A Theology of the Ordinary

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life––your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life––and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Romans 12:1-2 (The Message)

Three years ago, my husband and I moved our family back to America after living seventeen years abroad. Upon our return, our then eight year-old daughter who had been born and raised in Scotland asked, “Mom, why do all the signs in America say, ‘the best,’ or ‘the biggest,’ or ‘the greatest in the world?’” I, American that I am, had not even noticed. Does one notice the air one breathes? That the grass is green?

Although I had not been aware of the extreme marketing claims that bombarded us far and wide, I was becoming aware of similar language among American Christians, although directed toward a different purpose. It seemed as if all my new acquaintances were reading books called Radical (Plass), Passion (Giglio), Crazy Love (Chan), Relentless (Bevere), Impact (Whitaker), Fervent (Shirer). In fact, that year’s biggest Christian conference was called Passion. I could not help but notice the fact that it was held in none other than Atlanta’s Infinite Energy Center.

Of course, one extreme always calls forth an equal reaction. During this time, I was also detecting a steady counter-trend, both secular and Christian. Against the American mantra ‘you were designed for greatness,’ there was the 2012 graduation speech that took America by storm: “You Are Not Special.”[1]

In Christian circles, blogs celebrating the holiness of ordinary life began popping up all over the internet. Churches were busy re-branding themselves with names like Outcast Fellowship and Salvage Yard to emphasize that they were accessible to ordinary folk. For Christian bookstores, Michael Horton penned a short primer called Ordinary, deliberately challenging Plass’s Radical by featuring an identical book cover. Horton goes even further, noting at long last a cultural “weariness with the cult of extraordinariness” and pointing to its possible roots.[2]

This book emerged from an extended meditation on this cultural obsession with greatness and being ‘impactful’ (a new word that had cropped up in American usage while we were away) and how it was infiltrating the church. This has made me wonder … is being ‘ordinary’ the next frontier for the Christian? Has our culture’s emphasis on supercharged emotions and measurable success blinded us to Romans 12 and the fact that our ordinary lives are our “spiritual act of worship”? As it says in The Message, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–– your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking––around life––and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”

Nevertheless while I am flagging the danger in a cultural obsession with passion and impact, I am equally wary of rejecting it. As encouraging as is the trend toward recovering the holiness of ordinary life, it will be lifeless if it is animated only by a reaction against fundamentalist dualism. We must be on our guard, lest a recovery of ordinary life becomes no more than a blessing of the status quo, devoid of sacrifice or hope for the future. In that case, a tonic of fundamentalist fervor might not be that bad after all.

These meditations aim to articulate the theology that lies beneath all this talk of the ‘holy ordinary’ ensuring that it is not just a reaction to fundamentalism or to extreme burnout. This theology must be marked by the benediction of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son, and the overflow of the Spirit. A robust trinitarian theology of the ordinary will not undermine being passionate or sold-out but will ground and purify it. The chapters will unfold as follows:

THE TRINITARIAN STORY

The blessing of the Father on ordinary life and creation

The inhabitation of the Son in ordinary life as the rule, not exception, for redemption

The ways the Spirit works in our ordinary lives to bring us into the new creation

THREE COUNTER–STORIES

We will also look at three competing stories that are always lurking in the church, seeking to undermine our “spiritual act of worship” in ordinary life. These are:

The Gnostic Story, which tries to overthrow the blessing of the Father

The Docetic Story, which casts suspicion on the common humanity of the Son

The Platonic Story, which removes the ‘spiritual’ from ordinary life and puts it on a higher plane

But first, a little bit of history to situate ourselves …

Setting the Stage, circa 1792

It was the year 1792 when America was in its infancy. George Washington was president. This year two important things happened that are pertinent to our story ––one in England and one in the States. First, in England, an unknown Baptist preacher preached a sermon that forever changed a small, growing movement called evangelicalism. He said, “Do great things for God; expect great things from God.” From this sermon, the modern missions movement was born and with it, evangelical fervor.[3]

(If you’ve ever heard it said that if you want to get something done, go ask a busy person––know that the same holds true for evangelicals! Essential to the evangelical nature is activism, particularly if it is the opportunity to do something great for God).

The second thing that happened during America’s infancy was the birth of a real flesh and blood infant named Charles Finney. Finney grew up to change the religious landscape of America. He was the first marketer of the gospel who made a ‘scientific’ study of the human emotions in order to manipulate them.

Finney was known for his “new methods” among which were revivals, tent meetings, and altar calls. What was common about these revivals was the sensationalism of the preaching, the high emotionalism, and the centrality of the “anxious bench.” The anxious bench was a literal bench that was placed at the very front of the revival hall, where those who were particularly worried about the status of their salvation were singled out to receive the special attention of the revivalist. It was where, in the intensity of public limelight, they could “give in” to Jesus. Finney’s autobiography is filled with reflections on how to tweak the means of evangelism to produce the desired ends. The measured success or failure of the methods were based on sheer numbers of converts. As Finney himself said, “It is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.”[4]

What this has to do with us is … everything. Two hundred years ago, Finney’s sensational movement swept our country. ‘True’ religion began to be associated with the extreme, the emotional moment, the passionate choice, the mountaintop experience. There even developed a quasi-science of the human personality and how to motivate it “for Jesus.”[5] What was happening in your local church was suddenly suspect; what was needed was a new personal revival. Your faith, heretofore growing by slow degrees, was seen to be too slow, too ordinary, lacking immediate and measurable results.

