“Weird Stuff” Might Be Good Stuff in the Local Church
Embracing the ordinary means of grace as a sufficient and comprehensive approach to ministry isn’t merely about coming to the right theological conclusions, it’s a matter of the heart.
“So you work for 9Marks, huh? Aren’t their views on church kind of radical?”
I’d been here before but still didn’t quite know where to take this awkward conversation. Explain why I think New Testament polity is prescriptive? Nope, too heady. Show how the Reformers advocated these same doctrines? Nope, too geeky. I opted for something much simpler.
“We’re not radical,” I said, “we basically just encourage churches: ‘Hey, don’t do weird stuff.’”
What Weird Stuff?
Churches do lots of weird things. Some of that weirdness is a bit outlandish. A few years ago, a pastor in eastern Kentucky decided that traditional “baptismal waters” were a little too tame for his taste, so he started dunking new converts in pools of beer. In God’s providence, while writing this very paragraph, a friend sent me a YouTube clip of a preacher instructing his congregation to take their socks off and wave them over their heads while he improvised a song about how Jesus is spinning them “around . . . right round.”
Of course, most pastors and churches are sensible enough to avoid such ostentatious displays of weirdness. But we’ve got plenty of well-intentioned, respectable weirdness to go around. We’ve abandoned congregational singing for stage performers. We claim to be a people of the cross, but design our services around triumphalism, prosperity, and unbroken jolly-ness. We crave “worship” that serves up sentimentality rather than our need to repent and believe the gospel.
Most evangelical churches in America still have at their core the profound and simple elements of worship modeled by the early church: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Yet in many churches these simple acts of worship have been encrusted over by years of accumulated traditions that mask the beautiful simplicity of the ordinary means of grace.
Why Do We Do Weird Stuff?
Why have churches strayed from the ordinary means of grace and the simplicity of apostolic worship represented in Acts 2:42. Here are a few reasons.
1. We’ve lost our appetite for God’s majesty.
David Wells notes in his book God in the Wasteland:
The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music; and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common. (30)
The ordinary means of grace challenge our self-obsession and relentless pursuit of positive emotional fulfillment. They fixate our attention with laser-like focus on the majesty of God—majesty that both delights and terrifies. It forces our worship into a posture of “reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28–29).
2. We’ve lost our appetite for ecclesiology.
Churches often deviate from the ordinary means of grace simply because they’ve never considered that ecclesiology shapes ministry, even down to what we do on Sunday mornings. God hasn’t authorized us to devise our corporate worship services or our ministry according to our tastes. Instead, he’s said that what we do in worship should represent who we are as a church.
3. We’ve cultivated an appetite for entertainment and “positive emotions.”
The ordinary means of grace are aptly named—they’re ordinary. There’s nothing flashy or enticing about them. In a world of Marvel-sized spectacles, it’s easy to get insecure that the ordinary means simply won’t cut it. Furthermore, the ordinary means of grace resist our attempts to engineer certain emotional responses from the congregation. After all, it’s rather easy apart from the ordinary means of grace to design a service that produces a particular emotional response from the congregation.
But the ordinary means of grace put ourselves in a place of submission to God’s purposes for the congregation—purposes which sometimes include lament for sin, grief over loss, or solemnity at the cost of discipleship.
Stop Being Weird?
At the heart of these diagnoses is the fact that much of the church has embraced the world’s perspective on the cross—we consider it foolishness. But the ordinary means of grace embrace the folly of the cross; they place it front and center in all that we do.
Embracing the ordinary means of grace as a sufficient and comprehensive approach to ministry isn’t merely about coming to the right theological conclusions, it’s a matter of the heart. Do we really trust God to work through the simple means he has ordained, or do we believe our ingenuity supplies something the ordinary means lack?
In Scripture, attempts to “help God out” generally turn sideways. Just ask Abraham and Sarah how their masterplan to obtain a seed through Hagar worked out. They learned the hard way that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Too often, we think we can produce spiritual fruit outside the ordinary means of grace. But we can only make Ishmaels; God alone makes Isaacs.
For years, 9Marks has been standing with historic Protestantism advocating the ordinary means of grace. There’s nothing radical about this proposal. In fact, it’s squarely in line with the central Protestant conviction that we relate to God by faith and by faith alone. When we give ourselves to the simplicity of apostolic worship and the ordinary means of grace, we live by faith, trusting that God will accomplish what he’s promised to accomplish—and he’ll do so in a way that ensures he gets the credit, not us. So don’t do weird stuff. God acts in the ordinary.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.