Ordinary is the new Radical. Michael Horton’s newest book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, campaigns for the church to reconsider her calling to be faithful in ordinary Christian living. This is according to a Christianity Today book review by Philip Cary. (Full disclosure: I have only read the review of the book, but not the book…yet.) According to the review, Horton critiques the trendy obsession with “radical” obedience.Instead, he suggests that Christians plant themselves where they are. Instead of being obsessed with changing the world tomorrow, live faithfully by preaching the word, serving the local church, and giving a long commitment.
The cover design of the book and use of the term “radical” indicates the book Radical by David Platt might be in his cross-hairs. Platt’s book looks at the “American dream” and sees a contradiction with the Bible. The book came from a sermon series preached at the Church at Brook Hills, nestled in a wealthy suburb of Birmingham, AL. The book calls for readers to live less for themselves and live for Jesus in the way of Jesus. Giving to the poor, investing your lives with those who who have been marginalized or neglected by ministry efforts, and going with the message of the gospel to all parts of the globe. The book became wildly popular and was influential in many taking extraordinary steps in radical obedience to Jesus. Some Christian families took in foster children and/or adopted children. Others sold their large, comfortable houses and moved to locations where they could better serve those who had little.
Is Ordinary the way to go?
I understand Michael Horton’s concerns. All over the country, Christians are clamoring to be a part of churches that do extraordinary things. Churches, particularly of the mega variety, sensationalize their ministries and missions in such ways that it out-cools the smaller, simpler local churches. Christians will jump to new churches that appear to be doing such incredible things because they want to be a part of a church that does promotes such tweet-worthy endeavors. I was at a church that was hyping their missions emphasis by bragging that their church alone was going to send short-term missions teams to all 24 time zones (until they realized that one time zone had very few people in it). Sensationalized ministry and mission draws a lot of attention for a time, but if you leave a church to go to a different one doing bigger and better things, then chances are you will leave that church for the next church that does even bigger and better things. Celebrity pastors, rock concert worship performances, and hyped-up ministry campaigns can charm us into zombie-like enslavement to consumeristic Christianity.
Horton’s call for Christians to live deeply where they are and live committed to a local church is a good one. The longer I’m around on this planet, the more I’m struck by the long-term potential impact of a church. All over the world there are small, simple, extremely uncool churches who are faithfully making disciples of Jesus and serving people in their communities. Most often these churches have pastors that come and go, but they have members who have committed for the long term. Odds are many of these churches are riddled with inter-relational troubles, but they stumble forward in service of our King. Long-term faithfulness in the place where God has put us doesn’t sound radical and yet it is (Jer. 29:4-7).
Is Radical the way to go?
I also understand David Platt’s concerns. I see the average, middle-class life and I see families living in a luxury that is shared with only a few people. We shuttle our kids to soccer practices and games and birthday parties and concerts and park in garages larger than most homes around the world. Thousands of dollars are spent on birthdays and holidays; much of it is spent on our families. This lifestyle takes what God has provided and spends it on ourselves. Then we fall into patterns of busyness that leave no room for serving the poor and marginalized. The urgency of the gospel is drowned out by getting our kids to one pleasant activity after another. It is no wonder that Platt called for the church to reconsider the biblical call to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. The story told by Jesus to illustrate what this means is the one about the good Samaritan who took great risks and made great sacrifices of time and resources to help a nobody (Luke 10:25-37).
The call to live radically is not intended to be guilt-inducing or works-righteousness oriented. There is a recognition that many of us built up a lifestyle for ourselves that needs to be dismantled so we can live faithfully in the way of Jesus. Nobody is suggesting this is an easy move, but it is a necessary one. It troubles me that whenever someone reminds us of the biblical injunction to do something difficult, the grace police come out with accusations of trying to earn God’s grace by living radically. The Bible is indisputably clear that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor and we have no other recourse except to turn in faith to the Messiah Jesus. And the Bible is equally clear that, now that we live in God’s grace, we can and should put everything on the line for God’s glory. This is not a call to go find the church with the sexiest radical ministries or the pastor with the preaching that makes it hurt so good. This is a call to intentionally live our lives where we are, with our orientation on serving Christ and his kingdom.
But that is not the whole story. Christians, as a whole, are overwhelmingly middle-class and in places where there are a lot of other Christians. If we all live faithfully in our contexts–as wonderful as that would be–there would be large segments of the global population who would be untouched by our faithful service. In our cities, we tend to live in the places where it is safe and the schools are good. Who will serve the communities mired in poverty which lack the basic structures that would enable them to be lifted out of it? Who will serve 1 billion slum dwellers around the world? Who will share this message of God’s grace to the 2 billion people who live beyond the reach of a faithful church worshiping in their language?
A solution found in church history
Michael Horton’s call to live faithfully right where you are seems incomplete. David Platt’s call to live radically is perceived to be too extreme for the ordinary Christian. What do we do with this apparent conflict? When we look back at 2000 years of our history as the church, the names that come to mind are those who took radical steps to live obediently to the radical gospel of Jesus. We know the story of Paul, a converted Christian-hunter, who gave everything to take the gospel to cities and provinces that had yet heard the news. Perhaps we can recall St. Francis of Assisi, who left his comfortable lifestyle to preach among the poor. Or, William Carey who put his whole family in jeopardy in order to go to a part of the world that lacked a gospel witness. Or, in our contemporary era, Viv Grigg giving up a comfortable ministry with middle class university students in order to share Christ in the slums of Manila (you can read Grigg’s story here). There are thousands of others who have responded to the gospel of Christ by taking radical steps.
St. Francis, William Carey, and Viv Grigg took courageous steps to obey the call of Christ on their lives. The challenge in doing so was the church. The church’s default ministry orientation is to her immediate community. In the case of each of these men, they had to develop another structure for those who felt called to a more radical type of obedience, whether it was to the poor in the same city or crossing oceans with the message of the gospel. Throughout Christian history, there have been monastic orders and missionary societies that have provided a structure for those wishing to follow Christ radically. In 1973 the late Ralph Winter gave an address promoting the two structures used by God for his redemptive purposes. One structure we readily acknowledge is the church. We tend to be more reluctant to acknowledge the validity and role of the missionary structure. Yet, it is precisely this structure that continues to push the church beyond the status quo, by going to places where the church is not yet established. The church as a whole has thrived best when these two structures are both present and mutually supportive.
So, we need Michael Horton’s message to invest deeply where God has placed us with an unrelenting commitment to the local church and the ministry of the gospel. And we need David Platt’s message to break out of a mediocre Christian life in order to serve God more radically by serving the poor and going to people who have been beyond the reach of the established church.