ambition, like our bad definition of excellence, is a problem because it is turned in towards the self, focussing on our own destiny and success rather than faithful service.
With this in mind Horton articulates a biblical view of leadership that isn’t based on ambition but rather service. He says, Minister’s are not kings but servants. They die or move on, and they are replaced by someone else called to carry on the baton. It’s about the ministry, not the minister. In an age of Christian celebrities this is a helpful critique. Biblically this chapter looks at Paul’s critique of the so called super apostles in 1 Corinthians. What the church needs in this restless time are faithful servants rather than extraordinary leaders.
Ordinary and Content
In the second half of the book Horton proposes a cure for our predicament. The cure to restlessness is contentment. The gospel is what we need and Christ is our ultimate prize. The writer says, “My thesis in this book is that we must turn 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. We also need to be content with his ordinary means of grace that, over time, yield a harvest of plenty for everyone to enjoy.” Sustainability is employed here as a way of talking about discipleship. Growth is good but the question is how growth both in numbers and quality is sustained. Horton makes the point that we want things to grow like a forest fire rather than a tree often at the expense of that which has taken a long time to grow and develop.
Healthy growth as individuals and Christian communities begins with covenant: it is God’s free grace, not our own free choice that makes the difference. Contentment with God’s good grace is key. It looks like being content with our Father God and his provision, contentment with Christ’s kingdom and our place in the body of Christ (the gifts and talents we have been given), and being content with the ordinary means of God’s grace and redemption. At the heart of this is a theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory (Luther’s influence is seen here). It is the bread and butter of the Word and sacraments that are at the heart of the ordinary church. “CNN will not be showing up at a church that is simply trusting God to do extraordinary things through his ordinary means of grace delivered by ordinary servants. But God will.”
What this book means for us
Our calling as Christians is to be faithful, to trust in the good news of Jesus and live our lives for the glory of God and the good of neighbour. This book celebrates the work of ordinary Christians, ordinary pastors, and a God who intervenes in our ordinary meeting us in the midst of it.