A grueling season of competition is coming to an end. One more game in the NCAA Basketball tournament (March Madness) and the champion will be crowned. At least that’s what society wants us to think. As Americans we live in a context steeped in competitive zeal.
The word’s of General George Patton to the men of Third Army during world war two exemplify our nations attitude toward competition; “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time…The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” This was one of the first quotes I learned as a young boy. I was raised in a context that viewed everything as a competition: grades, sports, love, even cooking couldn’t escape.
And so we compete, yearning to win, to succeed at any cost. Not realising that our desire to beat our competitors blinds us. We become focused on what others are doing, accomplishing, presenting to the world. Especially in this modern age of the internet, facebook and websites. Where only specific aspects of identity are presented in a way that puts them in the best, or worst, possible light. We become focused on those we believe we are competing against and fail to focus on ourselves.
Now don’t tell anybody else this but competition can sometimes find it’s way into church life. In the seven minutes it takes me to drive home from my office I’ll pass by ten other churches; at least two of them are Baptist. In a world where church membership isn’t a given, there’s a church on every other corner and church plants are in every school gymnasium, it can seem like we are playing in our own championship tournament.
Here’s the thing: we are. The mistake we make is thinking that those other churches are competition. The real competition is ourselves. As we strive for success in following the will of Christ, no one else can cause us to fail. In fact focusing on those other churches, what they have and what their doing, only prevents us from becoming the best we can be. We become champions for Christ when we focus solely on his will for our lives. This is a difficult thing.
March Madness is a great time to think about what it means for the church to strive for success because of the history of the tournament itself. In particular because of a man named John Wooden. He coached at UCLA from 1948 to 1975. Leading the team to ten NCAA Tournament Championships and four undefeated seasons; feats of success no one else has come close to replicating.
He did this without ever using the word “win” in any of his practices. “My players will tell you they never heard me mention winning… You can lose when you outscore someone in a game and you can win when you are outscored.”
We all keep score to some degree. What Wooden recognized is that everyone is different. Some people, teams, churches are blessed with abilities and resources that we may or may not have ourselves. “If you prepare properly, you may be outscored but you will never lose. You always win when you make the full effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” The focus always needs to be upon ourselves and our churches. How we can improve preparation and “make the full effort”?
Wooden’s definition of success defied that of our culture. “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” Read that again and take some time to chew on it. The most successful coach, in a winning obsessed nation, made a conscious choice to throw away the scoreboard. To focus on the effort not on the end result.
Wooden wanted to win, he didn’t play the game just to pass the time but he came to realize that there really wasn’t a whole lot that was under his control. One of the surprising things about this realization is where it came from: his father, a farmer who lost everything in the depression. “Father said, never try to be better than someone else but never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s something over which you have some control and you have no control over how good somebody else could be.”
This is just as true for the church as it is for individuals. We compare churches and create unrealistic expectations of everyone. “When you get yourself concerned in regard to the things over which you have no control thats going to adversely affect the things over which you have control.” Every church has it’s own unique heritage, it’s own traits and characteristics that make it special. When we focus on what other churches are doing we lose sight of those unique qualities and forget what attracted us in the first place.
Churches often focus on, and judge each other by, the big events. Just like the NCAA Basketball Tournament that will finish tonight. Millions of people will turn on their t.v. sets and judge the players by what they do in one evening on the court. The reality is that this championship game will be the culmination of countless hours of practice that no one will ever see.
Wooden recognized that success really happened on the practice courts when no one else was watching. “Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.” Rather than focusing on the championship game we need to be focused on doing the hard stuff that no one but God sees or probably even knows about. “Believe things will work out as they should providing we do as we should. Our tendency is to hope things will turn out the way we want them to but we don’t do the things that are.”
The church should not be about competition. There is enough kingdom work to go around in every community. But we come from a culture and context that is inherently competitive. The Apostle Paul would have us live as champions “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” 1 Cor. 9:24.
John Wooden created champions not by focusing on winning but by focusing on being the best player possible. “If you prepare properly, you may be outscored but you will never lose. You always win when you make the full effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” How do you define success for yourself and your church? Let me know, because the only way we’ll be true to Christ’s mission is if we strive to become champions together.
*quotations taken from John Wooden’s 2009 TED Talk and his Coaches Choice talk which can be cound here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c324U6Y3QoY.