I’ve played on a lot of teams in my life. Everything from football to baseball to basketball to donkey softball teams, but not all of those teams have been good. I have played on enough good teams to know what the distinguishing factors are in separating the good from the bad teams. I’ve seen the traits of teamwork in action, and I’ve also seen the pitfalls of individualism.
In high school I played football in Duncan, OK. Duncan is a small town. Halliburton Services, a solvent banking institution, community pride, and Friday night football provide the backdrop for the backbone of the town. There is a unified spirit in Duncan that is missing in most every other community I have ever lived. The unity is apparent among the adults. When tough times come upon the little town the people with “hearts as big as Texas” pull together to help one another through the storm. Tough tenderhearted adults make for tough tenderhearted kids. There is no magical formula. No recipe for grinding up nails and mixing them with roses to sprinkle over the meals of the children. The tenacious, yet tender success bred in Duncan is a result of the time-tested, age-old recipe that is as foolproof as the recipe for making ice. Place water in freezer. Let set. Pop ice cubes out of tray. The recipe used by the folks in Duncan is this; fruits produced in the life of a parent are seeds planted in the heart of a child. I wanted to tell you all of this so you would know the background to the story I want to tell.
My junior year in high school we had a strong football team. We practiced together. We played together. We even met at my house on Saturday afternoon during the season to watch football games, eat cheese dip, and play croquet. We were a family. This “family” could do more than eat cheese dip and play croquet — we could play football. We waltzed right through the season, right through the playoffs, and took home the State Championship.
My senior year was same song second verse only this time around we suffered some set backs. Not in the win/loss column; we went undefeated, but there were personal setbacks. We had two of our players who had to have knee surgery, and in the second round of the playoffs we had to suspend three of our players for conduct not conducive to promoting the family. Through all of the setbacks the family stayed together, each player using his talents for the team instead of for personal gain. By the time the season was over we had won our second State Championship, won 23 games in row dating back to the previous season, scored over 400 points, allowed less than 50 points in fourteen games, and were the most celebrated folks in Duncan, America. There was a parade, we were given our second State Championship ring, and the Governor of our state set aside a day to honor our team. That particular year was the pinnacle of the triumph of teamwork for me. I learned lessons that season that I utilize to this very day.
The triumph of teamwork dropped to the depths of discord in one year in my life. I received a scholarship to go and play football at Cameron University in Lawton, OK. I arrived on campus in August to begin three-a-days on the hot artificial turf. Before we would ever have our first practice we would have an orientation meeting with all of the players and coaches in the mezzanine. Needless to say, as I counted down the minutes until the first meeting I was nervous as a cat. What would college football be like? Would I be “good enough” to play with the “big boys?” Would I ever have the opportunity to say, “Hi mom” on TV? As I made my way to the top of the stairs, as an 18 year-old kid, I saw a couple of players who had brought their children to the meeting — children who looked like they were almost as old as I was! I saw a man six foot six inches tall by two hundred and seventy-five pounds thick playing a piano that would have made Mozart proud.
If my nerves were wound tight before the meeting; they were shot when I made my way to the top of the stairs and saw what looked like a World Wrestling Federation extravaganza. After I got over the initial shock I thought to myself, “There is no way anybody will be able to play with us. This is a group of animals.” When we hit the practice field I was even more convinced of our greatness. The running backs were the size of offensive linemen in high school. The quarterback had an arm like a rocket. The defensive linemen looked like walls. It would take a miracle for us to lose. Wrong. We were a total disaster. There were many great athletes on the team, but that is all we had. There was no interlocking uniformity that might enable us to win. We were a flop.
I learned some great lessons from the team I played on my first year of college. Lessons I draw upon to this day in my work in the church. The teamwork which I experienced in high school was experienced two of the four years I played college football. The best team we had, which was my Junior year, went to a bowl game, won convincingly, was given a ring, a plaque, a big banquet, and cheers from the home folks, but it wasn’t the best set of athletes. It was the best team.