This sensational movement did not just limit itself to the East Coast but moved to the frontier and walked hand-in-hand with westward expansion over the Rockies to the coast. As Richard Hofstader remarked, “The star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail.”[6] The ‘star’ here, the focus of these revivals, in case you were wondering, is not God but the revivalist.

There were contemporary critics of Finney, of course, who were not blinded by the emotional and dramatic results. John Nevin, a Reformed professor-pastor, was deeply worried and wrote that “at the bottom” was nothing less than “two different theories of religion.” Nevin summarized these as the “system of the [anxious] Bench” and “the system of the Catechism.”[7] I want to call these two systems by another name: they are simply the ‘extraordinary Christian’ vs. ‘the ordinary Christian.’ The extraordinary Christian is one who is fueled by their personal spiritual experience, and often sees this as opposed to ‘everyday’ Christianity found in the church. The ordinary Christian, on the other hand, also has a personal relationship with God, but trusts that the structures set up by the apostles––baptism, teaching of the young (catechism), the sacraments––are not opposed to growth.[8]

This is our heritage. Have you ever had to do family research to find out if there are any medical conditions to which you might be prone? I’m providing some nineteenth-century family research for you to understand some of the spiritual conditions to which you may be prone, given that Charles Finney is in your spiritual DNA. Charles Finney, in a moment of unexpected self-scrutiny, was actually the first to wonder about the negative effects of revivalism upon one’s spiritual health. Toward the end of his life as he reflected back upon the success of his revivals (and re-revivals) (and re-re-re-revivals), he wondered if this endless craving for emotional experiences might lead to spiritual exhaustion. Even today, the area of New York where Finney worked as a revivalist is called the ‘Burned-Over District,’ as it had been scorched by so much religious enthusiasm and could no longer produce new spiritual fruit. 

Without a theology that values slow growth over dramatic change and the ‘ordinary’ as essential to our spiritual maturity, we are in danger of living in a burned-over district or a burned-over spirituality. Michael Horton, in an interview about his book Ordinary, remarks:

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.[9]

With Finney and the star system in our religious DNA, the normal faithful things of our lives feel, well, ordinary. Who wants to be bound to other Christians who are paying their mortgages, raising kids, or suffering depression when we can be blazing a trail with God on our own? As Horton wryly remarks, “It’s more fun to be part of movements than churches. We can express our own individuality, pick our favorite leaders, and be swept off our feet at conferences. We can be anonymous.”[10]

Scripture, on the other hand, teaches that our growth is bound to that of others (Eph. 4:13) and other people take time we don’t always want to give. Being anonymous, or an ‘individual Christian,’ is not an option for those of us who follow a God who Himself refuses to be alone.

How many conferences have you attended that emphasize Paul’s command to the mature and growing church in Thessaloniki, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands as we have instructed you” (1 Thess. 4:11)? These modern conferences and movements give people an expectation that growth happens only when we are away from our local church, away from the people whom God has placed in our lives. Paul’s command to the Thessalonians is not bare-minimum Christianity; it holds out ordinary life as a life that pleases God and sets one on the road for fulfilling the Great Commission.


[1] David McCullough Jr., “The ‘You Are Not Special’ Graduation Speech Is Just As Relevant Today” in Time, 17 Nov 2015 (http://time.com/4116019/david-mccullough-jr-graduation-speech-wellesley-high/). Accessed 1 Nov 2016.

[2] See Michael Horton, “The Ordinary Christian Life” in Tabletalk Magazine, 1 Aug. 2014 (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/ordinary-christian-life/). Accessed 1 November 2016. I have Mike to thank for pointing me to the Anxious Bench.

[3] See George Marsden’s Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990).

[4] Quoted in William B. Evans, “A Tale of Two Pieties: Nurture and Conversion in American Christianity,” in Reformation and Revival Journal 13:3 (2004): 61–75.

[5] J.I. Packer writes, “If we regard our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts––to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully––our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating” Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God [Downers’ Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 27.

[6] Reference thanks to Michael Horton.

[7] John Nevin, The Anxious Bench, the Anti-Christ, and the Sermon on Catholic Unity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2000), originally published in 1843.

[8] Martin Luther faced a similar pastoral crisis in the sixteenth century. His parishioners were looking for more exotic forms of discipleship and so gave a spiritual excuse for their dissatisfaction: pilgrimage. They roamed all over the country and beyond, believing that their local church did not have all that they needed. Luther counseled, “Let every man stay in his own parish. There he will find more than in all the shrines. In your own parish you will find baptism, the sacraments, preaching, and your neighbor.” Even for one as convinced as Luther as to the necessity of a personal faith, he saw that as soon as people “despise” the normal ways that God works, there comes an insatiable hunger for bigger and better experiences of spirituality. See his “An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility: Proposals for Reform II” in Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 77.

[9] Horton, Michael, “On Being an ‘Ordinary’ Christian,” interview with Alex Duke, 9Marks (http://9marks.org/article/on-being-an-ordinary-christian-an-interview-with-michael-horton/). Accessed 1 Nov, 2016.

[10] Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

Julie Canlis
Julie Canlishttps://www.livegodspeed.org/
Julie Canlis, Ph.D., is the author of Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, teaches at Whitworth University, and works with her husband Matt on their GODSPEED project.

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