On Being an “Ordinary” Christian: An Interview with Michael Horton

Article
10.14.2014

The work of the pastor is often faithful and behind-the-scenes. Sure, there are those whom God has blessed to write books and travel the conference circuit. But generally speaking, pastors’ days aren’t filled with book-writing and theological wrestling as much as they’re filled with hospital visits and service planning. To some, the latter tasks may sound boring, unglamorous, and insignificant, but they are important.

The same is true for committed church members who aren’t pastors or elders. At the end of the day, one’s most important ministry is the ministry of showing up, of not—to quote the writer of Hebrews—“forsaking the gathering, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” How boring, unglamorous, and relentlessly ordinary.

But perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps practically speaking, the Christian life—for most of us, anyways—is more ordinary than we’d like to admit. Perhaps God is not only “okay” with this but finds our faithfulness and fruitfulness in the everyday beautifully and distinctly Christian: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

To that end, we asked Michael Horton, the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, a few questions about his new book Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. In addition, we will run a review of the book tomorrow from Dallas Goebel, the pastor of Burton Memorial Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Be on the lookout for that. (Review now posted here.)

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On the first page of the book, you get right to it when you write, “We’ve taken the ordinary and made it extraordinary, and the ordinary has lost its own charm.” I’ve a few introductory questions about this which will hopefully frame our discussion for those unacquainted with either you or your new book.

What do you mean by the “ordinary”? What comes to your mind when you write and hear that word?

It may be better to say what I don’t mean. Ordinary doesn’t equal mediocrity or laziness. On the contrary, the best craftsmen, athletes, scientists, etc., will say that there weren’t any short-cuts; that ordinary, patient, habitual care for something important pushed them through the sometimes dull routines. Friendships, marriage, child-rearing: the best in life takes time, with the big stuff actually measured in chunks of minutes and hours of ordinary investment—real investment. It’s the same in the Christian life. Bursting sprints can only get you so far. Eventually, you burn out. Sanctification is for the long haul.

In what ways—both tacit and overt—have you noticed discomfort with the “ordinary” things in life? Is this an issue distinctly facing our Western Christian sub-culture, or is it a reality writ large?

As I point out in the opening pages, I’m not targeting a particular bookor program. There’s a lot that I agree with in calls to be “radical.” My concern is that the activist impulse at the heart of evangelicalism can put an enormous burden on people to do big things when what we need most right now is to do the ordinary things better. We can miss God in the daily stuff, looking for the extraordinary Moment outside of his Word and conversation with him in daily prayer, family worship, and especially the public gathering of the saints each Lord’s Day. If we were more serious about these ordinary means of grace, I’m convinced the church would have a much stronger witness in the world today.

With that as our starting point, how have you seen this shift affect the Christian life, from preachers in the pulpit to members in the pew? 

I’ve lived through a string of movements that claimed to be a revival: “the next big thing.” I’m very attracted to some of the cultural weaknesses—even sins—that I explore in this book. Too much of the world warps my faith and practice, but I can always find a pious justification for mixed motives. I think that in part the history of revivalism has fostered a culture of immediate and easily measurable results and the passion for the next person or movement to “take things to a whole new level.” I can put off the often-boring rituals that actually keep me in the middle of my relationship with my wife, my kids, fellow saints, and neighbors. After all, I can make it up with a dazzling anniversary package or a trip to Disneyland. But it’s those daily and often ordinary moments that count long-term. Same with the church. If we just had a revival or could just reach the whole world in our generation or eliminate poverty in the developing world: then things would get better.

So I’m talking about a God who does extraordinary things through ordinary means. He doesn’t need our “next big thing,” because he’s already accomplished the greatest thing of all. And he promises that he will build his church—and us up into it—to the very end. It’s a paradox: taking Christ’s yoke lightens our load so that we can actually become disciples. By his Word and Spirit, he makes us deep-sea divers instead of jet-skiers through the Christian life. But it’s not about chilling until Jesus returns. It’s about sustainable discipleship.

When “sustainable discipleship” is absent in a church, what often takes its place? And what unexpected repercussions may these replacements bring down the road in 5, 10, or 20 years?

Famously, Martha wanted Jesus to help get her sister Mary on her feet, working to prepare the hospitality for the onslaught of Jesus’ disciples. “Martha, you are worried about many things, but Mary has chosen the better part,” he responds. Before we serve, we have to be served; before we act, we have to be acted upon, instructed, fed, bathed, and clothed. It’s hard watching corn grow, but there is a harvest. We have to take the long view of sanctification. Our growth in Christ—and that of our churches—is made up mostly of incalculable moments that by themselves (even in blocks) may seem boring. But if, out of zeal for measurable and exciting experiences, we’re constantly pulling up roots, we’ll end up a dry and dead tumbleweed. Just think of the big Christian movements over the past couple of generations alone. When the “hot” cools, no one interviews the burn-outs. And no one interviews the elderly couple you see every Lord’s Day praying with the teenagers. “And they gathered regularly for the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, for the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:46). That’s how the garden grows—and bears fruit for everyone else.

I’m thinking of a church that gets sugar-high on experiences, one that’s “constantly pulling up roots.” Put on your doctor’s frock for a moment, and help our readers understand what you’re talking about. Is there a name for this root-pulling disease you’re talking about? If so, can you provide us with some helpful remedies? In other words, what practical things can a church with its pastors and members do to become, using an adjective we love here at 9Marks, healthier?

