Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bringing the Red Wings to Church

In this NHL playoff season, one of the most remarkable stories is the playoff run of the Detroit Red Wings. This organization has achieved a run of making the playoffs for twenty-three years in a row. In a league where "parity" is seen as the norm, the Red Wings have risen above parity to be successful year after year. This is the fifth longest streak in NHL history. Over these twenty-three years, the Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups. Of the four teams in history that have had a longer streak of consecutive years making the playoffs, only one has won more Cups (the Habs, with 8 Cups in 24 years). Of the remaining three streaks, these teams combined for 82 consecutive seasons with a playoff appearance with only two Cups to show among all three teams (the Blues, 25 years, no Cups; the 'Hawks, 28 years, no Cups; and the Bruins, 29 years, 2 Cups). It is an amazing story of long term success. 

But how did the Detroit Red Wings organization achieve this? They achieved it through building a culture of success and winning across the entire organization, from players to coaches to management.

In an article for the Detroit Free Press, "Long playoff streak a product of players, coaches building culture," Jeff Seidel tracked this culture of success across three categories that led to the streak of consecutive years in the playoffs. The three categories are: good coaches, role models, and hard work. The coaches outline the vision of success and winning and hold the players accountable; the veteran players act as role models and mentors to the younger players; and the younger players work hard, earning their spot on the team and their playing time. These factors working together create the culture that leads to long term success.

In this system, everyone has a part to play. Coaches coach the culture; veteran players live the culture and serve as mentors who model sacrifice for the greater good; and younger players learn and work hard. All contribute to this so the organization will be great from one generation to the next.

Does it sound as though you could apply these principles in your church or ministry? Don’t we all want to build a long term culture of spiritual growth, spiritual success, and faithfulness? A survey of the letters the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus reveals some overlap between the principles in this article and the principles Paul shares. 

Mentoring and Role Models
Just as Red Wings players model the right behaviors, attitudes, and actions of successful and winning teams, so leaders must model the behaviors, attitudes, and actions of the culture you envision within your church. Over and over, Paul exhorted Timothy and Titus to set an example and to teach (i.e., cast the vision of the culture you wish to create). For example, Paul urged Timothy: "Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:11-12).

Being a role model and mentoring others is time consuming but is also the most effective way to bring people on board with the spiritual culture you are creating. Spend time with people, teaching and coaching them towards the behaviors they need to grow in Christ. Give them access to your life so they can see how the things you teach have taken root in your own life. 

Sacrifice for the Greater Good
In the article, the Red Wings' general manager, Ken Holland, is quoted as saying, "It's not about personal statistics [but] about finding a way to contribute to the hockey team." In the Red Wings system, a selfish player who scored the most goals in the league would not be celebrated if the team failed as a result of his selfishness. Former player Steve Yzerman is held up as an example of someone who was willing to make a sacrifice for the team by accepting less scoring points and making more blocks. He found a way to contribute in ways that helped the whole team and not just himself.

We each need to examine our hearts to see if we are willing to sacrifice to help build the team and the culture around us? If you preach about going out on mission, is your life so busy that you don't have time to interact with your own neighbors? If you hold out simplicity as a spiritual value, are you encumbered by your debt and your materialism? In a discussion about wealth and the evils of the love of money, Paul taught Timothy that "godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim. 6:6). He further challenged Timothy to "flee" from the temptations associated with the love of money and instead to "pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness" (1 Tim. 6:11). In other words, Paul challenged Timothy to make a sacrifice for the greater good, to be a leader for the long haul who kept his integrity.

Long Term Focus
The Red Wings are successful because veteran players make sure they model the culture of winning to younger players. The focus is long term; it is from "generation to generation." As Seidel wrote in the article, "You start to understand this is bigger than one person, that the organization is more important than anything else." We must keep focused on the culture we are building. Beyond mentoring, modeling, and sacrifice, we must equip future generations to carry the culture forward with them. We must train and develop leaders who will carry on with, and after, us.

Paul told Timothy, "What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). This is where Paul discussed the development of culture. He taught Timothy, who is told to teach others, who will then be able to teach others. The culture will be understood, assimilated, and passed on, successively and successfully. 

By focusing on the long term, sacrificing ourselves for the greater good, and modeling the culture before others as we mentor them, we can build a culture of spiritual maturity and faithfulness in our churches and ministries.

