You Probably Won’t Change the World and That’s Okay: Finding Beauty and Meaning in the Mundane and Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations as an Ordinary Christian

I happen to be in the generation known as the millennials, all of whom seem to be naïve and egotistical enough to think they can save the world. There are more “movements” and non-profits, often based on bad economics, than we know what to do with. We don’t volunteer in nursing homes anymore, because why would you, when you can dig fresh water wells in West Africa? When asked what we want to do with our lives we say “I want to help people” as if that is a vocation. We think we are going to end racism and poverty and preventable diseases. Kids are groomed to be professional athletes from age eight and pushed to attend Ivy League schools from an even earlier age. This sort of thinking, however, is not restricted to secular society. It unfortunately has slipped into the world of American Evangelicalism under the guise of super spirituality and radical devotion. We don’t just have church anymore. We have multiple parachurch organizations for every conceivable demographic and issue. Then each of these parachurch organizations has a blog, a podcast, and multiple conferences per year. And somehow each one thinks they are the most important and the one that deserves your donations. We gather in big groups and have strobe lights and loud music and get all excited about how we are going to end human trafficking and reach all of the unreached people groups. We then go back to our respective homes and forget to love the neighbor right in front of us. (Note I am not criticizing one specific conference or organization and am thankful for many.) We are going to make revival happen and turn our campus or our city or our world upside down for God. We are going to do “big things” for God, as if somehow we think we can give God anything at all. I giggle a bit every time I hear that. We all want to be William Wilberforce (who ironically was a pretty ordinary politician himself) or Hudson Taylor or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. No one wants to be Peter Beskendorf. (He was Martin Luther’s barber by the way. Martin Luther wrote him a great letter on how to pray as ordinary people.) We create a Catholicish hierarchy where the foreign missionaries are the hall of famers, the domestic church planters are the all-stars, the pastors are the productive utility players, those who work at non-profits ride the bench, and the dad who is a lawyer, whose wife passed away and is raising four children, one of whom is autistic and one of whom is addicted to heroin, is a minor league Christian at best. We should probably question his salvation as he tries to faithfully lead his family and live out his calling where he is. We are all supposed to “go.” Go where you ask? I don’t know. Just somewhere different than we are now. I should probably go plant a church in Freson, California, and the pastor in Freson should probably come to Columbus to plant a church here. (Also note I am not saying church planting is bad. I love Acts 29 and Sojourn Network.) We create a giant game of missional chairs. Let’s be honest, radical is way cooler than ordinary. We are not just Reformed. We are Young, Restless, and Reformed. The only problem is that Young, Restless, and Reformed, quickly turns into Middle Aged, Burnt out, and Theologically Jaded. Instead of changing the world we simply heap unneeded guilt upon people through unrealistic expectations leaving them anxious and paralyzed from guilt and disillusioned and depressed feeling as if what they do is meaningless. After we recover from thinking we are going to change the world, most of us end up being pretty ordinary anyway, we just end up having to go through radical rehab first.

Thankfully a few people have come to their senses. Tim Keller has written an amazing book called Every Good Endeavor. Kevin DeYoung and Anthony Bradley have also written about the harmful tendencies of the radical and restless nature of young Christians. You can see a couple of good posts from them here and here. And then there is Michael Horton’s book Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical Restless World.   Oh man this book was refreshing. It was actually pretty radical considering that books about being radical are actually becoming pretty ordinary these days.

So here is the first problem. When we become restless we actually become not very reformed. Reformed theology should make you rested not restless. The Reformation was about mainly two things: free grace and vocation. As Mike Wittner writes “the recovery of the spiritual value of ordinary work lies at the heart of the Reformation.” Because of the Reformation public school teachers, nurses, doctors, janitors, and stay at home moms should all be seen as valuable. Every regular job is significant to God because it provides you opportunities to cultivate the earth and love your neighbor. The doctor does not have to feel guilty that he is not preaching to a tribe in Southeast Asia and the lawyer doesn’t have to feel guilty that he is not marching for peace in Palestine. One thing that working at Panera has done for me is increase my appreciation for ordinary people like the guy I work with that probably doesn’t have a college degree and is working at Panera to provide for his five year old daughter. Another result of this vocational hierarchy thinking is that when we don’t see our work as meaningful, we don’t do a good job or we see it as only a means to reach people in that specific sector. Yes sharing the gospel at work and reaching out to coworkers is great and should be done, but if you are a chemical engineer, your job is to glorify God and serve your neighbor by being a good chemical engineer. You may ask how your ordinary job is serving your neighbor. Well I would like you to imagine a society with only missionaries and non-profits and no “ordinary” workers. It wouldn’t work and eventually there would actually be no missionaries or non-profits. Or maybe we just see our vocation as our “tent making” and a way to raise money for what really matters. Bob Groff, who I respect, has said his job as a lawyer is just a way of fundraising for his real job of loving people. He is correct to not see his career as his identity, but his job is to be a good lawyer. As Martin Luther has said “God cannot bear to see anyone neglect the duties of his calling or station in life to imitate the works of the saints.”

