March Madness & The Mission of God: 3 Lessons For The Church Today
Every year our family and extended families fill out a March Madness bracket, watch some games, and play for bragging rights as to who predicted the winning teams. On a good year, I usually finish anywhere from tenth to fifteenth place. This year was my best year to date: ninth place!
As fun as it is to watch a few games, everyone in my family knows I'm the least knowledgeable person to talk to when it comes college basketball. Thankfully, I've got gracious in-laws who were players or who are coaches who have taught me a thing or two over the past ten years since I married into this wonderful family of "sports people".
However, being a Christian who is passionate about the mission of God and Christian leadership, sometimes the game itself gets in the way as I perceive other dynamics, specifically, the culture and leadership dynamics of the teams. This year's March Madness games were no exception.
As I watched a handful of teams win, some common themes kept rising to the surface and I was struck by a lot of things that I feel are incredibly helpful to Christians as it relates to the life of the local church and, specifically, the mission of God to see redemption play out around the world as the good news of Jesus spreads to every nook and cranny of society.
Obviously, I'll be comparing the bride of Christ (the local church) to a sports team and there are going to be obvious places where the comparisons break down or don't apply. Apples and oranges; I get it. Also, these critiques and lessons are coming from a general overview of the local church. I know there are many gospel-centered churches living on mission and healthy. With all this in mind, I appreciate your grace in advance.
However, if you'll allow me to draw some conclusions, I think there are some significant lessons the local church could learn from these elite college basketball teams.
Here are three common themes these dedicated teams all displayed that the local church can and should learn from:
1. Dedicated teams rally around a common goal
This is not hard to see or understand. Sports teams exist to win games. That's typically their common goal. There may be additional language about legacy, character, or success, but at the end of the day teams exist to win games. In addition, there are a myriad of disciplines, routines, and culture-building techniques that all serve the common goal: winning. This common goal serves as the driving force behind everything the team does.
Lesson for the Church: Think about how most local churches are NOT rallying behind the same common goal. If you've been to more than three churches you know what I mean. Some churches exist to build a platform for the pastor or their brand. Some churches exist to be a social club for their small slice of the socio-economic pie in a given area. Some churches exist to elevate social justice higher than biblical ecclesiology. Some churches don't know why they exist so the goal is to survive no matter the cost or eternal ramifications. Some churches exist to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth and make Jesus famous. Some churches exist to build their own kingdoms.
These are but a handful of examples of how the local church does not rally around a common goal. This begs the next question: What should the common goal be? That answer is long and is ultimately for another blog post for another time but the short answer is this: love God, love people, make disciples. There's a lot to that but if you boil it all down I believe this is the essence of the local church's mission on earth.
Reflection: Are you dedicated enough to Jesus to pursue the collective success of God's mission? Does united prayer, fasting, and personal sacrifice characterize your personal pursuit of the mission? Does your Church?
2. Dedicated teams are passionate and compelling
Watching the March Madness games are fun primarily because the athletes playing are incredibly talented and incredibly passionate. There is no one suited up for the game who doesn't want to be there. Every player has skin in the game and is sold out for the common goal and the team they play for. The passion is contagious and it comes across in every play.
Lesson for the Church: Almost research statistic about North America shows that Christianity is on a steady pace to becoming more and more irrelevant in our culture today.
This begs the question: Where have all the passionate people gone? Who is following Jesus in such a way that their life compels others to join them? Who is passionately living out the mission of Jesus?
I'm not going to pretend that I'm the perfect role model for this, but it saddens me that kids grow up with more role models outside the Church than within. Our kids today are more enamored with sports starts, movie starts, rock starts or a YouTube celebrity than they are with the men and women in their faith community. Why is that? So, men, are you more passionate it about "the game" or the Lord? Yes, you can be passionate about both but you can only serve one Master.
Reflection: What will it take for the Church to be passionate and compelling again like it was in the book of Acts? What will it take for you, personally?
