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Following Jesus is a Team Sport

Thus begins my first post in the new schedule. I am grateful for the time I’ve been able to spend writing other material. I’m also thankful for your support.

How will I start the new rhythm? By violating one of my personal boundaries in communication.

The topic? The proclamation, heard by others or revealed in action: I’m done with the church.

The boundary I’m going to cross?

Knowing most people don’t share my life-long affection for athletic endeavors, I’ve long refrained from using sports as sermon illustrations. Even though the Apostle Paul did it several times*, I generally prefer to use analogies that have a wider audience. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Game on!

The claim about church – who needs it? – is not new. I heard it uttered and muttered frequently in my decades of pastoral ministry.

Starting in 2020, the pandemic forced the people of God to isolate from other believers. Although restrictions have been lifted, apathy about resuming the practice of gathering with the saints has become endemic.

Yes, that’s a term. Lethargy about congregational life is now a characteristic of our culture. It takes energy and effort to move back from the recliner to the pew, to exchange the remote for the communion elements.

I know well the ABC’s of congregational life – Aggravating, Boring, and Clichéd. As a Pastor for three congregations, I have no doubt that I was often the one responsible for evoking those emotions.

But I’m convinced that for Jesus there was and is no Plan B. And we don’t have to look far to find Biblical counsel for gathering with other believers.

David’s metaphor – and one Jesus endorsed – is well-known: Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.** Did you notice I underlined the words that emphasize the 2nd person dynamics? It’s all about we.

You and I are in God’s flock, whether we want to be or not.

By itself, this foundational truth should keep our feet firmly on the path of participation. But tragically, the spirit of my mom’s favorite hymn – I Come to the Garden Alone – is now the dominant theme. It’s you and me, Lord. You’re my personal shepherd. Guide me. Refresh me. Thanks!

Can you see Jesus raise his eyebrows?

Paul also employed a metaphor, another biblical motivation to stay connected to other believers. All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”*** But the tragic image – the church as a global landscape of amputated body parts – only causes us to shrug our shoulders or simply sleep in.

So, with apologies to David and Paul, new metaphors can potentially bring new understanding. And maybe, just maybe – I might (re)kindle within you an active and participatory love for your sisters and brothers in Christ.

Here’s my athletic metaphor to explain why participating in congregational life is not optional: Following Jesus is a team sport.

Yes, I know – the life of faith is certainly not a recreational endeavor. And the analogy breaks down quickly. Being in competition with other “teams” has been a problem for the church since the days of Peter, James and John.

But the metaphor is helpful, because it brings some new clarity to the vital connection between believers like you and me. To grasp the nature of the church Jesus founded, we need to understand our identity. We have been invited to be on God’s team. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably said yes to that invitation.

God has one team throughout the earth, and you’re on it. That’s who you are. Being done with church is not an option.

With that established, I will unpack three dimensions to this truth. But we’ll do it one post at a time. Here’s reason number one.

1. Practicing by yourself and playing the game are not the same.

Let’s talk golf, my lifetime game. When I served as a pastor, my favorite “day off” activity was a few hours on the golf course – by myself. There’s a phrase for this: just tell the pro-shop attendant I prefer to go out as a single.

Translated, that means I don’t want to play with anyone else. (I took Mondays off, so the afternoons weren’t usually too busy). I liked to work on my game, and wanted to do it by myself. Enjoy the beauty of the course. Breathe deep. Analyze my swing. Take a second shot now and then. Analyze my life. Say thanks.

But that’s not golf. That’s practicing.

Golf is inherently a sport that involves engaging with others. It’s standing on the first tee or the fifteenth fairway, attempting to strike the ball well with three sets of eyes observing you. It’s being courteous and respectful. It’s taking turns. It’s about calling out fore! when you hit one astray, and smiling graciously when you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s mistake.

It’s about playing alongside others, waiting for everyone to finish before proceeding together to the next tee. You help your partners when they can’t find their ball, and you’re honest with yourself and others about how many times you hit yours.

That’s golf. Golf is a team sport. And it provides a great example of what it means to follow Jesus.

Following Jesus is a team sport. We do it with others. It involves the tough work of loving your neighbor, of loving others in the same way Jesus has loved you. It’s about learning to walk with and love your team members, the people you like and the people you don’t.

No, it’s not easy to play with others, which is why Paul repeated himself so often: Live in harmony with one another. Honor one another above yourselves. Be patient, bearing with one another in love. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Yes, be honest with Jesus, and tell him that you prefer to go out as a single, either as a lament of frustration or in your desire to improve. In that way, short seasons of solitude can be helpful discipline.

But living with Jesus apart from other believers has never been a permanent option. If you’re done with church, you’ve effectively left the team.

But no. You’re a team member. That’s your identity. The Holy Spirit is your coach and has equipped you and sent you into the game – which will be the topic for next month’s post.

Benediction of Blessing

  • May you remember your identity as one member of God’s team – by his grace and mercy.

  • May you press through your frustrations with other believers, asking God to help you see the church as he does.

  • May you kindle again your commitment to be connected to a local church.

* I Corinthians 9:25, Philippians 3:14, I Timothy 4:8, 2 Timothy 2:5.

** Psalm 95:6-7. See also Psalm 23 and John 10:1-21.

*** See I Corinthians 12:12-31.

**** See Matthew 6:5-15


Soccer Team – Jacquelyn Zvirzdys Wood. Thanks, Jackie!

Man golfing alone: Photo by Savatore Dinicola on Unsplash

Friends golfing - Photo by Gene Gallin on Unsplash

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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM


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