This morning I want us to talk about the similarities shared between the winning teams I’ve played on and the exhortation given to the Romans by the Apostle Paul. Let’s take out our Scripture and read together from Romans 12:1-12:
(1) Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. (2) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — His good, pleasing, and perfect will. (3) For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. (4) Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, (5) so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (6) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. (7) If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; (8) if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Today we are only one week away from kicking-off our Fall schedule. This is a very important time for our church. There is anticipation in the air. There are classes getting ready to begin. Lynda and Ray are working with their volunteers to provide an awesome opportunity of fellowship, fun, and study for all of our kids. The choir has been practicing and will sing for the first time next Sunday. We are planning on starting a new Sunday night schedule in one week. We will begin a church-wide prayer service next Sunday night at 7:00 pm. This is a very important time for all of us and I am convinced if we will pray and seek God’s guidance we will witness the triumph of teamwork in the upcoming year.
This morning I want us to consider the four components contained in the workings of every successful team whether the “team” is found on an athletic field striving for a championship, a high-rise corporate headquarters where executives work for the promotion and productivity of the company, a church where the members work together to minister both to those with and those without the Good News of God, or an elementary school where teachers work toward the goal of providing a quality education for the students. These components are not contrived and concocted concepts conceived in the ivory tower of academia, but they are the reality of the triumph of teamwork.
The first element found in a successful team is the availability of the team members for the sake of the team. Paul puts it this way, (1) Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. Teams that move forward, make progress, and watch their dreams become realities are teams whose members are dedicated to the team rather than their own glory. Not everyone can be or should be the coach or the quarterback, but everyone has a place on the team. When a young person decides to join the team he offers his talents wherever they are needed. The team needs an offensive guard, a defensive end, and a field goal kicker. Each of those positions is vitally important to the success of the team. If a young man is a running back, but coach thinks his talents would be better suited as a linebacker then the young man should do what the team needs him to do.
Paul’s exhortation for us is to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices, devoted and dedicated to Him alone. Whatever we do in life we should be doing it to bring glory and honor to our King. Paul said in Colossians 3:23; “Whatever you do work at it as though you were working for God and not merely another person.” All too often we are busy serving and sharing with others, but we are also busy looking over our shoulders to see if anyone is watching. We think someone ought to give credit where credit is due. So when are you going to ring my chimes, roll out the carpet, and put my name in lights? If we aren’t suffering from a crick in our neck trying to see if anyone is watching, then we are suffering from the anxiety we feel when others get credit and we don’t. Don’t say it isn’t true, you know that is right.
Paul didn’t say, “Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, notable and visible before the world so that everyone may praise your goodness and greatness.” Paul said, “Offer yourselves to God!” We must be willing to devote our lives to His service no matter what may come — popularity, notoriety, persecution, subjugation or whatever may not come our way. Are you willing to offer yourself to God this morning?
The second trait we can find on all successful teams is discipline. It’s no secret, I am a big advocate of athletics for young people. I have always said that I learned more about life on the football field than I ever learned in the classroom. It’s not the awards of athletics that are so appealing to me, but it is the discipline which causes me to strongly urge all kids to get involved in a sport.
I told you about “the” meeting I attended before I began football practice as a freshman at Cameron University. I didn’t tell you that evening we had to be at the stadium at 6:00 p.m. ready to run. I was on time. New turf shoes shining and tied. Fresh smelling CU T-shirt and shorts. Everyone was looking good. Coach Lavender blew his whistle. The assistant coaches quickly divided us up by positions. “Quarterbacks, running backs, defensive backs over here.” “Defensive ends, tight ends, and linebackers over here.” “Offensive and defensive linemen over here.” Every group lined-up one after another on the goal line. I ran with the linebackers — and ran, and ran, and ran. Before we would finish I had run 10 – 10 yard sprints, 10 – 20 yard sprints, 10 – 40 yard sprints, 10 – 50 yard sprints, 10 -100 yard sprints, followed by a nice 20 minute long distance run. As the last group of athletes finished their long distance run and the group before them was picking themselves up off the artificial turf, coach Lavender said, “Good job fellas, now we’ll see you in the morning at 7:00 a.m. for the first of three practices tomorrow.” We went through three-a-days for ten days and I want to be honest with you this morning. I hated it. There were some mornings I wanted to stay in bed and watch the Three Stooges. There was a particular group of people who started out at “the” meeting and even went through the night of running, but slowly, one-by-one they slipped away in the night. Young men from all over the United States who decided the discipline was a bit much for them.
