The "Dream Team" and the American Church

A Bronze Medal. In synchronized swimming, ping-pong, or trampolining such honors would have been acceptable. But this was not some obscure sport invented on a foreign continent; it was basketball. You know, hoops, round ball, Jordan, Wooden, Naismith—an American game. Since the United States started using NBA players in the Olympics in 1992, the “Dream Teams” have won nothing but gold. That is, until this year. What happened?

Truthfully, I didn’t see much of the Olympics. But being interested in the progress of the U.S. men’s basketball team, I kept a watchful eye on the sports page and ESPN highlights. I confess a kind of morbid delight in seeing America’s finest move through the tournament brackets like Roger Clemens through a Little League batting line-up.   This year’s team, however, was not living up to expectations. When the U.S. was beaten soundly in the medal round by Argentina—thus relegating them to no more than a bronze—talk shows and sports columns were aflutter with excuses, denunciations, and explanations. Most prominent among them was the notion that the U.S. could have won gold, but the NBA’s best stayed home. Perhaps. But it was only after America’s losses that this became the mantra. Gold had been expected.

Another, less popular, theory goes like this: America is no longer the best in the world at basketball. In an interview on the subject, future Hall-of-Famer Pat Riley said that the American game has lost its edge. “While NBA players have become infatuated with the dunk and their own individuality, other countries have been perfecting fundamentals of the game: passing, sound defense, the perimeter shot, and teamwork.” And this seems to reflect the American Olympic experience. Other teams played as a unit, worked the boards, and buried the three-pointer.  This is a fitting parable for the modern American church. In many quarters we have become obsessed with the latest fads and worship styles; we prefer books about the Bible to the Bible itself; and we want our music and sermons to have the entertainment value of a Broadway production. Part of an increasingly subjective culture, we have forgotten the basics of our faith and have, instead, become infatuated with the liturgical equivalent of the slam dunk. The fundamental role of the church is teaching God’s Word.  The Apostles were teachers. Recorded mid-way through the Synoptics is the story of Jesus sending out the Twelve—to do what? Teach. Then, again, in His final instructions to them, known to us as The Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”

Indeed, so central is this principle to our faith that Jesus is called “teacher” no less than twenty times. Jesus embraced the title. In John 13:13, Jesus said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.”  That teaching is an indispensable function of the Church seems obvious, but it is all too often neglected. Given modern expectations, one wonders what reception Jesus might get were He to repeat the Sermon on the Mount. “How quaint (yawn). It would have been better with PowerPoint, more spontaneity, and a band.”

Thinking God’s Word out of touch, some churches have endeavored to make it more palatable to contemporary tastes by abbreviating, diluting, and amusing, thus relegating biblical teaching to the periphery. But God needs no such help. “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the divisions of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

That this is so was made jarringly apparent to me on a trip to Turkey last month. Meeting with two Turkish Christians who are now pastors of a small congregation in Ankara, I listened as they related their Christian testimonies. Both had this in common: they became Christians from reading the Bible. Neither had ever met a Christian or attended a church.  What comfort such testimonies are to me. As I travel and speak to groups of various persuasions—secular and Christian—I am constantly reminded that it is God who does the heavy lifting of salvation and sanctification. These testimonies are also a reminder of the inherent power of God’s Word and the reason why He should so emphasize our teaching of it.

“So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

Apart from the diligent teaching and application of the Bible, our churches and our faith lack substance. They are all sail, and no anchor.

(The above is an abridged version of a talk given at an Advent Teachers’ Dinner, September 21, 2004.)

© Copyright 2004 Larry A. Taunton