3. Dedicated teams care more about collective success rather than personal agendas
If you watched the national championship game with Michigan vs. Villanova, it wasn't hard to see that both teams were unselfish with the ball. Both teams trusted each other and knew that every player had something to contribute. Specifically, when Villanova's best player was in foul trouble, he sat on the bench for about 7 minutes in the second half. I thought the team would fall behind a bit but to my surprise, the exact opposite happened. Other players rose to the occasion, played without fear, shared the ball, and pressed the margin of their lead to over twenty points! It was a beautiful display of seeing each individual serving the greater collective rather than focusing on individual achievement.
Lesson for the Church: Do we see this in the local church? Unfortunately, a lot of times, the answer is no. A lot of churches, small or big, often elevate the pastor(s) as the hero of the church. This couldn't be further from what the New Testament teaches and models for us. If you read Acts, there's no way the early church grew by the thousands each week with only a few "elite" pastors (Peter, James, John, or Paul) doing all the hard work. On the other hand, there are a lot of churches where the pastor is a good humble leader trying to lead the flock in a good direction yet, unfortunately, his flock is more interested in their own personal agenda than submitting to their leaders and embracing change or challenge.
Reflection: Ultimately, every believer is designed to be on mission together for the collective success of the mission of Jesus (Ephesians 4:1-16). Can that be said of you and your church?
A Final Exhortation: The mission of God will always trump the mission of men
These three lessons are good lessons for the Church. I'm inspired by a passionate team that clearly lives with conviction and determination. I think the Church should be leading the way in this but if we're not, I'm thankful that the timeless truth of God can be seen even in sports teams.
With all that being said, I must end this with a final exhortation that may be hard to hear. This will be hard for some to read and accept, but the tragic reality is that many Christians are far more dedicated, on and off the court, to the mission of sports than they are to the mission of God.
What is the mission of God?
The mission of God, in short, is the plan of God to redeem and restore all He has called to Himself through the good news of Jesus Christ. It begins with God redeeming an individual and drawing the person into a deep and loving relationship with Himself. It also includes God sending His people, with His message (the gospel), to the nations in order to accomplish the mission of telling others that there is a way to be made right with the Creator of the universe! (2 Corinthians 5:17-21, Acts 1:8, John 3:16, Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15)
Clearly, there are positive aspects of any hobby where kids learn to develop character, disciplines, and an honest work ethic. The majority of this post is celebrating the reality that the Church can and should learn a thing or two from these teams! These positive and necessary aspects are worth pursuing yet it's not hard to see how these good things get morphed into an allegiance to sports that trumps all others. In extreme cases, some parents even end up raising their kids to believe the most important thing in life is to be a "winner" and do whatever it takes to be successful.
Somewhere along the way we, as Christians, lost sight of the inescapable reality that at the end of the day, it's just a game. Ten years from now no one will even remember that team, or that shot, or those records. Why? Because we'll have moved on to the next great team in the moment. The manufactured "glory" of sports fades in an instant. And, most importantly, we've been designed by God to pursue bringing Him glory, not ourselves. We bring Him glory by elevating His character, His love, His grace, His attributes, and His son Jesus Christ. How often are those themes in the mix with Christians on the court?
Again, I'm not "anti" sports. I'm simply concerned that the mission of sports is clearly a much higher priority to most Christians than the mission of God. You can definitely have a healthy balance of both and that's my hope and my prayer for all Christians who desire to live for the glory of God on and off the court. It is possible and I believe God wants us to use our gifts, talents, and abilities in a way that is enjoyable, fulfilling, and edifying.
The mission of God will never fade because it literally is the most glorious endeavor a human being can be a part of.
Do we see the same dedication of time, energy, resources, and personal sacrifice for the mission of God? Not even close. This is not ok and we've got to stop pretending it is.
Reflection: do you need to confess any out of place priorities? How would you rate your level of commitment to the mission of God? What areas can you begin joining the mission this week?
Imagine what our world could look like when every believer is passionately following Jesus, passionately loving the world around them, and passionately sharing the gospel and making disciples. Imagine what our world could look like when the Church makes the mission of God the chief pursuit of their short time on this earth and brings much glory to the Father!
Eternity is at stake. We only get one life. What will you do with it?