Long ago, in my college years, my sporting dream was the slam dunk. For those not familiar with basketball, this is when a player defies gravity, soaring eagle-like over his hapless opponents to crash the ball through the hoop from above; the backboard reverberates, the crowd roar and the awestruck cheerleaders swoon.
Sadly, this was never to be; I lacked the strength, height and skill - I was only actually in the team because I was mug enough to pigeon-hole the real players to turn up. In fact, not only did I never achieve a slam dunk, I very rarely even saw one happen, except on TV.
Now my basketball days have long gone; it takes three shots to hit the office bin with a crisp packet. And yet I, and I suspect at least some other colleagues, still secretly find myself yearning for the slam dunk - in Christian ministry! By which I mean, that moment of supreme success, in which we rise above the power of sin and devices of Satan to crash home a glorious score. We imagine - I've heard it said or implied time and time again – there is some key that will deliver ministry success, victory, glory - but what can it be?
And so we lurch from one great hope to the next new thing, quietly forgetting what went before: expository preaching, contemporary worship, seven-day creation apologetics, charismatic revival, mass evangelism, spiritual warfare, social action, inter-denominational all-night prayer, golden fillings - you name it.
Many are good things in themselves. Quite a few I've tried (I have no fillings.) But none of them have been the slam-dunk. None of them have brought revival; none of them have delivered sure-fire church growth and exponential evangelistic success. It's taken me rather longer in ministry to learn what I quickly learned in basketball - there are very few slam dunks in real life.
And it’s taking me even longer to learn - even if you do score one, it’s still only worth two points.
It looks impressive, but isn't actually worth more than a scruffy third-time rebound that bobbles round the ring. Basketball is not won by a few spectacular moments of glory; it is a percentage game where over a whole match you aim to score more points than your opponent. And so is Christian faith!
We might get a mission with great responses, an awesome time of worship and answered prayer, a conference where the Spirit moves. But the moments of "glory" in practice are no more significant than the everyday struggles to live for Christ with integrity, resist sin, preach and live his word and all the other hard-grind elements of Christian life, defence as much as attack. This doesn't impress the cheerleaders, nor satisfy my teenage fantasies about ministry success, but it does please the Lord.
Strangely, my basketball analogy is not used in the Bible. But Paul makes a similar sporting analogy in 2 Timothy 3:7: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that day."
And Jesus, too, seemed to think of the kingdom as a percentage game (Acts 13).
But there's no denying it – slam dunks are so cool... now where's that bin...
Photo: By Keith Allison (Flickr: Martell Webster) [CC-BY-SA-2.0
], via Wikimedia Commons
Rev Tom Chapman is Pastor of Surrey Chapel in Norwich.
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