In many ways, 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. Although encouraged by like-minded believers, we are not bound up with them so that we should feel compelled to bear their burdens or suffer their rebukes. Yet this movement-mentality keeps us restless and makes ordinary life in and submission to an actual church seem intolerably confining.
Radical. Epic. Revolutionary. Transformative. Ultimate. Extreme. Emergent. Alternative. Next. Impactful. On The Edge. Beyond. Awesome. Legendary. Innovative. Breakthrough.
Everything has to have an exclamation point to catch our attention these days. For many of us, the worst word in our vocabulary is “ordinary.” Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary”? Who wants to be an ordinary person in an ordinary town, a member of an ordinary church with ordinary friends and callings?
Our life has to count. We have to leave our mark, a legacy, make a difference. And this has to be something that we can manage, measure, and maintain. We have to live up to our own Facebook profile.
Yet there seems to be a restlessness with restlessness. It seems that a lot of us are becoming less eager to jump on bandwagons or trail-blaze totally new paths to greatness.
Truth be told, it is actually easier to dream big, pull up roots, and become anonymous—to start over—with a new set of upwardly mobile peers. And then to do it all over again, somewhere else, reinventing ourselves whenever we want a fresh start and a new set of supporting actors in our life movie. There is nothing wrong with moving to the city or pursuing adrenaline-racing callings. But the hype creeps into every area of our life. It’s making us tired, depressed, and mean.
Given the dominance of The Next Big Thing in our society, it is not at all surprising that the Christian sub-culture is passionate about superlatives. Many Christians were raised in an environment of managed expectations with measurable results. Like other aspects of life, growth in Christ as individuals and as churches could be programmed with predictable outcomes. Many Christians express astonishment when a fellow believer is content with an ordinary Christian life, with an ordinary church, among ordinary Christians, where God showers his extraordinary gifts through ordinary means of grace.
“Everydayness Is My Problem”
The writer Rod Dreher observed, “Everydayness is my problem. It’s easy to think about what you would do in wartime, or if a hurricane blows through, or if you spent a month in Paris, or if your guy wins the election, or if you won the lottery or bought that thing you really wanted. It’s a lot more difficult to figure out how you’re going to get through today without despair.” I know just how he feels, and I’m guessing you do too. Facing each day with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around us is much more difficult than chasing dreams.
In Christian circles, successive waves of extraordinariness have whipped us up into a frenzy, only to leave us exhausted or disillusioned. Sometimes it’s a new program for personal growth. For others, it’s a new form of worship. According to others, radical discipleship means more social interest in transforming the wider world. For still others, it has meant a longing for revival and awakening to stir us from our apparent slumbers.
For all of its vitality, evangelicalism is a movement, not a church. In many ways it has not only been influenced by but has helped to shape this aspect of the modern American personality. “Institutions kill the entrepreneurial spirit,” evangelicalism says, “You have to break out of the ordinary and follow the Spirit into new frontiers.” How much of this actually comes from Scripture and how much of it is simply part of our cultural conditioning? As Mark Galli, executive editor at Christianity Today, puts it, “The strength of the evangelical movement is its activism; the weakness of the evangelical movement is its activism.”
My target isn’t activism itself, but the marginalization of the ordinary as the richest site of both God’s activity and ours. Our problem isn’t that we are too active. Rather, it is that we have been prone to successive sprints instead of the long-distance run. There’s nothing wrong with energy. The danger is that we’re burning out ourselves—and each other—on restless anxieties and unrealistic expectations. It’s an impatience with the familiar, sometimes slow, and mostly imperceptible aspects of life.