A few months ago, a pastor from my hometown told me he’d recently planted a new church. I asked him to tell me more about it. As only a mountain man from north Georgia could put it, he said, “Well, it ain’t much to look at. Just preachin’, prayin’, and sangin.’ But we figure that’s plenty.” Plenty, indeed.
Cal Ripken Jr. became an extraordinary baseball player by doing an ordinary thing: he showed up for work. He did it again and again and again, a record 2,632 consecutive times. The Hall of Fame third baseman first appeared in the Baltimore Orioles starting lineup on May 30, 1982. His name wouldn’t be absent until September 20, 1998.
Barry Bonds became baseball’s Benedict Arnold by attempting something extraordinary: bending baseball’s rules. One of the most feared sluggers of the 1990s and 2000s, Bonds broke a most hallowed record—Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs. But Bonds did it by cheating. For the last several years of his career, he took drugs that artificially enhanced his performance—and inflated his home-run totals—enabling him to pass Aaron.
These two baseball players illustrate two different approaches to ministry—God’s way and ours. In the Reformed tradition, preaching, prayer and the ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are often called the “ordinary means of grace,” since they form the heart of worship and the core of local church ministry.
But in our good desire to see disciples made, I fear we get thrown by the term “ordinary.”
Grace Is Not Ordinary
The phrase “ordinary means of grace” does not imply God’s work is dull and unspectacular. There is nothing ordinary about God’s grace. His Spirit uses the public proclamation of an ancient book to convince an enemy army to love him and want to join his family.
A few months ago, a pastor from my hometown told me he’d recently planted a new church. I asked him to tell me more about it. As only a mountain man from north Georgia could put it, he said, “Well, it ain’t much to look at. Just preachin’, prayin’, and sangin.’ But we figure that’s plenty.”
When We Use Extraordinary Means
It’s plenty, because bad things happen when we exchange God’s means of grace for our own—or when we misuse his. Ask Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. While handling the sacred things in worship, they offered strange fire on God’s altar—a means of worship he did not command. The result? God vaporized them.
Ask Old Testament Israel, who embraced the pantheon of deities worshiped by the nations around them. So God used Assyria and Babylon—wicked nations—as instruments of judgment. (Of course, in his holiness God poured out judgment on those nations for their sin as well.)
One of the under-discussed principles of the Reformation is simplicity. Worship, ministry, and all the things that go with it (including church architecture) should be simple. My north Georgia friend was on to something that we—even in our good desire to see Christians edified and sinners embrace Christ—often forget: God performs his extraordinary work of spiritual awakening through ordinary people and ordinary things.