You don’t know how many times I wanted to follow one of them out. I thought about all of my high school buddies back home who were going swimming, driving up and down the drag, living a laid-back life while I was going through torment. I would talk to my mom and dad on the phone like I had been sentenced to Folsom Prison. Practice was hard. My body was bruised. My muscles were so stiff when I would wake up in the morning they would scream at me when I would try to roll out of bed. About the third day of three-a-days I couldn’t even raise my arms to smear on a little deodorant (as if it would have made any difference). All of the guys who continued with practice felt like low fashion models changing clothes three times a day, but we didn’t quit. We had dedicated ourselves to becoming athletes. Because of our decision we couldn’t do as the rest of the world did. When the final practice was over each day we went to bed. We ate right, drank gallons of water, and constantly worked at being prepared for the task at hand. The discipline molded us into people who were ready when we stepped foot on the field. If we had gone out every night and drank like a fish and smoked like a train, on “game night” we would have stunk like a sewer. I had to live a different lifestyle if I was going to continue to pursue the goal I had sat before me.
The discipline athletes place themselves under has great application for the followers of Jesus. Paul says, (2) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — His good, pleasing, and perfect will. If we truly desire to follow Jesus we must make the decision to commit ourselves to His discipline. We can’t be shaped and molded by the world any longer, we must place our lives on the Potter’s wheel and allow Him to shape us. It is a difficult life-long process, but like a well-trained athlete whose discipline has prepared him for whatever my come his way on the athletic field, we will be well disciplined disciples who will know God’s will for our life.
Paul says the outcome of rejecting conformity to the world and accepting the disciplined lifestyle is the knowledge of the will of God. We desperately need to know what God desires of us. Far too many of us have made our will into God’s will rather than allow God’s will to shape us. Through prayer and study of God’s Word we can know God’s will. Just as the athlete’s play book gives him the insight into the game so God’s Word gives us insight into life. Within the pages of the Bible are principles and teaching that can be applied to every situation in life, but we have to read the book.
The third element in every successful team is a pervasive attitude of hunger and humility. If we want to be a great team we have got to stay hungry and stay humble. The Apostle Paul says, (3) For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. If there is one group of people on the planet who suffer from inflated egos it would have to be athletes. I am not here to point out the job hazards of being an athlete, but with the principle set before us by Paul, I have to take advantage of the obvious.
Where has the humility gone? Has reality become fantasy and fantasy become reality for college and professional athletes? Where has the responsibility of the respected gone? There is no such of a thing as a “contract” in professional sports any longer. If Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals signs a contract for ten million dollars a year for four years, then there will be guys who will want to renegotiate the contracts they signed before he’s getting more money. If Roger Clemens inks a fifteen million dollars a year deal then inflated egos are crushed and contracts go out the window.
The great teams are those whose members abilities are exceeded by their humility. There is nothing wrong with being exceptionally blessed by God with talent — athletic, intellectually, manual dexterity, creative ingenuity, etc. God blesses some with exceptional abilities and fully expects them to use those abilities to the maximum. The problem comes in when folks who are gifted use their abilities to build their own private kingdom and then take full credit for everything they do. This problem is not confined to the arena of athletics or the business world. The church is plagued with pride as well.
There are many ways this manifests itself within the walls of the church. Spiritual pride is manifested in many ways, but regardless of how it manifests itself it is rooted in self-exaltation. Some of us try to throw our weight around the church because we give more money than the person who sits next to us in the pew. Any time a need is communicated we pull out our checkbook to help out, but when decisions have to be made in the church we sure want to have our say. As a matter of fact if it doesn’t go my way then I’ll just take my marbles and go home. I have seen pride displayed in every church I have served in so far. For everyone whose ears may have perked up for the last couple of minutes let me just say this; We have not, nor will we ever, call a shareholders meeting in this church. There is no 51% owner — praise God!! This is God’s church lock, stock, and barrel. A place where all people can come together as equals to work, pray, and make decisions with God’s guidance. All people — not just privileged people.
