Book Review: Ordinary, by Michael Horton
Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. Zondervan, 2014. 224 pages. $15.99.
When I first became a Christian, I remember attending a certain para-church event that was, for lack of a better term, bizarre. These evangelical events were designed to “reach people for Christ.” They were often very energetic, featuring lots of loud music, extravagant lighting (frequently with strobe lights), charismatic speakers who were close to my age (i.e. early twenties), excited audiences with some people so excited that they lost control of their bodies altogether and ended up on the ground. I quickly learned that these events were part of a large “youth movement.” Churches were embracing it, often trying to mimic it, but the movement itself never had any ecclesiological roots. It was its own thing—its own world. It was radical, edgy, extreme, awesome, and insert-superlative-here.
It has been a while since those days, but last I heard, the young leader of the movement unfortunately ended up in jail, and the event that used to see several thousand people a week has dwindled down to a fraction of that. This is not an entirely surprising turn of events because, frankly, wild, crazy, and highly energetic Christian movements just don’t last. It’s the ordinary, inglorious, yet faithful churches that withstand the floods (Lk 6:46-49), and Michael Horton’s book, Ordinary, provides us with a helpful reminder of this fact.
A REMINDER, NOT A RESPONSE
Looking at the orange cover of Horton’s book, and seeing how he takes aim at anything with a hint of “radical,” one might think this book is a response to David Platt’s book, Radical. After reading it, however, I have a different impression. This is not a response book. This is a book reminding evangelicals that God has given us some very ordinary means of grace through which he will do some extraordinary things—namely, make the ungodly godly.
Horton explains early on that he is not critiquing anyone in particular (27). He is writing to all evangelicals, himself included. Evangelicalism as a whole has developed a culture that is always hungry for new and amazing ways of living out the Christian life or doing ministry. It’s as if we have taken, “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17), as a mantra that allows us even to dispense with biblical instruction.
OBSESSED WITH THE EXTRAORDINARY
Horton contends that the Bible has given us what we need for growing in holiness and making disciples; we just prefer things a little less ordinary and a lot more radical. As he avers, “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). In other words, evangelicals have an addiction. We’re not satisfied with the slow, mustard seed-like growth of the kingdom of heaven. We need the quick fix of gimmicks and programs, weekly revivals and extravagant testimonies, anything that gives us a rush of spirituality and recreates Pentecost.
Horton spends the first part of the book diagnosing evangelicalism’s sickness before offering a remedy in the second part. In his analysis, numerous factors contribute to evangelicals’ dissatisfaction with ordinary means of sanctification. For one, they (we) have a problem with perfectionism. This is fundamentally an issue of not understanding the practical implications of justification. Perfectionists, Horton argues, seek their approval in other sinners, including, at times, themselves. A person who understands justification, on the other hand, recognizes that the only approval worth seeking is the approval of God, and this comes freely by grace through faith. Since a perfectionist does not understand justification correctly, they do not live from it, but for the approval and applause of other sinners (36). Thus they are enslaved in an endless cycle of attempting to please the unappeasable, and when this infects the church, the church finds itself tossed around by the culture, rather than engaging it.
Horton also points out that evangelicals have an unhealthy desire to reach the youth, such that we pander to them. Biblically, youthfulness is normally associated with immaturity and foolishness, yet many evangelical churches are either structured around the youth or separate them altogether from the rest of the membership. In a perceptive, but unfortunate comment, Horton writes, “For the first time in the history of the church, it has become possible to go from nursery to children’s church to Sunday school to the youth group and college ministry without ever actually having experienced church membership” (46-47). Evangelicals wonder why the youth so often leave the church when the answer is obvious: they never were a part of it.
Another contributing factor to evangelicals’ obsession with everything radical and new is their unwitting acceptance of the vice of ambition. In my view, this is Horton’s most perceptive and thought-provoking point. He spends a whole chapter detailing historically how ambition changed from a vice to a virtue. When we say that a person is ambitious, now, we are complimenting them. In the New Testament, howver, ambition is a sin (Phil 2:3-4; 2 Tim 3:2-4)—even demonic (Jas 3:13-18). It always has the glory of oneself as its end, rather than the glory of God.
