The World Cup’s in full swing in Brazil. To most people, this is the greatest sporting event on earth. Correction: It’s the greatest event (not just sporting) for most of our planet. For what other reason would one billion people tune in to watch 11 guys from Croatia or Ivory Coast?
But it’s unimportant to most Americans. Since we’re not great at it and have never won it, many don’t care about the World Cup. It’s not our game. We didn’t invent it. We don’t have any of the world’s premier players.
Even though more and more Americans follow soccer and care about the World Cup, most US folks still downplay its significance. Stats on global viewership don’t interest us. If we’re not #1 at something, then it must not be important. Or so the mentality goes.
So with all the apathy toward the World Cup, you’d think that no one would bat an eyelid if our national team coach said we can’t yet win it. Yet Jürgen Klinsmann’s comments stirred all kinds of emotions among the growing number of US soccer fans. “We can too win it!” they retorted. Well, of course the possibility of a Cup-winning run always existed for all 32 teams in this year’s tournament. Klinsmann’s point, however, was that US fans need realistic expectations. He was trying to say that success should be measured by something other than trophies.
And this is where Klinsmann’s message fell on deaf ears. Americans don’t want progress. We don’t want to just be competitive. We want to win. Even newly minted American soccer fans want championships. As the basic tenet of our sporting system says, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” In other words, if you can’t win, then don’t play.
This is why we name our own national sporting events “World Series” and call our domestic champions “World Champions.” In our minds, we play to win it all, or we don’t play. And if we play, then we are the best. Otherwise, we’d be losers. And Americans are never losers, or so we say.
Now to my point: This is why Churches of Christ are in such deep water. We’re no longer winning, yet we live in a society obsessed with winning. Our glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s are long gone. In its place, we now have a brand of Christianity that isn’t that attractive, and we live in a society that is increasingly disinterested in organized religion.
“Ah,” you say, “but I know individual churches that have bucked the trend. They are thriving! Ours can win, too!” Yes, a few are doing very well. But those are primarily in Bible-belt pockets where healthy church leaders have yet to make catastrophic mistakes. Or they are churches that have done their best to disguise themselves by removing the brand, bringing out the band, hiring a pseudo-celebrity speaker and going for a revamped version of church that still pulls in a few people.
Good for them. But that isn’t the reality most of us face. Most of us are competing in a sport in which we can no longer win. Oh sure, we can attend a spiffy conference and be sold a bill of goods that will “turn our church around.” But the graveyards are littered with congregations that went from one silver bullet to the next, only to discover that they couldn’t succeed—at least not by our society’s definition of success.
Win or go home. That’s our unique perspective in the United States. And in most of our churches—which are statistically stagnant or dying—people are indeed going home. And they’re not coming back. Church leaders can’t help but feel that they’re losing.
So why don’t we stop “playing church” by society’s definition of success? What if we went back to the Bible (sound familiar?) to rediscover what the church’s mission should actually be? Is it possible that winning, as defined by our nation, is not the same as Scripture’s view of winning?
Oddly, I don’t find any passages in which Jesus said the following:
“And you shall be blessed if your church becomes a major force in your community.”
“If you love me and faithfully follow church growth strategies, I will make your name great.”
“I’m a winner. If you’re a winner, you too will make headlines in the Christian Chronicle.”
Instead, I read these kinds of passages:
“The least of all will be the greatest of all.”
“Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”
“I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
I think Churches of Christ are poised to make an impact on our local communities. We have some unique skills, traits and resources that other churches just don’t have. But because we are playing the wrong game—because we think winning means living up to the world’s definition of success—we are too frequently wasting our opportunities to impact the world for Jesus.
Let’s stop playing by our nation’s definition of winning. We’re no longer the hottest ticket in town. But who cares? Since when is that what Jesus asked us to be? Instead of feeling like losers, we should be proud that we can love, serve, bless, teach and lead in ways that could impact hundreds and thousands for Jesus.
Let me be clear. I’m not advocating for reckless behavior from church leaders. Nor am I suggesting that a healthy church is a dying church. But not every church is destined to become the next Saddleback, North Point, Oak Hills, or Ethos Church.
So we could all learn from Jürgen Klinsmann. Try to reset your expectations. Instead of thinking that your church has to become the best, greatest & fastest growing or else you’re a failure, learn anew what it means to win in Jesus’ eyes.
Jason Locke preaches for the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California. He has been in full-time ministry since 1994, first as a church-planter in Prague, Czech Republic, and then as a campus minister in Morgantown, West Virginia. He organizes the Renew Conference each February and is a regular participant in the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Jason’s education includes degrees from Tennessee Tech (engineering) and Abilene Christian (MDiv, DMin). He and his wife Julie have two sons, one a freshman at Lipscomb University, and the other a high school junior. You can read more from Jason at jlockeblog.blogspot.com, or you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.