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The World Cup and the Church - Reprised

Eight years ago I wrote an article about the World Cup and the Church called, "Why America Will Never Win the World Cup and Why This Matters to the Church."  After watching the U.S. go head to head with Portugal last night, I thought I might pull out that old essay and see if it holds any relevance today.  The interest in "futbol" has grown quite considerably in the U.S. over the past eight years, as you will see from my now antiquated observations.  But the application of these muses still resonates with the American Church.  Let's see if you agree.

July, 2006

By the time you read this, the World Cup will have come and gone. This global event that occurs every four years may have passed without even a hint of awareness on your part. Before this year’s World Cup (which is all about soccer, by the way) I considered this event about as important as my need to pull the weeds behind my shed once a year. I am a sports-minded individual. Not a fanatic, but a fan nonetheless. So why has it been so difficult for me to get into this sport that has such a global fan base?

As I have contemplated this deep theological issue, it dawned on me that this is a picture of the church. So much has changed all around us. In the world of sports, American fans are still caught up in the national pastimes of football, baseball, and basketball. And I’m one of them. But to many younger generations and fans around the world, soccer rules the roost along with “extreme” sports such as BMX, skateboarding, snowboarding, and the like.

In the community of faith called the church we are still caught up in our “worship wars,” dress styles, and other personal preferences. Meanwhile, people in our communities have moved on and do not even realize that these issues, which seem so important to us, even exist.

I remember one Sunday about six months after we planted Journey Christian Church in New Orleans, one of our church leaders said, “Isn’t it wonderful? Not one person has made an issue about what people wear or the type of music we sing.” That changed, of course, as more churched people began to attend. But the beauty of reaching a predominantly unchurched culture is that you don’t have time to worry about preferences. You’re too busy helping people get off of drugs, off the streets, or out of the meaningless existence of just trying to make more money.

So why is it America will never win the World Cup and why does this matter to us in the church?

1. Game vs. Lifestyle

For America, soccer is a game. For other countries, it is a lifestyle. The same can be said concerning our faith in Jesus Christ. For some it is merely a routine experience of knowing (1) we are “saved,” (2) we are supposed to “go to church,” and (3) we should be “good people.” In order for our churches to grow spiritually and numerically, however, Christianity must become a way of life (Colossians 3:17).

2. Subculture vs. Mainstream

Soccer in America hasn’t quite become mainstream. It does not receive the media exposure given to the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Soccer is more of a subculture, still in the ranks of snowboarding and BMX. In other cultures, soccer is THE THING. It is mainstream, and the fan base shows it.

Although Christianity may never be (and possibly shouldn’t be) mainstream (Matthew 7:13,14), we shouldn’t grow content with our faith becoming marginalized and merely tolerated as one of many options in the religious and neo-pagan landscape of America. This is not about power but being salt and light to penetrate our culture and reach the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:13-16).

3. Short-term vs. Long-term

Four years ago the American soccer team made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup only to lose to Germany (I looked it up, And you know how we Americans can be. We win a few games and the next thing we expect is to become world champions.

So this year was supposed to be “our year.” Expectations were high only to be shattered by a quick exit. Soccer did not become a “national pastime” in Brazil, Portugal, and other countries overnight, and it will not happen that way in America either. It may be two or three more generations before our country gets on the bandwagon of men (and women) kicking a white ball into nets.

Likewise, in our culture of “bigger is better,” we in the church are often tempted to view ministry through short-term expectations rather than long-term cultural change. The rippling effects of lives radically committed to Christ, loving one another, serving our communities, ministering to the poor, and being faithful in personal ethics will grow gradually from generation to generation. This is why intergenerational ministry is so important as we learn from the wisdom of our elders and take risks in reaching the youth of our culture (Titus 2:1-8).

4. Status Quo vs. Sacrifice

If soccer is to become a top-tier sport on our airwaves and in the hearts of our people, then schools, parents, coaches, and kids need to move to greater levels of sacrifice instead of maintaining the status quo. Higher expectations require higher sacrifice. Training, resources, commitment, diligence—all of these need to take place. In France, Germany, Brazil, Spain, and Portugal people take soccer seriously, and out of that demeanor comes sacrifice.

