Can competition enhance ministry?
by Rusty Allen
We live in a sports-crazed culture. Children grow up dreaming of being star athletes, while parents sacrifice time and money supporting those dreams. Thousands of fans spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and money following their favorite teams.
This kind of culture creates a mindset about sports that essentially says winning is the only thing that matters. For coaches and athletes, striving to win takes on an intensity that is hard to describe. In a word, winning for most athletes and coaches is a passion.
Now passion is a marvelous quality. When I read Scripture, I am struck by the passion of God. As human beings, we are created in God’s image. It should therefore come as no surprise that people have passions. I find myself being passionate about a number of things, one of them being competition. The opportunity to win at something simply creates in me a kind of enthusiasm and anticipation that never grows dull.
To be sure, passion has the potential to bring out both the best and the worst in people, and certainly passion for competition falls into this category. I think it is obvious that God would have us embrace the passions he has created within us as a platform for godly influence. I have discovered that winning is essentially a byproduct of excellence, and that excellence enhances ministry. I trusted Christ at age 24, and from that point forward I have worked to take my passion for excellence and winning and to use it for God’s glory. Think with me a little deeper about this.
Expanding our influence
In I Chronicles 4:10, Jabez prays that God will enlarge his territory, and God answers his prayer. Much has been made of this little prayer we find tucked away in a section of the Bible devoted to family lineage. Bruce Wilkinson, in his book The Prayer of Jabez, contends this is a prayer God is eager to answer for every follower of Christ.
The apostle Paul addresses various Christian groups in the New Testament with a consistent message about the importance of joining God in his work on earth to see people everywhere come to know and grow in Christ. In Colossians 3:23, Paul instructs people in the church at Colosse to work at everything with all their heart. In I Corinthians 9:24-25, we read instructions to the Corinthian believers that they are to run the race of life marked out for them in such a way as to win an eternal reward.
Do you see the connection? When individuals, organizations, schools and/or teams do things well, people pay attention. God gives us talents, gifts and passions and asks us to execute them to the best of our abilities because excellence enhances ministry.
In the world of competition, this reality can potentially establish a platform for an ever-expanding sphere of positive influence. I say potential because in our culture, the world of competition can also establish an ever-expanding sphere of negative influence.
What kind of influence?
As I mentioned earlier, people in our sports-crazed culture are obsessed with following a winning team. Further, when an athlete or team is successful, our culture sees fit to endorse a measure of arrogance and boasting. For evidence of this contention, watch a few sporting events on television with your antennas out for signs of arrogance. Similarly, when an athlete or team is unsuccessful, our culture endorses a measure of immaturity and pouting. Again, just watch a few televised sporting events looking for these behaviors.
The truth is, I have wrestled often with how my passion for competition, particularly winning, should be used in keeping with Paul’s instruction to do everything as if doing it unto God. Romans 12:1 urges us to offer our physical bodies in sacrifice as an act of worship. How do I play or coach a contest as an act of worship?
Another way to ask the question is: How do I play or coach a contest in an effort to build a platform for having a Christ-centered influence?
Let me propose that the answer to this question is to win and lose differently than what seems acceptable or right in the eyes of our culture. I made reference to Paul’s urging in Romans 12 that we should offer ourselves as a living sacrifice. Paul directs us in verse two of that chapter not to conform to the patterns of the world. In the world of competitive athletics, this would seem to say win and lose differently. Rather than responding arrogantly to a win and immaturely to a loss, an appropriate response to winning and losing for the Christian athlete or coach is to use either platform as an opportunity for having a positive influence.
Winners and losers
Winners are popular and people want to talk about them and to them. So imagine athletes and coaches speaking with people after a win with an attitude of humility and encouragement rather than conceit. In competitive athletics, winners have a great opportunity to influence the people around them with their words.
Teams or individual athletes who lose tend to experience emotional depression, and it is natural for people generally to avoid talking with them after a loss. However, those who have lost an athletic contest are still watched closely. Imagine athletes and coaches welcoming the opportunity to have their actions scrutinized after a loss but demonstrating class and grace instead of immaturity. In competitive athletics, losers have a great opportunity to influence the people around them with their actions.
At the end of the day, an athletic contest almost always produces a winner and a loser on the scoreboard. This reality forces those of us who have a passion for competition to wrestle with what is most important about what we do. The challenge for Christian athletes and coaches is not to somehow value excellence and winning any less, but to channel the pursuit of these goals toward an end that is sacrificial and ultimately an act of worship—to win and lose differently, if you will. This kind of mindset creates an environment where excellence will enhance ministry. Competitive athletics then is an avenue for Christians to have an expanding sphere of influence.
Rusty Allen is vice president for athletics at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college headquartered in Hillsboro, Kan. Allen coached the Tabor College women’s basketball team for six seasons and left coaching in 2007 to spend more time with his family. Under his leadership the Lady Jays won two conference championships and made three consecutive runs at a national title. Allen, who was 82-26 in conference play and 128-59 overall, was named the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2004-05 and 2005-06. He and his family attend Parkview MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan.
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