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Soccer and Discipleship

Last night at soccer practice we were working on passing the ball to someone instead of whatever direction they happened to be facing. These are the kind of demanding practices you have to run with first and second graders. One of the boys was having an especially hard time. Each time they missed the target with a pass they had to take a short run to the fence that encircles the field and back. This boy missed four times in a row, and none of them were close. His eyes began to well up with tears of frustration. So we stopped the drill and I took a couple minutes to work just with him on some mechanics. On his next pass he knocked it right through the cones. He did that a few times in a row before finally missing again. We celebrated his improvement (which brought a huge smile to his face) but still made him run to the fence when he missed. After the encouragement it’s amazing how quickly he ran and how great his attitude was.

I’ve had the nagging sense for a while now that the Christian community as a whole is like a coach who watches his players during practice in a couple ways.

First, we often expect people to live a faith far beyond their understanding or ability. Imagine if I told the first and second graders they needed to juggle the ball fifty times before they could leave. After all, good soccer players can do that. So many Christian books, sermons, and small groups are focused on fantastic acts and sacrifices we are called to as followers of Jesus. We should stay up all night to pray. We should go serve in the poorest places in the world. We should at least teach a class.

Now I affirm that the call to follow Jesus is deep and costly. Jesus even said we should count the cost to make sure we can follow through before committing to follow him. And I agree that we often lower the bar so much on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus that it doesn’t resemble the biblical witness. However, I don’t see much out there that promotes a deep and faithful presence in the life people are living. It’s either “hope to see you at church once a month” or “you need to get a radical faith and fast for 40 days!” People can do amazing things in the strength of God. Sometimes those amazing things look like a first grader finally getting the ball between the cones.

The Christian community is also at times like a coach who never affirms the improvement of his players. We teach, guide, and challenge people to put their faith into practice. They step out and try and then we question why they aren’t doing something more. In failing to affirm the growth and transformation that’s happening, especially when it is slow, we discourage people from continuing the race. The boy on our soccer team needed to have his success pointed out. The people in our churches need that too. They need to know we see more patience, compassion, and love in them than we used to. They need to know that serving meals to the homeless was a good first step. Too often we focus on the fact that these things are not a sufficient end. We do need to encourage people to greater depths of faithfulness and service, but we need to celebrate the growth that is happening too.

Our faith is one that calls for radical obedience. It is also a faith that walks faithfully with people in the process–encouraging and admonishing.