Perhaps even greater than the harm than creating needless anxiety for those who don’t live in a hut in the Amazon, we forget to love the neighbors we actually have the opportunity to love. Who is your neighbor, you ask? Good question. Well the guy who has loud parties every weekend that drive you crazy, the narcissistic sorority girl with a pumpkin spice latte and a North Face and thinks she is the hottest thing ever (or maybe she is actually struggling and compensating for low self-esteem), your demanding boss, the guy you always see by himself that doesn’t seem to have any friends, and the members of the LGBT or Muslim student groups would be a couple examples. Start by loving them. It’s a lot harder to do that than give thirty dollars a month to an orphan in Africa who you have only ever seen a picture of. (Note I am not saying doing that is bad.) And don’t just love them as a way to evangelize them, though you often should share the gospel, but love them because they are each unique human beings made in the image of God who are worthy of respect and dignity. Even if they never come to Christ, your labors of love are not in vain. They are significant and beautiful in God’s eyes.

Now let’s address the next issue; Christian celebrities and heroes. We only seem to know the few Christians from centuries past who have done “big things” and feel as if we have to live up to some standard they set, while forgetting the countless millions who were farmers and blacksmiths and other ordinary things. We have biographies of Christian “heroes” like George Mueller, Amy Carmichael, and John Wesley. Then we expect that this is what the Christian life is supposed to be like. It is supposed to be exciting and adventurous. After reading about Mueller, I was like “well he reads the entire Bible twice per year, prays like four hours per day, and lived by faith off of donations to his organization, so I better do that if I want to be a real Christian.” Amy Carmichael was a missionary for like fifty years without furlough, so I better do that. John Wesley was a vegetarian and a teetotaler and nearly gave away every penny of his income, so I better do that. (Interestingly enough Wesley presents us with a great example of what happens to someone when they are so focused on personal piety and their ministry that he forget those right in front of them. He was a terrible husband. Go read about that. This is also a good time to point out that most of this restless, radical thinking is based upon Wesleyan Revivalism, not solid Reformed theology.) It is taking me a lot of work to realize that God doesn’t want me to be someone else other than myself. He doesn’t need me to be Jim Eliot or Jonathan Edwards. He has given me specific gifts and passions and maybe those are not for preaching or international missions. I am free to rest in the righteousness of Christ, while pursuing holiness, and love those who are right in front of me. Michael Horton writes “ordinary lives have an ordinary impact and that is beautiful.” And it is meaningful. This is how God redeems the world. It is through small acts of love done in faith that God brings hope and healing to a broken and hurting world. God doesn’t need another hero. He is the hero. None of us can bear all of the sufferingin the world. We can bear some of others burdens, but only God can bear it all. Again, Horton says:

“we need ordinary believers of every generation, race, and socioeconomic background to whom we’re united by one baptism to one Lord and one faith by one Spirit. We simply need ordinary pastors to deliver the word of life and its sacraments faithfully, elders to guide us to maturity, and deacons to help keep the temporal gifts circulating in the body…We need fewer Christians who want to stand apart from their neighbors, doing something that will really display God’s kingdom in all of its glory. We need more Christians who take their place along believing and unbelieving neighbors in the daily gift exchange. The thief is not expected to become a monk or famous evangelist, but to ‘labor doing honest work with his own hands so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.’(Eph 4:28)”

Another issue with the “restless, radical” Christianity is that it turns us into spiritual thrill-seekers, leaving us perpetually disappointed. If you live for spiritual highs, you will spend most of the time in spiritual withdrawal. Not every church service or small group has to be a special experience. It won’t be. Most aren’t. Conferences and special events and programs are perfectly fine, they just must not be the lifeblood of your spiritual life. Normal sermons, random conversations with fellow believers, discipleship and daily devotions must be what provides most of our spiritual food. Michael Horton writes about how it is no longer acceptable when talking after a sermon to say that it was alright and that we learned a bit more about the Gospel of John. We expect people to say that it was life-changing. Yes we may sometimes may have huge breakthroughs, but most of our spiritual growth will come from the mundane.