This fancy name for this rootlessness is autonomy (self-rule). Or we could call it narcissism. Especially in our culture, the idea that you submit yourself to fellow believers for doctrine and life is about the craziest thing many folks will hear in a given month. We think of the church as a service-provider instead of “the mother of the faithful” and our vows as a contract instead of a covenant. It’s like my mobile carrier: I’m “in” as long as I don’t find a better provider out there.

In the book, I talk quite a bit about the importance of church membership—another obvious link with the concerns that you have at 9Marks. Joining the Scouts or a book club is different from joining a church. There are real oaths that have real consequences, involving submission to leaders whom God has placed over us. When this vow is a priority, it changes some of our decision-making. If I take a new job somewhere else, is there a solid church there? That should pull rank over even questions about the schools and property values.

I often hear people lament that since they moved to a new place they haven’t been able to find a decent church. Then what were they doing moving there? And why didn’t they know this until now? Imagine the same couple telling you, “The schools are horrible here and our house is on a slanted foundation.” Like everyone else, Christians typically invest a great deal of time, energy, and even money in checking out these things before making the move. And if there isn’t a good school or for some reason the neighborhood or surroundings don’t work, the move is rethought. I think that this is a real test of how seriously we take the church. Where does it rank in that list when you’re making concrete decisions?

Second (and related to the first), how frequently do you switch churches even when you haven’t moved house? To be sure, there are the familiar shoppers, looking for an IMAX Experience, coloring books for the kids, and Starbucks in the narthex. But there are doctrinal consumers too. No church is good enough for them. I’ve seen men drag their wife and kids all over tarnation taste-testing at various churches, often leaving them messier than they found them, and then either make it clear that they’re “settling” for an impure church or just stay home and have “church” with their family on Sunday. Do they realize what they’re doing not only to themselves and these churches but to their family? What are the chances that the kids are going to find a decent church when they go off to college? Here is some sobering wisdom from the Westminster Confession:

This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.

Your church isn’t “pure” in that ultimate sense. But is the gospel preached? Are Baptism and the Supper administered according to Christ’s institution and are the basic elements of the public service determined by Scripture? If you can answer “more or less,” then it’s a church and you should join it. And when you do, you’ll add your own “mixture and error” to that local body.

Again, the root problem here is autonomy. We think of ourselves as pretty good, theologically sound, and spiritually complete. Instead, we need to think of ourselves as needy pilgrims who will hopefully be changed for the better over years of receiving patient and loving preaching, teaching, sacraments, fellowship, and prayer with other sinners who are clinging to Christ as their only hope.

Another example: visitation. There’s a long heritage in Reformed churches of elder visitation to every member’s home at least once a year. Luther revived this ancient practice and that’s how he discovered that families didn’t even know the Ten Commandments, the Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone was expected to go to church, but many were unconverted. So he wrote his Small Catechism to rectify the problem and elders encouraged, rebuked, and instructed families in private.

I can’t begin to tell you how great elder visits have been in our family. They come, two by two (based on districts), taking time away from their own families to help us out. Our children especially say things that my wife and I haven’t heard (for better and worse!). The elders read some passages, ask us about our family worship, the Christian nurture my wife and I give to each other, and ask if there are any questions that they have about Scripture or how things are going in their lives. But some people have found the very idea of elder visits to be an invasion of privacy. “Who are you to judge my personal relationship with Christ?” It’s amazing how some of the same people who are most judgmental toward non-Christians and their autonomous lifestyle can become imperious in protecting their personal space. Then why even have pastors and elders? Why not simply click and download whatever inspirational or doctrinally profound insights? Then you don’t even need to have your autonomy disturbed by other Christians. Visitation is one of those faithful practices that we need, especially when we don’t think we need it.

Last question. Many of our readers are “ordinary” pastors in “ordinary” places. How should they understand their work? And in what ways will this book help clarify this understanding? In other words, why should they read this book?

The stats are pretty staggering: pastoral burn-out is a real problem. There are lots of reasons, but one key reason often listed in the surveys is that they’re expected to be everything: “team leader,” manager, life coach, best friend, therapist, and entertainer. Compare that list with Paul’s Pastoral Epistles. Done properly, preaching the Word in public and in private is worth more than a thousand counseling sessions. I’m not in any way down-playing counseling; it’s a very important part of ministry. However, preaching “the whole counsel of God” covers more bases than we can imagine.

The regular administration of the sacraments adds God’s confirmation of his promise “for you.” So many of the issues in people’s lives are related to assurance and confidence that God doesn’t just save people in general, but them in particular.

Then there’s regular catechism—of the youth but also of the rest of the body. A common faith, in the home and at church, is key to inter-generational faithfulness. Are children growing up to make their profession of faith? I don’t mean going through the motions in a ritual “rite of passage” to adulthood, but are they being pressed to own the faith for themselves? Do they realize that they need to make a personal decision to repent and believe the gospel?

Then elder visitations can at least point up particular issues that need to be addressed. I realize, of course, that there are differences in all of this between Calvinistic Baptist and Reformed (paedobaptist) churches. But the differences are far greater between churches that include these practices and those (paedo- and credo-baptist) that don’t. Jesus’ final words to Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, of course, I do.” “Then feed my sheep.” He repeats it three times. No doubt, Peter recalled the episode when the apostles appointed deacons to “wait on tables” so that they could devote themselves to the Word and to prayer. There is no such thing as a “pastor’s office.” It’s the “pastor’s study.” I think that the pastors who are truly called to this ministry will survive and thrive to the extent that they are protected by good elders from administration, management, finances, and other important tasks so that they can become truly the head waiters at God’s table, serving Christ with all of his benefits to the sheep each week.