Jeremy Hoover is the minister at the Otisville Church of Christ in Otisville, Michigan. His website is at He is an avid sports fan who enjoys biographies about athletes and books by coaches. His favorite sports are hockey, where he roots for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and football, where he pulls for the New England Patriots.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Tradition Like No Other

Within my christian conversation circles a negative, even sneering, tone of voice often accompanies the idea of tradition (or traditional). Tradition refers to human ideas, not divine. Tradition regurgitates the old rather than celebrating the new. Tradition reflects yesterday it doesn't anticipate tomorrow. Tradition binds and limits us. To meet the challenges of today's world we need to break free from the traditions of yesterday. Innovation, not tradition, provides the key to the future.

Sports are no different from the rest of the world. No one uses tennis racquets with wooden frames just because Rod Laver did in the 1950's. Golfers always look for the latest and greatest material for to help them hit longer and straighter. While drivers today are still referred to as "woods" they're often made of advanced metal alloys.

While golfers embrace new club and ball technology the sport still retains a reputation as a generally quite conservative. The sport has generally done an excellent job of embracing both tradition and innovation. Nothing encapsulates this creative tension better than The Masters.

Masters Tradition
  • The tournament is always at the Augusta National Golf Club.
  • Previous champions and events at specific holes are referenced frequently.
  • Each of the holes is named after a flower.
  • The club carefully manages sponsorship and media presentation. According to the coverage itself carries a more formal style than other golf telecasts; announcers refer to the gallery as patrons rather than as spectators or fans (gallery itself is also used), and use the term second cut instead of rough.
  • For the first 40 years of television coverage, CBS was forbidden from broadcasting from the front 9 holes.
  • The Masters requires caddies to wear a uniform consisting of a white jumpsuit, a green Masters cap, and white tennis shoes.
  • And of course, the Green Jacket Ceremony as the previous year's winner hands this year's winner their Green Jacket symbolising their membership of the August National Golf Club. (There's a trophy too.)
  • You'll find another good list of traditions HERE.
Masters Innovations
  • The over-under (+/-) to par scoring system now standard around the world was first developed at the Masters.
  • The Masters was the first golf tournament to be televised, starting in 1956.
  • In 2014 The Masters provided 5 internet channels totaling 125 hours of additional tournament coverage.
  • Over the years, the Masters has frequently adjusted the course. In 2006 the club lengthened the course by about 500 metres. Fairways and greens have also been narrowed over the years to increase the "bite" of the course. A good graphical display of the changes can be found HERE.
Now About the Church...

Churches have always struggled with maintaining appropriate degrees of tradition while responding innovatively to cultural movements around us. Some churches seem so traditional they've almost lost all relevance to their neighbours. Other churches are so innovative and rethink so many methodologies and teachings that they isolate themselves from other churches and seem sometimes to emphasise their innovation rather than the life-changing Good News of Jesus.

The vast majority of churches undertake the same quest: to present the timeless message of God's Good News in culturally relevant ways. 

This statement sounds simple, but churches often disagree about what is methodology and what is message. We all agree that corporate worship plays an important part in the life of a Christian and we mostly agree that music styles represent methodology rather than message, but the history of "worship wars" in the church indicate that this distinction is often lost.

We all agree that reading and studying God's Word is vital to spiritual growth. Yet it is so easy to start a large-scale debate by championing or criticising a particular translation of the Bible. Why? Often it's just because we like the translation with which we're most familiar: a tradition.

I'll close by illustrating the tension and value of tradition using the celebration of Easter.

Easter undoubtedly represents a tradition. The Bible never commands an annual resurrection celebration. Most churches celebrate communion throughout the year as they follow Jesus' instructions at Last Supper to remember his death and resurrection. So celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday is something almost all churches will do whether they call it Easter or not.

In a very real sense Easter is not really a separate celebration, but an amplification of existing practices. I personally find the practice of pausing throughout Holy Week to remember what Jesus was doing at this exact time the week of his death and resurrection. As I write this on Thursday night Jesus was probably in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. Although the exact date of Passover moves around the calendar I can (in the Northern Hemisphere) approximately experience the same weather as Jesus experienced. I can look at the same stars. I can feel the same winds. History was forever changed on this day!