Talk of revival is also very unhealthy. We often talk of revival in the context of our city or our country in a way that seems as though it is something we can manufacture. If we try a little harder or use a certain step by step process of evangelism and disciple making, or if we add a little more glitter, revival will happen. This is a subtle form of the prosperity gospel. You may labor faithfully and never see anyone come to Christ. When we do not see revival happen we become jaded and disappointed. Michael Horton says “there has been a vicious cycle of evangelical revivalism…a pendulum swinging between enthusiasm and disillusionment rather than steady maturity in Christ through participation in the ordinary life of the covenant community.” We often come up with a different process of disciple making and evangelism that we think will work, when actually none of these man made programs and processes can ensure revival. We are better off loving our non-believing neighbor in practical ways while sharing the gospel to them over a long period of time.

I can hear a few objections to what I am saying already. One is, “are you telling me just to live for myself and not be concerned about the world around me?” Far from it. We are told by Paul to be “zealous of good works.” (Titus 2:14) These good works however may be very boring and mundane. They may not include a flight across the Atlantic to Africa or even a drive to the inner city. They may, but they also may include loving your kids or serving your church that is in the suburbs. So am I saying there should be no missionaries? Nope. If you feel called to be a missionary and have a strong passion for a certain part of the world and international missions fit your gifting, by all means, if presented with the opportunity be a missionary. I am afraid though that we turn the great commission into something it is not when idolize “going.” The Great Commission is far less about going than it is about making disciples. The original Greek translation would be more accurately translated to “as you go”, not “go.” While I certainly believe there should be international missionaries, I often see a lot of going and not a lot of disciple making. I see a lot of missionary idolization and elevation of the Great Commission to the most important text or command in the bible, which was not present in the church prior to the 1700s when Revivalism was in full swing. Anthony Bradley has written a good piece about that here. I am also not saying that we should not make efforts to be innovative. Using modern technology and our increased interconnectivity for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good is wonderful. I am thankful for many Christian blogs and have a couple Christian podcasts I listen to. These are great, but more often than not I believe the gospel is going to spread through ordinary interactions in the regular rhythms of life.

Far from trying to condemn an entire generation of Christians or movement within Christianity, I am trying to provide relief for those who feel constant guilt for not doing “big things” for God or being “radical” enough. I love the work that may church panting organizations such as Redeemer City to City are doing. I have my own favorite non-profits and organizations like Restore One, TWLOHA, Save the Storks and Fight the New Drug, I am glad sex trafficking, mental health, abortion and pornography are being talked about on a large scale. I have Christian heroes from the past such as Martin Luther and Francis Schaeffer. I love what groups like Reach Records, Collision Records, and Humble Beast are doing. I am excited to see the conversations that groups like Q Ideas, Forth District and The Veritas Forum (not to be confused with the church I go to called Veritas) are creating. The ability to have difficult conversations about issues such as race, immigration, and sexuality is a great thing. I am thankful for the impact Cru has had on my life and am grateful for other campus ministries including RUF and Intervarsity. These are all great organizations. I am even grateful for many who have heaped unnecessary guilt upon me and others. What they are doing, save the distribution of guilt, is often awesome work done with good motives as a response to the consumerism of the American church.

But, you probably won’t change the world, and that’s okay because Jesus already has. You probably won’t start the non-profit that ends world hunger or sex slavery. You probably won’t be the person who preaches the gospel to the last unreached people group. You most likely won’t even be a missionary to a foreign country or work for a large charity like the Red Cross. You will probably have a pretty ordinary job. Do that job well. Join a church, get plugged in and give generously. Love your spouse if you are married. Take care of your children if you have them. Love those right in front of you. This is beautiful and meaningful. As Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College says, the book of Ecclesiastes is not really about how nothing matters, but how everything matters. Because of God, the most mundane activities of life matter. They are eternally significant. If you are very passionate about a specific cause, give the time and money that you can. But you will probably change the world the most by tucking your kids in to bed, praying with your spouse or having that difficult conversation with your roommate. Like I said earlier “ordinary lives have an ordinary impact that is beautiful in its own right.”

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