Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!’ Matthew 7:21-22
We talkin’ bout practice! Not a game, not a game, not a game. We talkin’ bout practice! We’re sittin’ here and I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we talkin’ bout practice! (W)e’re not even talkin’ bout the game, the actual game, when it matters, we’re talkin’ bout practice! Allen Iverson, former NBA star with Philadelphia 76ers
On May 7, 2002, NBA player Allen Iverson delivered an infamous response during an interview that has been dubbed, “Talkin’ Bout Practice.” (see the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Z4zfMWzvqw) In the interview Iverson was responding to a question about his practice habits. His coach, Larry Brown, made some statements days before criticizing Iverson’s practice habits as of late. One of the complaints had to do with Iverson missing some practice time, insinuating that he was well enough to be out there with his teammates. After first trying to sidestep the question, Iverson delivered an epic rant where he used the word ‘practice’ 20 times. Essentially his message was that as long as he was giving is all during the game, who cares about what he’s doing (or not doing) at practice. One of his quotes directly says “we’re not even ‘talkin’ bout the game, the actual game, when it matters,” insinuating that the game is more important.
Granted, the game is what counts in the standings, and when stats matter and are official. Every successful coach, however, would say that practice is equally as important as, if not more important than, the game. What happens in practice, they would say, influences what will happen in a game. Practice is where you fine tune your skills individually, and build chemistry as a team. Practice is work, while the game is fun (usually!)Practice is about preparation while the game is about playing. No one prefers practice to a game, but practice is essential. The athletes who have proven to be the “best of the best,” have always been the ones who worked the hardest in practice AND games. Michael Jordan, six-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, is known for his work ethic. He wanted to beat you at everything he did and he worked hard to achieve that. Jerry Rice, multiple Super Bowl winning wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers was known for how hard he worked and how difficult his off-season workouts were. Both men knew that others wanted want they had, so they never stopped working. Both made teammates better. Both are often referred to as the greatest of all time at what they did. They were better than great; they were the best of the best.
As great as Allen Iverson was, he never won championships, and was not known as a guy who made his teammates better. Some athletes have average talent, but overachieve because of their work ethic. Others have immense talent, but underachieve because of their work ethic. The best of the best do both—have immense talent and great work ethic.
You’re likely asking, “What is the point?” My point is that this same principle applies in the church. Some followers of Jesus want the thrill of “the game,” but don’t want to put in the work at “practice.” I don’t think it is because of laziness, I think it is because of a misunderstanding of which is which in the church. Sunday morning (or Saturday night, or whenever your “main” service is) is often seen as the game. I’m of the belief that when the church gathers, it is more like practice. Let me explain myself more clearly.
A game requires an opponent. When the church gathers, we’re supposed to all be on the same team. It is our chance to listen to our leader—God—as He prepares us for what lies ahead. We fine tune our hearts, minds, and spirits that we will be ready for whatever the opponent brings our way. The church’s opponents are the flesh, the things of the world, and the enemy of God. I view our church’s main service and our Bible studies as practice times and everything outside the church as the game.
Too often, people come to church in game mode, either as spectators to be entertained by the music, the preaching, the lights, the experiences, etc., or to play the game—i.e. do what they want, what makes them feel good, etc. During an NFL game this past season between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, the Vikings head coach put together a game plan for his secondary about how to cover the Packers’ leading receiver, Jordy Nelson. When the game began, the secondary decided to do their own thing instead of the game plan that the coach instituted. Not surprisingly, Nelson had a big first half and the Packers went on to win the game. That same thing happens in churches all over. People think they know better what the church needs and instead of getting behind the ‘game plan,’ they make their own plan, praying for God to change their leaders instead of changing themselves.
In this passage from Matthew 7, Jesus speaks of people who had the wrong idea of the “game plan.” Their plan included prophesy, driving out demons—all the “spiritual” experiences many people in church seek. Jesus not only said that they had the wrong mindset, but said I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Clearly, relationship with Jesus is much more important than religious spirituality.
If we come into our gatherings with the right mindset, the church can be a place where we grow in relationship AND have great experiences. The mission of the church is not to seek our own needs, wants, and desires, but to be led and empowered by God to reflect his love to a lost and hurting world. When we make church about ourselves, we miss its entire purpose. Abraham was given the promise of the covenant that he would be the father of many nations, and that God would bless them that they might bless others. Israel took this promise and focused inward, rather than outward. They added to what God gave them, excluded people based on those laws, and sought their own desires. Jesus came and turned everything upside down.
Jesus came under humanity to serve, rather than over them to rule. Jesus ate with the prostitutes, tax collectors, and “sinners.” Jesus touched the lepers, gave value and worth to women, and ministered to the poor (in spirit and wealth) and broken, and taught others to do the same. Many thought Jesus was just ‘talkin’ bout practice,’ when in reality he was showing us what the kingdom of God was all about. Friends, it’s time to get our heads in the game. If we want success in the game (life outside the church), we’ve got to put the work in at practice (church).
All right; hands in. Jesus on 3: 1…2…3….