Similarly, churches can very easily fall into a status quo mentality where things are “good enough” for our congregations rather than ramping up through sacrifice for whatever God may have for us on the horizon. This is not just about reaching more people for Christ but helping people become better disciples of Christ (2 Peter 1:5-11).

When someone is baptized into Jesus Christ, what do our churches do to disciple these new converts? How can we strengthen marriages? How can we equip people more effectively to use their gifts in meaningful ministry? How can we take seriously that what we do on Sunday mornings is eternally significant because we are worshiping the living and mighty God of the universe?

Perhaps one day the U.S. will win the World Cup. To be honest with you, even if it does I probably won’t be painting my face red, white, and blue and singing “God Bless the U.S.A.”

What excites me, however, is seeing our churches continue to learn these World Cup lessons and become even more effective at reaching our world for Jesus Christ.

It is time for us to train diligently and sacrificially, because we do not have another four years before the next big event. Our real-life matches happen every day, whether we are ready or not. So let us “compete in the games (with) strict training” not to receive a crown that will perish but “to gain a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25).

Where is your focus?

I’m studying through the book of Hebrews as of late, and it’s been quite a reminder of where my focus needs to be … Jesus. Too often I find myself drifting onto other important aspects of church life and then forget to keep the main thing the main thing. The church I serve has been going through a lot of change recently, and when I say, “a lot,” I mean “mega-lot,” and it’s been anything but easy.

Quite frankly, I struggle with listening to the still small voice of God. I wish God would inscribe His will on tablets of stone, hand deliver them, and I could come down from the mountain to instruct His people. But church leadership is not like that, at least not for me. Church leadership is a messy, fluid, oftentimes foggy process of working with others in a collaborative effort to discern and follow the will of the Lord. In a church of 50 people, there will be fifty ideas of what God’s will looks like. In a church of 3,000 people, well, let’s just say it doesn’t get any easier.

This is why I love the book of Hebrews. For Jewish believers, there were many elements of their faith that could take center stage: opinions about the role and importance of angels (chapters 1-2), Moses and the Sabbath (chapters 3-4), the priesthood (chapters 5-7), the old covenant (chapters 8-9), sacrifices (chapter 10), and saints (chapter 11). With each of these important areas of focus, the writer of Hebrews says, “But wait, there’s more.”

Like an attorney building a case, this inspired author demonstrates the supremacy of Jesus over all of these religious matters. Jesus is greater than the angels and Moses, He is the ultimate High Priest, He ushered in a new covenant, He is the final sacrifice, and He is the Center of the faith of those who have gone before us. Therefore, we look to Jesus and take our place in His unshakable Kingdom (chapter 12) as we live out our faith in love, purity, and honor (chapter 13).

In our church, perhaps like yours, there are many elements of faith that can take center stage, what I call the “4 Ps”: preferences, programs, personalities, and projects. If we elevate any of these over the “Perfecter of our faith,” Jesus Christ, we start forming preference clubs, program clubs, personality clubs, or project clubs rather than a Jesus-centered church. Jesus supersedes our personal dominions and unites us all within one dominion … His.

We voluntarily come together in relationships centered on the cross of Christ, which then becomes a church, a called out community. We submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). We obey our leaders and submit to them, “for they are keeping watch over [our] souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). This is to be done “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (ibid). Ultimately, we submit to “the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20). It is this God, through His Church and by His Spirit, who equips us “with everything good that [we] may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:21).

I don’t want to lose my focus, because when I lose my focus, I lose my way. I want to follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus and be on mission with Jesus, for, after all, the church belongs to Him, not me. For whatever reason, He has called me to serve within His church, just as He has perhaps called you, and together “we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). Here we have no lasting city, but as we keep our focus on Jesus, He leads us to “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 13:28). That’s a great reminder for us when so many things around us begin to shake and tremble. Like the disciples in the storm, it’s hard not to lose our focus. But when we keep our eyes on Jesus, He leads us to a “great calm” (Mark 4:39).

So, I leave you with this: where is your focus?

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