Another way in which inflated egos are paraded around the halls of the church is spiritual pride in the form of false piety. Every church has its share of folks who have a spiritual problem. They have not learned that following Jesus means we give up our picky, nit-picking ways. The church that seeks to truly follow in the footsteps of Jesus is the church that gives folks the benefit of the doubt. It is the church that seeks to lift people up instead of putting them down. It is the church that seeks to help folks put things back together rather than picking them apart. It is so hard for many of us to practice what Jesus taught. The reason is because if we are constantly looking on others with a critical eye then we feel much better about ourselves. If you are one of the folks who suffer from a “license to belly ache” you need to be challenged to get on the team and stop running your mouth. Jesus calls us to follow in His steps — steps that lead to the kitchen where the work is done rather than the parlor where the privileged recline, relax, moan, and groan about others.
Stay hungry, stay humble. Hungry for the Word and mission of Jesus. Hungry for a deeper walk with God. Hungry for serving others. Hungry for a positive mental attitude rather than a display of condemning conduct. Stay humble. Realize your mortality. Stay humble knowing God has made you and will continue to sustain you through this life. You are not your own creator. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Realize others are trying just as you are. You did not create your abilities and gifts. Be humble. Stay humble.
Last of all, the fourth element of every successful team is the utilization of gifts from each player. Every person has a gift. I did not say every person uses their gift because I am convinced many of us do not even know our gift this morning. A team is the place where athletes should be given the opportunity to explore their gifts and find the “right” place where their gifts should be employed. When a team works correctly a player’s abilities and strengths are utilized in the position where they can pay maximum dividends, but when a team is rigid and too highly structured, allowing no flexibility at all, then players are played out of position.
In high school he was a good defensive end. Quick. Strong. Agile. Everyone knew the raw athletic ability of the young man. Who knows he might even get to play college football someday as a defensive end. Three years later Bo Jackson won the Heismen Trophy as a running back at Auburn University. You tell me where you would rather have Bo Jackson play on your team? Running back or defensive end? Teams need to provide nurture to young athlete’s abilities and provide a flexible enough environment to allow a players abilities to be used.
Jesus intends for the church to be the most freeing place on earth for all of humanity. A place where you will not have to worry about being called a loser, being told you are no good at anything, and being cast aside because your abilities aren’t as prevalent as some others. God wants you to jump in with both feet. Allow the soil of God’s Word and the fellowship of His people to cause growth to happen in your life. As you grow begin to use your gifts, explore the desires of your heart, and watch what happens. Do you have a desire to work with kids, Senior Citizens, singles? I didn’t ask if you have had formal education in any of those areas, I asked if you have a desire? Jump in and help. God will use your abilities. If you start working with kids and you soon learn your tolerance level for noise and rowdiness is being extremely threatened then move on and work with Seniors. God will show you the place where your gifts will be used most effectively.
Everybody has a gift to use. Paul puts it this way.
(4) Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, (5) so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (6) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. (7) If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; (8) if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
It is my prayer that we will all work to identify the gifts God has blessed us with and then begin to use them in harmony with the other gifts in this church. Each gift is valuable. No gift is more valuable than any other. We are called to work as a team. We are a network of gifts reaching out to a world that desperately needs to hear and feel the Good News of God.
The triumph of teamwork will only come about when we offer ourselves to be used by God, discipline ourselves to live in accord with God’s will, stay hungry for righteousness and stay humble knowing everything we are or ever will be is as a result of God’s blessing, and be willing to use our gift in conjunction with the other gifts in the church. If this will happen, if we will work together, encourage one another, and assist one another then we will experience the triumph of teamwork. There is nothing greater than playing and contributing to a winning team. Won’t you join us today as we seek to experience the triumph of teamwork.