Ambition permeates American culture, and evangelical churches have succumbed to its enticements. A person is worthy of praise when they have set out to accomplish their dreams, even if that dream has nothing to do with the glory of God. As Horton puts it, in our society, “Everyone is meant to break away from the herd and to become a phoenix rising from the ashes” (98).
He contends that this is not the way of the New Testament. In the body of Christ, everyone has different gifts, and a finger is no less essential than any other part (91-92). We are not all meant to become a rising phoenix, but are all called to live in the way of humility, “counting others more significant than ourselves” (Phil 2:3). Evangelical pastors, especially, need to be reminded of this, because it is often the vice of ambition, baptized with “the call of God,” that is the cause of pastors using churches as stepping stones for their own glory.
GARDEN OF THE GOSPEL
In part II of the book, Horton leads evangelicals toward the solution to their restlessness: the gospel. This may sound like a no-brainer, but for all their talk about the gospel, evangelicals tend to demonstrate a lack of contentment with it. We need something more—something beyond the gospel. Here, Horton hits the breaks for us and directs our attention to the light of the gospel which first gave us life. Through the gospel, and everything God has established in the church to remind us of the gospel (the ordinary means of preaching, baptism, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, the meeting), God accomplishes his miraculous work of making new creations in Christ. The gospel is what gives us new life, and, after making us new creatures, it is what guides us in a life of good works (Eph 2:8-10).
Moreover, Horton reminds us that God’s kingdom is like a garden (170). It doesn’t grow overnight, but slowly. As God’s garden, it’s tended to every day, but growth is not going to be seen every day. If it sprouts up quickly, chances are that whatever sprouted up does not have deep roots, and is in danger of being scorched (Lk 13:6). God is in the business of making deep-rooted disciples, and the means he uses to give them roots are the simple disciplines of Bible intake, prayer, preaching, etc.
In Ordinary, Horton has given evangelicals a tool to cast the burden off their backs. God does not require us to be spiritual superheroes, just faithful. By way of minor critique, the book has an unnecessary Presbyterian bent about it, which in my Baptist mind means an unusual plug for infant baptism and talk of Israel as the church (170). I say unnecessary and unusual here because if the book is intended for a wider audience, chances are that readers may get a little confused when Horton explains that “the church” was practicing idolatry during the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah. But I’m just quibbling at this point. The book delivers a needed message, and I hope many will read it and find a renewed satisfaction in the gospel of Christ.
THE GLORY IN THE ORDINARY
By way of personal reflection, I was refreshed by reading this book. As a brand-new, first-time pastor in Bowling Green, KY—no big city by any stretch of the imagination—my life and the lives of this small flock I shepherd is about as ordinary as it gets. No one I know is traveling across the country as a conference speaker. Not many people are wealthy, and many of these beloved saints are quite old. There are a few churches in the city that are fairly large, which can be quite intimidating to smaller churches like ours, especially when it seems like these churches are baptizing about 20 people per week, and we’re just trying to keep an even budget.
In this setting, I sense a very real temptation to commercialize the church. You know, create a bunch of programs and then sell them so that Christians from other churches will leave their church and join ours. The temptation, in other words, is to pursue our own glory, using every radical strategy in the radical playbook.
However, when I read this ordinary book about the ordinary Christian life, and began thinking about God’s great signs and wonders being performed every week through his ordinary means of grace (140), I also happened to be installing a weekly prayer meeting at the church. Nothing too spectacular there, and the meetings have been quite small. Maybe only five or six people show up. I was initially discouraged by the turnout. Only five people? And then we began to pray.
One evening, this old saint who has been a member at this church longer than I’ve been alive began to pray. And as she prayed, her voice trembled, and tears streamed down her face. At that moment I knew: our numbers didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were in the presence of God, together, casting our cares upon him. This little flock, with no great names, were being heard as we entrusted ourselves to the Lord who will one day write on us the name of our God (Rev 3:12). At that moment I knew: God is glorified by the inglorious.