Easter adds a level of intimacy to the Lord's Supper. We can celebrate the Lord's Supper any Sunday in Summer, or Winter. But only on Easter can we say "This was the day the tomb was found empty." The rest of the year we have to say "This was the day of the week the tomb was found empty." For many people that distinction is significant.

How do we balance tradition and innovation around Easter?
  1. Proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  2. Ensure the celebration includes communion.
  3. If people with barely a passing interest in the things of God will come and hear the Gospel presented at sunrise... then have a sunrise service. Innovate.
  4. If people with children will attend a church service so their kids can gather Easter Eggs afterwards... then hold an Easter Egg Hunt. Innovate.
  5. If Up From the Grave He Arose is a traditional Easter song... then sing it. 
Successfully integrating tradition and innovation will always provide a challenge. Easter gives us a great opportunity to practice both extremes at the same time.

Sure, the first century church didn't celebrate Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday the way much of christendom does today. But I'm confident that each year when Jewish Passover rolled around the church paused and remembered the events of that Passover week not so many years earlier.

The great challenge for the church is to avoid confusing the events, the message, and the significance of the last week and hours of Jesus' life with the traditional celebrations many churches practice today. Take away Palm Sunday. Take away Maundy Thursday. Remove Good Friday from the calendar. Turn Easter Sunday into Regular Sunday, and the message of the Gospel is just as true and powerful as it has ever been.

If we create some new traditions in a children's play, a breakfast before worship, a sunrise service, or even an Easter Egg Hunt the Son of God on the cross still carries our sins. Perhaps in the future these traditions will be replaced by a new innovation, a new way of remembering, but the tomb will still be empty.

If the Masters can demonstrate that tradition and innovation can coexist, the church should be able to balance these competing values also. Our greatest responsibility remains to continually preach Christ crucified, resurrected and reigning today.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


This week the Philadelphia Eagles released their top wide receiver, DeSean Jackson, who was coming off the best statistical season of his career.

The Washington Redskins quickly signed Jackson to a three year deal.

So why did the Eagles let him go? Did they do the right thing?

The Eagles have not yet explained their reasons for letting Jackson walk out the door. The timing of his release closely followed a report on linking him with "gang connections". But that's not the whole story as the team had allegedly attempted to trade Jackson since the trade period began.

Predictably, there are those sympathetic with the Eagles who believe locker room cohesion is important to team success. Since Jackson was apparently a distraction through his attitude and off field behaviour, the team is better off without him.

Others believe the team should have shown Jackson the same patience and grace they've given other players who found themselves in trouble off the field.

Seahawk player, Richard Sherman, even went so far as to accuse the Eagles of treating Jackson harshly because of his skin colour. He did go on to make the valid point that many people raised in the inner-city will have "ties" to gangs because that's the environment in which many of them were raised.

Finally, some people are concerned about what Jackson's treatment for alleged "gang ties" means for other players when teams decide they don't want to keep a player. Will this become the new catch-all accusation that allows teams to void contracts?

Churches often receive criticism for the way we treat people as they go out the door, or when their behaviour doesn't live up to God's expectations. Every situation is different and motivations are seldom clear.

In some ways it's nice to see football teams struggling with the same issues:
  • How much grace should we show the individual?
  • What's most likely going to help this person make the necessary changes?
  • Is the individual or the church/team more important?
  • How will this person's behaviour effect others in the church/team?
  • How will this person's departure effect others in the church/team?
  • Is the church/team being fair about this, or is there an unspoken prejudice?
  • Has the church/team consistently applied these standards, or are some shown favoritism?
  • Has the person done anything wrong, or are they just hard to get along with?
The Bible makes clear that some sins require that a person leave the church as long as no repentance is demonstrated. It also warns that not everyone should be welcomed into the church because some people will never accept the teaching of the church and will actually actively undermine core beliefs. Yet we're also told to love our enemies and be willing to forgive as many times as we're asked.

Paul gives his apprentice Timothy this sage advice regarding how to deal with Christians opposing his ministry, "Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will." (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

God wants us to adopt a "gentle" posture when dealing with sin and disruptive people in the church. It's also clear that the goal of this correction is always repentance and restoration. I really hope these goals are carried out more often in our churches than they are among sports teams.

So DeSean Jackson. May this departure from Philly provide a wake up call. If you need to make some life changes, I hope you do so. If you need to adjust an attitude, I hope you do so. And if the Eagles acted hastily and without grace, they'll sure miss you on the field next year!!