For several years now, erstwhile 9Marks editor and now full-time pastor Sam Emadi, with a wink, has summarized our ministry, “Yeah, I just tell people, 9Marks exists to tell pastors not to do weird stuff. Just do what’s in the Bible.”
Not a bad summary, that.
If you’ve not heard the term “ordinary means of grace” before, Sam has captured what many pastors today need to hear: don’t do weird stuff in your church. Don’t take your growth cues from a marketing team. Don’t lead church services that would make P. T. Barnum or J. J. Abrams proud. Don’t, in short, think you can offer something extraordinary based on your creativity or ingenuity, or that you can manufacture the extraordinary through reverse-engineering the results you want.
The Spirit has already revealed everything we need for gathering and growing churches. And, yes, it’s pretty ordinary stuff. You might even be tempted to call it boring and (ironically) uninspiring. Yet the uninspiring is inspired: preaching God’s Word, singing God’s Word, praying God’s Word, reading God’s Word, and declaring God’s Word through the ordinances. Those ordinary—as opposed to extraordinary—practices have been ordained. The wisdom of God often sounds like foolishness, no?
Will preaching from this old book really change people? Will singing from it really transform our heart’s affections? These are faith propositions. Believing in the power and effectiveness of the ordinary means requires faith. And too often we lack faith.
Oh, Lord, give us faith.
Very often pastors want extraordinary, and we reach for the extraordinary. We repeat William Carey’s line about expecting and attempting great things for God. We want movements and revivals and explosive growth and immediacy. Alone in our offices, then, we get down on our knees, pound the floor, and beg God for a mass of conversions. “Save hundreds this week, Lord, even thousands.”
I would not discourage you from praying that way. Those aren’t wrong desires. But be careful not to let such prayers hide a sneaking faithlessness—the faithlessness of trying to live by sight rather than faith. How desperately we want to see the crowds turning to Christ with our eyes, to hear the wind of the Spirit moving with our ears, in order to know that our sacrifices have been worth it. Yet what if God asks you to labor for 40 years in front of 70 or 80 people at a time, three now leaving, four then coming, moving to another state, arriving from another city, with nothing sensational or Christian newsworthy happening the whole time, other than a dozen baptisms per year and all the signs of maturing saints learning to fight sin and love one another? Will you be content or feel a little dissatisfied?
Imagine then you arrive at Judgment Day, and the Lord replays the story of your life from his perspective. Week after week, you pounded the floor and asked God for the extraordinary. But then you got up off your knees and committed yourself once again to the ordinary means and only the ordinary means. You studied the Bible. You labored over your sermons. Then week after week you mounted the pulpit and commended yourself “by the open statement of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2). Then, on this heavenly movie reel of your life, no movement began, no revival happened, but you watch as the several hundred people you ministered to in total over your pastorate raised godly children, shared the gospel with colleagues, and sent missionaries around the world. They in turn raised up thousands of disciples, both in your nation and around the world, who in turn raised up tens of thousands more; to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands and even millions of good deeds performed—wives encouraged, children nurtured, orphans adopted, disenfranchised employed, abused embraced, jobs created, and songs sung for the glory of God. What about now: will you still feel a little dissatisfied? Or will your jaw drop at the wonder of the Lord using you—sinful and inconsistent ole YOU!—to bear such fruit?
We fixate on the ocean surface, yet the real action is in the unseen currents below.
A member of my church recently asked me what the main “enemy” 9Marks is working against. I could have answered by pointing to sin or various worldly philosophies. I said “pragmatism.” But that word isn’t actually big enough to capture what I meant. So I further explained there are two main paths evangelical pastors take in ministry—the path of revival or the path of revivalism, the First Great Awakening or the Second Great Awakening, relying on God’s ingenuity or relying on our own, relying on the Spirit or relying on the psychology and sociology of movements, the path of faith or the path of sight, the ordinary means of grace or pragmatism.
— Jonathan Leeman