As a loyal member of Jayhawk Nation, I was crushed when Kansas University couldn’t repeat its famous comeback of the 2008 NCAA championship against Kentucky last year.
And within moments of Kentucky winning the title, I began to hear shouts hailing a new coronation as Kentucky’s John Calipari was being enthroned king of college basketball.
Quickly, he silenced any doubts as to whether he could continue his success after once again bringing in another talented pool of high school recruits.
Instead of hearing “fear the brow,” it would soon be “fear the flat top” as Kentucky picked up the high-ranking recruit, Nerlens Noel.
With his building of a superior program, it was not a question as to whether Calipari could repeat as March Madness champions, but whether he would reach the same level of dominance as one whom some have thought was untouchable, the legendary John Wooden.
Part of Kentucky’s struggles this year can be attributed to Noel’s knee injury. Even before his injury, analysts were questioning Kentucky’s dominance, wondering what was going wrong this year.
Midway into the season, Kentucky had suffered six losses. Questions began appearing as to whether or not they would make it to March Madness. Perhaps the crowning of Calipari was a bit premature.
Questions began centering on who should be blamed. Should Calipari or his players be held responsible? How could such a talented program and class of incoming athletes struggle this much?
I wonder if this same attitude and spirit isn’t sometimes found in our churches. Especially in an age where resources are tightening and history appears to be repeating itself as Christianity in the United States is, perhaps, following the path of Europe.
In this uncertain period, it feels like we are always looking for the next “big idea,” so that we can be a church or ministry on the cutting edge.
We have a tendency to think if we can only find the church that has found the correct formula for success, however we define this word, then we can apply the same formula or program to our own ministry and expect the same results.
And so we search, find and seek to replicate their programs. Then we wait to reap the expected profits because this “big idea” is guaranteed to work.
But then, like those raising questions about Kentucky’s lack of dominance this season, we are left wondering why the “big idea” worked in another church and not in our own.
I am convinced the Industrial Revolution did not just leave a lasting mark on our economy and culture, but also left indelible marks on our identities as human beings and how we see each other.
In my experience, it would not be a stretch to equate our understanding of church with the first assembly lines created to mass-produce Ford Model Ts. Perhaps this is why we move from one “big idea” to another, believing that if it worked in one church, it will work in ours also.
From infant to adult, we develop age-specific ministry programs to disciple the people who enter into the church doors throughout the week.
The philosophy being that as the human progresses through the church assembly line, they will mature into capable and mature Christian disciples who introduce more people into the faith.
The reality is that human beings are not material objects we can assemble like a Model T as they come down the assembly line.
Our identity is, at its core, relational and this shapes us in intangible ways. This means that a single discipleship approach or process will not work for everyone.
During Lent this year, I came across a book titled “Our Sound is our Wound” by Lucy Winkett.
She writes, “There is no normative experience against which everything should be measured, and, when we recognize this, our relationship with God and our understanding of human beings will be only expanded and enriched.”
The heart of the gospel is relational. It cannot be mass-produced because we are not introducing people to a product. We are asking people to encounter the living God, “I am.”
Thus, there is no “normative” formula or experience that will guarantee success in the life of discipleship or even on a basketball court.
Every encounter with another human being, every relationship, will always come with intangibles, which necessitates embracing their individual humanity rather than viewing them as a piece of the next “big idea” or national championship basketball team.
Seth M. Vopat is the associate pastor of youth and family at Louisburg First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kan., and a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @svopat.