Last year, I was the soccer coach for a team of five year old boys. The Starhawks. You probably read about us in the paper. My son Caleb was on the team as well, which makes for its own joys and sorrows. Mostly we had a blast, and I spent my time reminding the boys to stay focused on the point of our being together, which was, after all, the sport of soccer.
I had to keep reminding them, because focus can be an elusive sprite. Especially for five year old boys. Chaos was an understatement, a tamed concept of what I was dealing with. I would tell people I’m coaching five year olds, and they would usually quip something like, “Must be fun to watch them clump in a pack and follow the ball around the field.” “No,” I’d say, annunciating every word seriously, like Christopher Walken, “If my team followed the ball around the field, I’d lose my mind with joy! I’d celebrate if they realized that in the sport of soccer, the soccer ball matters.”
Instead, when the game would start so would WWF smackdown, boys wrestling in the dirt like dogs. We’d just get them on their feet when suddenly an air-guitar performance would consume our defense. The barrage of sound effects always impressed me greatly. Just about every kid on my team liked to make dirt angels during play. My favorite was one boy on the team who would literally hurtle HIMSELF into the goal, at random times and completely independent of the play of ball, and yell “SCORE!” Last year, we wore uniforms and arrived with a soccer ball, but the games we played had very little to do with the sport. Herding cats is not as glamorous as it sounds.
So, as a coach, I loved and encouraged, I prompted and I practiced, and if I felt frustrated at their lack of interest in the actual sport of soccer, I just chalked it up to their five year old maturity level.
I’ve been seeing the growth in my team as a metaphor to our growth spiritually. The transformation of a five year old air guitarist in a soccer jersey into a World Cup finalist is a journey very similar to the maturing of our lives in Christ. At the end of the day, faith, like soccer, is a team sport. Which means that learning must happen together.
As far as I can tell, the Church for 2000 years has met in the Temple Courts and house to house. So my challenge is to get in a group! In other words, commit yourself to a team that gathers for the purpose of spiritual growth! I promise you, there are churches all over the Northwest with excellent programs aimed at spiritual growth in small group settings. Some churches call them Community Groups, in other churches they are called Small Groups, or Growth Groups…at Overlake we call them Life Groups. The important thing is not what they’re called, it’s that you’re connected. And the way spiritual growth happens in groups…well…it’s a bit like herding cats. Which is why the following values must continue to be affirmed:
FOCUS. Since most of us have attention spans near that of a five year old soccer team, a valuable Life Group (and a good group leader) will continually bring the focus of the group back to the basic purposes of life. Loving God. Loving one another. And understanding more of God’s Word so that we’re able to accomplish these purposes. As always, Jesus is our foundation, He’s our teacher and our model, and because of His death, burial, and resurrection, He provides inspiration…the Holy Spirit living inside of us and working in us to live the life we’re called to live. So the focus needs to brought back to Him again and again.
CONSISTENCY. Life is busy, and there are many things that will wrestle against your decision to be consistently connected to a Life Group. One of the most obvious forces coming against this decision are spiritual forces. There is an enemy of God, and he desires to keep you isolated and alone in your faith, unsupported and unaccountable. Being connected in a small, Biblically focused fellowship means that you are consistently being loved, cared for, known, supported, challenged, growing and accountable. Your steadfast commitment to the others in your group makes you strong. I understand that being committed relationally is hard work. It’s always easier to love people in general than it is to love specific people. But its specific, individual, real people that God has called you to love. The Message paraphrase of James phrases it this way:
You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. James 3:18 MSG
Consistency takes hard work, but robust community and right living with God are worth it. Focus. Consistency. And the last value is:
TOGETHER. I believe God wants us to experience His grace together. The Bible says:
See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for He calls us His children, and that is what we really are! 1 John 3:1 NLT
So many followers of Jesus focus only on the gift God gives us in adopting us as His children, and forget that a major part of God’s grace to us is His family. God adopts us into His household, and it’s through His family that He showers us with His love. The church is the family that God has adopted us into, and it is His plan to use it to grow us, to nurture us, to experience more of His love, and understand more of His grace. Knowledge is only one aspect of growth, implementation is the true measure…and love can happen solely in context of relationships.
I can honestly say that for the last couple of years, my Life Group has become my family. I am challenged and encouraged, loved and supported and I seek to contribute those qualities to my Life Group as well. We celebrate birthdays and holidays together, we walk through difficulties and stressful times together. Through our focused consistency, I can honestly say that we are being grown in the character of Christ, together. I would challenge ALL of God’s people to be in relationships nurturing that kind of care.
I’m excited to report is that, now, the second year that I have the honor of coaching these boys, they actually DO follow the ball around in a clump. I’m thrilled. They’ve grown. Strength, stamina, interest, focus, and comprehension are all much improved over last year, and it is fun to affirm their growth, and to continue to influence them to pursue more.
And therein lies the great hope. I’m watching these boys suddenly bending it like Beckham, and it hits me…this is how God does His work of sanctification. He loves and he encourages, He prompts and helps us practice, and through His guidance and His family, we somehow become more like Him. All the while He keeps patiently reminding us, like an inspirational coach: “Focus! Consistency! Together!” I am so thankful that He has mastered the art of herding cats.